Qantas has been charged with discriminatory conduct and alleged breaches of workplace health and safety laws after it stood down an employee who raised concerns about the risk of COVID-19 while cleaning aircraft inbound from China in early 2020.
Charges were filed earlier this month against Qantas’ ground services unit, QGS, over discrimination for a prohibited reason as defined under the state’s Work Health and Safety Act, SafeWork NSW confirmed on Tuesday.
The worker involved, Theo Seremetidis, was an elected health and safety representative, who allegedly advised his fellow colleagues that it was unsafe to board and clean aircraft that had arrived from China.
Seremetidis claims his comments were made in part due to the fact that Qantas did not yet provide employees with personal protective equipment (PPE) to complete their role cleaning aircraft during February 2020. He was subsequently stood down by Qantas in early February.
Qantas claims its policies were in line with current health advice available at that time.
The incident was investigated by SafeWork NSW, which has since laid charges against Qantas under Part 6 of the Work Health and Safety Act, which prevents an employer from discriminating against employees for raising safety concerns, or carrying out their role as a safety representative.
The matter will be heard before the District Court of NSW in December.
“The charges relate to [Qantas] standing down a worker who raised concerns about potential exposure of workers to COVID-19 whilst cleaning aircraft in early 2020,” a SafeWork spokesman said.
“As the matter is before the court, no further information can be provided at this time.”
According to the Transport Workers’ Union, which lodged the complaint to SafeWork NSW following the incident, the prosecution under this particular section of Workplace Health and Safety (WHS) law is the “first of its kind” in Australia.
“SafeWork’s prosecution of Qantas for these offences is the first of its kind and is a massive step forward for work health and safety in NSW and across the nation” TWU NSW state secretary Richard Olsen said.
“Qantas stood Theo down simply for trying to protect himself and his colleagues from COVID, and now the company is rightly facing criminal charges for doing so.”
Olsen added, “We hope the Court throws the book at Qantas for their outrageous decision to stand down a worker who was simply trying to keep himself and his colleagues safe at work.”
Qantas claims that Seremetidis was stood down “while he was investigated” for failing to comply with Qantas’ Standards of Conduct policy, which allegedly included the employee “attempting to incite unprotected industrial action”.
“There are established, legal mechanisms for health and safety representatives to follow if they have concerns. Qantas supports and encourages our employees to utilise these mechanisms if they have safety concerns,” a Qantas spokesperson said.
“It’s worth noting that there was not a single positive COVID case carried on our flights back from China,” the spokesperson added.
Within weeks of the incident, SafeWork NSW instructed Qantas to introduce new policies and cleaning measures to better protect staff and passengers from COVID-19.
SafeWork NSW issued Qantas with an “improvement notice” and ordered the airline to develop a new system specifically to deal with COVID-19.
Seremetidis was later permanently let go from Qantas, forming one of the 2,000 ground workers that had their roles outsourced.