Qantas’s High Court appeal over the outsourcing of around 1,700 ground workers kicks off today, with the airline set to argue that the employees did not have the right to take protected industrial action (PIA) at the time the decision was made.
The Federal Court previously ruled that Qantas had sacked the 1,683 workers in 2020-21 to head off industrial action, which is illegal under the Fair Work Act 2009. This decision was upheld last year by the Full Federal Court, though the courts did not force Qantas to reinstate the workers.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Qantas said that the airline’s survival was “not assured” when it outsourced the workers in a bid to save $100 million per year, and that the workers were not legally permitted to take PIA as their agreement had not expired and the process for a protected action ballot had not yet commenced.
“When we made this decision, we were still in the depth of the pandemic and there was very little certainty about when our recovery would begin. Ultimately, we lost $25 billion in revenue so there was no way to avoid having to make significant changes,” the spokesperson said.
“While the Federal Court accepted that we had lawful and compelling commercial reasons for making the outsourcing decision, it was not convinced that preventing protected industrial action in 2021 was not relevant in the decision to outsource. We have always rejected this, which is why are taking our appeal to the High Court.
“We’ve always acknowledged that it would have been very tough on our ground handlers and the thousands of other employees who lost jobs because of the pandemic.”
Michael Kaine, national secretary of the TWU, said the “eyes of the nation” would be watching for the results of the significant case.
“There are few who have not been affected by the cruel conduct of the Joyce-led Qantas management team. Workers and their families had lifelong careers ripped away from them, passengers lost the safety and service standards they deserve, and workers across the country now feel the threat of their own job being outsourced to the lowest bidder,” he said.
“The High Court’s decision to grant leave for this case to be heard highlights the significance and enormity of this matter, in what could be the largest unlawful mass sacking this country has ever seen.”
Maurice Blackburn principal lawyer Giri Sivaraman added that the legal arguments being advanced by Qantas could have an impact on broader worker protections.
“Qantas lost this case on the facts. Now it’s trying a legal argument to get the High Court to reduce protections in the Fair Work Act to make its actions lawful. If Qantas wins, protections for all workers across Australia will be reduced,” he said.
The High Court appeal will run over two days. If Qantas’s case fails, a compensation package for the affected workers is likely.