The NSW District Court has handed down a verdict in the first-ever criminal prosecution brought against Qantas for standing down a health and safety representative at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Judge David Russell found the major airline guilty of unlawfully standing Theo Seremetidis down over a direction he made to staff to cease cleaning planes that had landed from COVID-19 “hotspots”.
It is the second ruling made against Qantas’ treatment of staff in nine weeks, with the High Court upholding a finding in September that it had illegally fired 1,700 ground staff at the end of 2020.
The decision was welcomed by the Transport Workers Union (TWU), which brought the matter on behalf of Mr Seremeditis.
President Richard Olsen told media outside court the decision “puts a question mark over the legacy of Alan Joyce”.
National secretary Michael Kaine added Qantas is a company “deep in crisis” that is “still trying to make excuses”.
The court heard Mr Seremetidis had been concerned by the lack of proper protective gear, COVID-19-safe training or appropriate cleaning equipment when he gave the directive in February 2020.
It was heard Qantas then isolated Mr Seremetidis, stood him down from his position and illegally terminated him 11 months later.
A SafeWork inspection confirmed Qantas workers were being made to clean multiple tray tables with only one rag and water.
Emails submitted to court also revealed Qantas managers were concerned Mr Seremetidis could take action against them as a health and safety representative (HSR) as he had been vocal on social media about the risks of COVID-19.
Judge Russell found Mr Seremetidis had “attempted to carry out his duties as a HSR conscientiously and carefully”.
“This landmark decision will make workplaces safer,” Mr Kaine said.
“How Qantas responds to this verdict will be one of the first tests of the promise made by the airline that it has turned over a new leaf.
“Historically, Qantas has dragged out every possible legal challenge, with (chairperson Richard Goyder) still refusing to accept that illegally outsourcing 1,700 ground and fleet presentation workers was wrong.”
In a statement, Qantas acknowledged the judgment and said it would review the decision before commenting further.
“We recognise that the initial stages of the pandemic caused a lot of uncertainty for our people, customers and the business more broadly. Our medical and safety teams worked tirelessly to provide daily updates to employees and to put effective controls and procedures in place to help protect our people and customers,” the airline said.
The matter will return for sentencing at a later date.