SafeWork NSW has filed criminal charges against Qantas for breaching the Work Health and Safety Act last year, right at the start of the pandemic.
Early in 2020, aircraft cleaner Theo Seremetidis - who was an elected health and safety representative - raised concerns over a lack of safety precautions for workers cleaning aircraft that had arrived from China. At the time, Qantas had not yet suspended services to mainland China.
According to the records of a Senate inquiry last week, Seremetidis's objections included a lack of personal protective equipment for workers and a lack of appropriate cleaning materials - workers were not issued sanitiser and told to simply clean the planes with water. When his requests for risk assessments and PPE were turned down, he eventually used his position as a H&S rep to direct a group of workers to cease work.
For his pains, he was stood down for "attempting to incite unprotected industrial action" - and he was never allowed to return to work. Later in the year, he was laid off as part of Qantas's controversial move to outsource ground handling.
Seremetidis took his grievance to the Transport Workers' Union, which escalated it to SafeWork NSW. At the time, the watchdog issued Qantas an improvement notice and ordered the airline to develop a better system for protecting workers from COVID-19.
The current charges laid by SafeWork NSW accuse Qantas of engaging in discrimination that is prohibited by the Work Health and Safety Act. By law, employers cannot discriminate against employees for raising safety concerns or carrying out their role as a safety representative.
According to TWU, this prosecution is the first of its kind in Australia. The union's NSW state secretary Richard Olsen called it a "massive step forward for work health and safety in NSW and across the nation”, and said: “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, meanwhile, has said that Seremetidis's claims were unfounded and that employees were in fact provided with PPE and disinfectants, and that the Qantas medical team had briefed employees on COVID-19 risks and controls.
"It's worth noting that there was not a single positive Covid case carried on our flights back from China," the airline said in a statement.