TWU's Michael Kaine, Sally McManus, Tony Sheldon and Qantas workers
Sacked Qantas workers and union leaders have celebrated the High Court judgment. Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS
  • crime, law and justice

Qantas workers eye compensation after High Court case

Tess Ikonomou September 13, 2023

Ex-Qantas employees will seek compensation and penalties after the High Court ruled the airline illegally sacked almost 1700 workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A unanimous judgment was handed down on Wednesday, dismissing the appeal from the carrier which sought to overturn two rulings made by the Federal Court that the outsourcing of baggage handlers, cleaners and ground staff was unlawful.

Transport Workers Union national secretary Michael Kaine – whose union brought the legal action against Qantas – said he expected to go back to the Federal Court within days to pursue compensation for the workers.

“They’re entitled to still be in their positions and therefore they need to be compensated for that,” he told reporters in Canberra.

“We will seek penalties as well.

“It is important that there is a clear signal sent to employers in the future that this type of conduct should not occur.”

Mr Kaine said new Qantas boss Vanessa Hudson must apologise, and called on chair Richard Goyder and the board to step down.

“Illegally sacked workers are owed an apology and an end to Qantas’ attempts to delay paying compensation and penalties,” he said.

The airline, which retrenched workers in 2020, lost billions of dollars during the pandemic as it decimated the aviation sector.

A group of the workers who lost their jobs were in court to hear the judgment and celebrated outside afterwards.

Damien Pollard, a Canberra-based former baggage handler, spoke of the emotional and financial toll.

“The last three years have been horrendous for my colleagues and myself,” he said as tears welled in his eyes.

“A lot of us are struggling to gain other employment, there’s been relationship breakdowns and people that have had to sell their houses, and this is justification and redemption for us today.”

Speaking alongside the workers outside court, Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus urged parliamentarians to pass Labor’s “closing the loopholes” industrial relations legislation, which she said would stop such behaviour at its “source”.

Qantas said the decision to outsource the remainder of the airline’s ground handling function was made in August 2020, when “borders were closed, lockdowns were in place and no COVID vaccine existed”.

“As we have said from the beginning, we deeply regret the personal impact the outsourcing decision had on all those affected and we sincerely apologise for that,” the airline said in a statement.

“A prior decision by the Federal Court has ruled out reinstatement of workers but it will now consider penalties for the breach and compensation for relevant employees, which will factor in redundancy payments already made by Qantas.”

Qantas posted an underlying profit of almost $2.5 billion for the past financial year.

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke congratulated the workers and the union on their win. 

“I say to the workers who were illegally sacked, you did nothing wrong,” he told parliament.

“Qantas broke the law, and the government of the time left you stranded.”

Opposition industrial relations spokeswoman Michaelia Cash said the decision demonstrated a “strong need for Qantas management to refocus on … providing a high-quality service and to deliver for its employees, its customers and the Australian public”.