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Qantas Could Face a Multi-Million Dollar Fine Over Failure to Protect Staff from Coronavirus

Qantas Could Face a Multi-Million Dollar Fine Over Failure to Protect Staff from Coronavirus

Australian flag carrier Qantas has been served notice of a formal investigation by health and safety officials at SafeWork NSW for suspending an aircraft cleaner who raised concerns about measures to protect workers from COVID-19. Qantas now faces the first prosecution of its kind in Australia for multiple breaches of “discriminatory conduct and prohibited behaviour”.

The cleaner, who is a trained Health and Safety representative, was stood down in February after raising concerns about the lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for workers assigned to clean planes used for repatriation flights. Qantas stood the cleaner down and has refused to reinstate the employee despite demands from the Transport Workers Union (TWU).

Photo Credit: Qantas
Photo Credit: Qantas

Each breach of the health and safety legislation carries a maximum fine of A$500,000.

The TWU has since submitted requests for information from Qantas under lawful entry powers as it builds a dossier of evidence against the airline. At least 50 members of Qantas staff have been confirmed to be infected with Coronavirus. Unlike some badly hit countries, Australia has seen limited community spread of the virus.

One cluster of infections involves 17 baggage handlers at Adelaide airport which has now resulted in 750 Qantas workers being ordered into self-isolation to prevent further spread. The TWU claims workers had been complaining of “filthy conditions” before the outbreak and said there was a lack of cleaning.

In February, Qantas maintained that the risk the virus posed was “neglible” and that there wasn’t any need to introduce any new working practices or standard operating procedures to prevent workers being infected with COVID-19.

“Qantas has serious questions to answer over how it has handled the exposure and spread of the virus among its staff and into the community,” TWU National Secretary Michael Kaine said on Monday.

“The evidence we have gathered so far shows that Qantas knowingly exposed other workers to the coronavirus,” he continued. “Qantas cabin crew, pilots, aircraft cleaners, caterers, baggage handlers, freight workers and others are very angry. Since the start of this virus outbreak, workers have been pleading with Qantas to take it seriously and put in place systems to protect them and limit the spread.”

“Instead Qantas kept telling staff the risk was ‘negligible’ and when infections did occur the airline ignored all the medical advice and allowed it to spread.”

Last week, it emerged that 11 cabin crew and pilots from just one flight had been infected in COVID-19. The crew had been working on a repatriation flight from Santiago, Chile but Qantas maintains that the risk of transmission in-flight “remains low” and that the crew most likely caught the virus while they were in Chile.

“The safety regulator said aircraft cleaners are forced to wipe tray tables with the same dirty cloths and handle blood, vomit, soiled nappies, used masks and tissues without protective gear and without using disinfectant. The Regulator’s Improvement Notices also stated that Qantas was at risk of exposing workers to an infectious disease.”

Qantas cabin crew were exempt from quarantine orders imposed by the Australian government and the airline refused to pay for hotel rooms for crew to self-isolate in order to protect their families. In one case, a member of cabin crew passed the virus onto her asthmatic daughter.

The carrier has also refused to pay sick leave to crew members who are infected with COVID-19 after operating a repatriation flight and are then stood down.

A previous ruling from SafeWork NSW ordered Qantas to make changes to its aircraft cleaning programme to better protect workers. Qantas is yet to meet the requirements laid out by the regulator.

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