A collective of unions have announced plans to take Qantas to the High Court for wage theft, underpaying its staff and allegedly abusing the government’s JobKeeper program.
The case was originally dismissed by the Federal Court in December, with plaintiffs now applying for special leave to appear to the High Court of Australia. Now, the unions are taking Qantas to the High Court, alleging wage theft and the manipulation of JobKeeper payments.
Central to their case are allegations that Qantas had practiced wage theft and underpaying their staff during public holidays, weekends and periods of overtime during the lockdowns of the COVID-19 virus.
The unions say that Qantas deliberately subsidised their overtime payments with JobKeeper payments, and as a result, has underpaid their staff members by as much as $10,000 each.
Qantas is also facing legal action in the Federal Court of Australia for its move to outsource 2,000 ground staff positions, with unions have said is unlawful under the Fair Work Act.
The case is being put forward by the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU), alongside the Australian Services Union (ASU), Flight Attendants Association of Australian (FAAA) and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).
The TWU says that Qantas failed to pay workers the wage they were entitled to, and was guilty of manipulating staff timetables and paying their staff the bare minimum under the JobKeeper support package.
A report from the SMH says that “Qantas staff are paid their regular wages in one fortnight and any overtime in the next, under a long-standing practice that in effect splits the airline’s wage bill across two JobKeeper fortnights. But if they are stood down or don’t work in the second fortnight, their overtime payments have been partially or fully absorbed into their JobKeeper payment for that fortnight.”
According to a report from the ABC, “in September, the Federal Court agreed with unions that Qantas should pay its workers for the extra shifts they worked, but Qantas appealed the decision and in December the full Federal Court ruled in the airline’s favour, finding Qantas no longer had to back pay hundreds of workers.”
The collective of unions argue that workers are entitled to their overtime payment, as well as the full value of the JobKeeper payment. The unions have released modelling based on a customer service worker who would ultimately lose $12,000 over the space of a year of JobKeeper.
The ABC’s report says that the ruling was significant for Qantas and businesses around Australia due to the fact the case could have “opened the floodgates for other companies to have to back pay workers,” according to Rachel Pupazzoni.
The Business Council of Australia has issued a statement saying that the original ruling in Qantas’ favour was “a great relief to many businesses across the economy.”
“It is disappointing that these arrangements have again been thrown into uncertainty by this appeal to the High Court,” a spokesperson from the BCA added.
Assistant national secretary of the Transport Workers’ Union, Nick McIntosh has labelled Qantas’ decision not to back pay workers wage theft.
“Qantas has been engaging in wage theft, refusing to pay workers fairly and battling them through the courts,” McIntosh said.
“Senior Qantas management are back to paying themselves millions of dollars while Qantas workers aren’t even being paid properly for the work they are doing and are being denied the sick leave they are entitled to,” he added.
“The Federal Government and the Qantas board are refusing to hold them to account over this, but workers are taking a stand,” McIntosh concluded.
Emeline Gaske, a representative of the ASU has said that Qantas’ actions to “pocket money that should be paid to workers for overtime and penalties [was] unconscionable.”
“Qantas should be treating its workers with respect and pay them what they deserve – not wasting money on lawyers to find tricky ways to get out of paying their workers properly,” they added.
A spokesperson for Qantas has said that the collective of unions was “wasting their members’ money and our money on continuing this legal action during the middle of a crisis.”
The spokesperson added that “we have always paid penalty rates and overtime in the same way, this is not something we just started doing during COVID.”