Qantas Faces High Court Case From Unions Over JobKeeper Scheme

Qantas is facing off against unions today in Australia’s High Court over allegations of wage theft. Multiple unions, including the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU), the Flight Attendants Association of Australia (FAAA), the Australian Services Union (ASU), and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), are behind the legal action. But according to Qantas, today’s court action is a waste of time.

Qantas has a court date with various unions today. Photo: Qantas

Union accuses Qantas of wage theft

Like many businesses, Qantas made use of Australia’s wage subsidy scheme, JobKeeper, in 2020. That scheme allowed businesses to stand down employees but still pay them approximately US$1166 per fortnight throughout much of 2020. For businesses like Qantas, who stood down around 20,000 employees, the scheme was a financial lifeline. For those stood down employees, it meant they were still receiving some income.

But the issue here is about workers kept on at Qantas when JobKeeper was used as a wage subsidy. The unions say the way Qantas allegedly arranged payments saw some of the employees paid less than they normally received.

According to the ASU, Qantas has collected around US$780 million in JobKeeper payments. The unions say Qantas has misused some of those JobKeeper payments. As the unions see it, Qantas was not paying employees on JobKeeper the penalty rates they normally received for working weekends, public holidays, and overtime.

“Qantas has been engaging in wage theft,” says TWU Assistant National Secretary Nick McIntosh.

“Workers should be paid for the work they do. Qantas is forcing workers to work public holidays, weekends, and overtime and then effectively denying them overtime and other penalties they have earned,” says the ACTU Secretary Sally McManus.

Unions say they just want a fair go for Qantas employees. Photo: Getty Images

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Another chapter in a long-running fight

According to the unions, Qantas is “manipulating rosters” to dodge paying employees what they are entitled to under normal provisions.

Today’s court action isn’t the start of this argument. It has been running since mid-2020. The High Court is Australia’s top court, and before this, the union’s case was heard in the lower-tier Federal Court.

In September, the union’s had a win in the Federal Court. However, Qantas appealed that and won the appeal. But the unions still think their argument is valid and are taking it to the High Court. Sally McManus says it is about Qantas doing the right thing.

“Workers are standing up to Qantas over this injustice,” she said.

Qantas believes the court case is a distraction nobody needs. Photo: Qantas

Qantas has troubled relationships with unions

Qantas has a history of playing hardball with the unions. In 2011, CEO Alan Joyce temporarily shut down the airline and locked employees out of terminals to bring some of the more militant unions to heel. More recently, unions have complained of intransigence from Qantas regarding enterprise bargaining agreements and rostering arrangements. Nutting out the logistics for operating the now postponed Project Sunrise flights was also the subject of a long-running barny between Qantas and multiple unions.

With this kind of history, today’s date in the High Court is no real surprise. As you might expect, Qantas is unimpressed with the union’s arguments and tactics. Referring to their successful appeal, Qantas told Simple Flying;

“The unions are again wasting their member’s money and our money on continuing this legal action during the middle of a crisis.

“Every Qantas and Jetstar employee, whether they have been working or stood down, was paid at least AU$1500 per fortnight in line with the requirements of the first stage of JobKeeper, and then the reduced amounts specified by the Government. 

“We have always paid penalty rates and overtime in the same way, this is not something we just started doing during COVID. Rostering arrangements during the stand-down period was done in consultation with unions.”

Qantas argues everyone’s eye should be on the main game at Qantas – to get the airline through the travel downturn. In the process, Qantas wants to take as many employees along for the ride as they can. Qantas says the legal action is a distracting sideshow and inappropriate given the circumstances.

What do you think? Are the union’s right to take Qantas to court, or is this over-reach? Post a comment and let us know.