Qantas has been charged with criminal offences under WHS laws for standing down a health and safety representative because he raised concerns about COVID-19 risks when cleaning aircraft arriving from China in early 2020.
SafeWork NSW has confirmed it is prosecuting Qantas for offences under Part 6 of the Work Health and Safety Act, alleging the company engaged in discriminatory conduct by standing down Theo Seremetidis for performing his duties as a health and safety representative.
The prosecution is the first of its kind anywhere in Australia under the uniform WHS laws, and was brought about following a complaint lodged with SafeWork NSW by the Transport Workers’ Union of NSW on behalf of Mr Seremetidis.
The charges relate to Qantas standing down Mr Seremetidis after he advised colleagues to cease unsafe work on planes arriving from China in early 2020, due to the risk of COVID-19 exposure. At the time, Qantas was not providing cabin cleaners with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and described the health risks associated with COVID-19 as “negligible”.
TWU NSW State Secretary Richard Olsen said the regulator’s decision to prosecute Qantas was a landmark moment for work health and safety across Australia.
“SafeWork’s prosecution of Qantas for these offences is the first of its kind and is a massive step forward for work health and safety in NSW and across the nation” Mr Olsen said.
“Qantas stood Theo down simply for trying to protect himself and his colleagues from COVID, and now the company is rightly facing criminal charges for doing so.”
“This is the same company that was found by a Federal Court earlier this year to have illegally outsourced 2,000 workers. It’s clear Alan Joyce thinks he’s above the law, but this prosecution will make sure Qantas pays for its crimes.”
“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.”
While the number of charges laid is unknown, each offence attracts a maximum penalty of $594,021, meaning that Qantas could face fines running into the millions – not including any compensation potentially awarded to Mr Seremetidis.
The case is listed for its first hearing in the NSW District Court on 6 December. In addition to the SafeWork prosecution, Qantas are also facing an adverse action case in the Federal Court brought by the TWU relating to Mr Seremetidis being stood down, as well as the separate, ongoing Federal Court case about Qantas’ illegal decision to outsource 2,000 workers.