Qantas battling workers’ union over illegal Covid era outsourcing compensation

Troubled national airline Qantas was “ultra-focused on saving money” before unlawfully sacking ground staff, a court was told.

The flying kangaroo was accused of illegal actions three times when it laid off 1,700 employees and outsourced them to outside contractors at the height of the Covid pandemic.

On Wednesday, Qantas returned to the Federal Court to argue with the Transport Workers Union over the level of compensation to former employees.

The debate largely focused on counterfactual examples put forward by Qantas and TWU of what would have happened if the staff had not been outsourced.

Qantas’ lawyer said evidence presented to the court showed that, given the ongoing Covid pandemic, the decision would likely not have been made until the following year, 2021.

“They were staring into the abyss at the time. They had already suffered a catastrophic loss and were facing at least four months of dramatic losses,” they said.

“The sad reality is that 2021 has turned out to be very similar to 2020. The fundamentals of the risk-reward calculation were not significantly different at all.

“The commercial benefits were more important and pressing (in 2021) than in 2020 (and) the risk factors were not considered to be materially different.”

The court was told that it had “special evidence” because Qantas’ experience in 2021 was “similar” to that of 2020 and the company had already started outsourcing in August of that year.

In response, TWU’s lawyers said Qantas was improving its cash flow through domestic flights in early 2021 and that press releases “after Delta” announced that no one would be laid off.

Judge Michael Lee denied these claims, saying the ability to review decisions made in 2021 was “limited” because savings had already been made through outsourcing.

For his part, Judge Lee said Qantas would “be absolutely focused, no matter what happens, with all its might and every advice, on saving money by any means possible”.

“Qantas was determined to do whatever it took to save money, regardless of the impact on employees. If it saved money to lay them off, they laid them off,” he said.

In previous hearings, numerous contemporary evidences were presented, as well as affidavits and testimony from senior executives.

Among them were former Qantas Airport Executive General Manager Colin Hughes and former Qantas Domestic and International CEO Andrew David.

Judge Lee questioned whether Qantas had attempted to ensure that “the documentation supports the seasons identified as substantiated and defensible in court”.

He further claimed that Qantas had considered who would be the “decision maker” in terms of who would be best placed to conduct a scrutiny.

Qantas’ lawyer denied this claim, saying the conversation took place in a context where it was known it would be reviewed in court and was not an “artificial invention of reasons”.

The hearing will continue on Thursday, with Judge Lee hearing evidence on the compensation calculations and the response from TWU’s lawyers.

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