Qantas has been accused of using COVID-19 as cover to sack thousands of Australian workers and replace them with cheap labour from overseas.
Qantas on Monday confirmed 2000 ground service jobs would be axed as part of the embattled airline’s cost overhaul which has been sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Ground servicing at 10 major Australia airports will be outsourced to a number of overseas aviation operators.
A union delegation arrived in Canberra on Thursday, demanding the government intervene to prevent the cuts.
Sean Toohey has been a Qantas groundworker at Canberra Airport for four years, before finding out his job had been cut via a prerecorded message on Monday.
He was told he would be required to stick around until the company transitioned away, and said finding a new job in the pandemic-stricken economy would be almost impossible.
“(Qantas CEO) Alan Joyce said we were a family and then pretty quickly threw us to the kerb,” he said.
“We’re hoping the Australian public and the government get behind us to say this isn’t right. (Then) I can then tell my three girls that we do the right thing, that we look after each other.
“It’s not even about whether I did a good job or not. It’s just them bringing in someone who can do it cheaper than me.”
The decision came after months of reviews aimed at reducing the size of Qantas’s workforce. The airliner claimed the cuts were necessary given the devastating financial impact of COVID-19, despite receiving more than $800m in federal government support since the beginning of the pandemic.
Transport Workers Union national secretary Michael Kaine has accused Qantas management of using the pandemic as cover to force through a long-held plan to outsource work to cheaper, “substandard” companies.
“There are 2000 Australian families who are absolutely devastated as a result of a decision we now know was premeditated by Qantas management,” he said.
“A spear has been put through these families’ hearts. These are families who have worked for Qantas for up to 30 years. These are families who have literally built the Spirit of Australia.
“One hand on that spear is Qantas management, who have no excuse for this action.”
He said there was no financial justification for the decision, saying Qantas retained the JobKeeper supplement until March and was on the cusp of breaking even.
Qantas said the decision to retrench the workers would save the financially struggling airline $100 million per year.
Chief executive of domestic and international operations Andrew David said the industry had been turned “upside down” and would take years to recoup the financial damage caused by the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, COVID has turned aviation upside down. Airlines around the world are having to make dramatic decisions in order to survive, and the damage will take years to repair,” Mr David said in a statement on Monday.
Qantas said it will take years for the airline to reach pre-pandemic travel numbers, with international travel not expected to resume until at least the middle of 2021.
“International travel is likely to be at a virtual standstill until at least July next year, and it will take years to fully recover, which means we’re carrying the overhead for billions of dollars worth of aircraft in the meantime,” Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said on Thursday morning.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese accused the government of having an ad hoc strategy over aviation cutbacks, but stopped short of demanding the government revoke subsidies for Qantas’s domestic flights.
“(These workers) have done nothing wrong; they’ve just worked hard for their families to put food on the table. They’ve worked hard for Qantas, that great Australian business. They’ve been loyal, and throughout the country they’ve made a difference,” he said.
“But what we’re seeing in this market is there are too many people being left behind.”
Mr Albanese said one of the broader lessons of the pandemic was Australia’s need to shift away from casualisation towards secure, well-paid jobs.
The comments mirror those made by Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus on Wednesday, when she labelled casualisation a “virus” that had exposed Australia to coronavirus outbreaks.
ACTU president Michele O’Neil criticised the government for offering Qantas an economic parachute during the pandemic, without guarantees the airliner would not outsource Australian jobs.
“We’ve got government money going to companies without strings attached,” she said.
“At the very same time that money is being paid to a company like Qantas, that they have treated these workers in a cruel way, asking them to bid for their own jobs.
“And then after not even a week of considering that, they announced via recorded message that they weren’t wanted anymore.”