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High court decision on Qantas CEO and controversial staff dismissals

Today marks a significant day for the new Qantas CEO, Vanessa Hudson, and the airline’s board as they await the High Court’s ruling on one of the most contentious actions taken during former CEO Alan Joyce’s reign at the airline. In late 2020, Joyce ordered the termination of 1,800 ground staff amidst the depths of the pandemic.

Since then, the affected staff and their union have been pursuing legal action. While they secured victories in the Federal Court, a full federal court ruling in 2022 did not reinstate the 1,800 employees, despite confirming that they had been unfairly dismissed.

Qantas lodged an appeal with the High Court following the original 2021 Federal Court decision, which found that the airline had violated the Fair Work Act by standing down employees working at 11 airports during the November 2020 pandemic.

The Full Federal Court upheld this decision last year but did not order Qantas to reinstate the affected employees, leading Qantas to appeal once again.

Qantas’s move to the High Court aims to avoid a substantial compensation bill for the sacked ground handlers, stemming from years of lost work due to the airline’s failure to overturn a ruling that deemed its outsourcing of the jobs illegal.

In the 2021 case, the Federal Court ruled that Qantas’s outsourcing of the workers was partly driven by a desire to avoid industrial action. Qantas argued that outsourcing was a necessary financial measure that could save the company $100 million annually and reduce future spending on ground handling equipment.

The Transport Workers Union countered that the outsourcing decision was motivated by anti-union sentiment, as many of the sacked employees were union members, and their bargaining agreement was set to expire the following month in December 2020.

Qantas’s appeal has put remedy hearings, aimed at determining compensation for the sacked employees, on hold.

Today’s decision on Wednesday will potentially increase Qantas’s liability if the High Court upholds the Federal Court’s decisions, adding to the $250 million in damages sought by the ACCC for alleged ticket sales to flights the airline knew had been canceled in 2022.

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