CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Qantas Airways lost its challenge to a court ruling on Wednesday that the Australian flag carrier had illegally fired 1,700 baggage handlers, cleaners and other ground staff at the height of pandemic travel disruptions.
Seven High Court judges unanimously rejected Qantas’ appeal against a Federal Court full-bench decision. That court upheld a Federal Court judge’s ruling that the sacking of Qantas staff at 10 Australian airports in 2020 was illegal.
The ruling is another major blow for the airline, which Australia's consumer watchdog is suing for more than 250 million Australian dollars ($160 million) for allegedly selling thousands of tickets mid-2022 for flights that had already been canceled.
Australian Competition and Consumer Commission initiated the Federal Court lawsuit two weeks ago for what it considers Australia’s most serious-ever breach of consumer law.
That prompted Qantas former chief executive Alan Joyce to retire last week two months ahead of schedule.
The Transport Workers’ Union had waged a two-year court battle against Qantas’ decision to outsource the jobs of the airline’s highly-unionized ground staff.
The union’s national secretary, Michael Kaine, said Qantas had been found guilty of the largest number of illegal sackings in Australian corporate history.
Qantas now faces fines and claims for compensation. An earlier court decision ruled out dismissed staff being reinstated.
Kaine called on new chief executive Vanessa Hudson to offer the former staff an apology and compensation.
“The action that you can take immediately is to hurry back before the Federal Court now and do everything you can to expedite compensation for the workers is so that they can get some justice and solace for themselves and their families,” Kaine said at a press conference.
Qantas said in a statement it accepted the court’s ruling. Qantas' decision to restructure its business and outsource jobs had been made to improve its ability to survive and ultimately recover when borders were closed, lockdowns were in place and no COVID-19 vaccine existed, it said.
“As we have said from the beginning, we deeply regret the personal impact the outsourcing decision had on all those affected and we sincerely apologize for that,” the statement said.
The center-left Labor Party government criticized the former conservative government for supporting Qantas illegally shedding jobs as a justified commercial decision.
Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations Tony Burke accused Qantas of “horrific treatment” of the fired employees, some of whom were in the Parliament House public gallery.
“I say to the workers who were illegally sacked: You did nothing wrong. Qantas broke the law,” Burke told Parliament.
“And the government of the time left you stranded,” Burke added.
The Sydney-based airline last month posted a record profit for the fiscal year ending June 30, following years of losses due to the pandemic.
Its underlying profit for the year before tax was AU$2.47 billion ($1.6 billion), compared to a AU$1.86 billion ($1.2 billion) loss in the previous year.
Statutory profit after tax for the latest year was AU$1.74 billion ($1.13 billion).
As travel has ramped up, outsourcing of Qantas jobs has been blamed for many of problems including high rates of lost and mishandled luggage.