A former Qantas health and safety rep who raised concerns over COVID-19 was stood down for “creating anxiety” among staff, a court has heard.
Crown prosecutor Patricia McDonald SC told a District Court on Monday that Theo Seremetidis was informed by the airline the risk of the virus was “negligible” in February 2020.
The evidence came at the start of a long-awaited trial in which Qantas has been charged with discriminatory conduct and alleged breaches of workplace health and safety laws.
Seremetidis earlier said his comments to his superiors were made in part due to the fact that Qantas did not yet provide employees with personal protective equipment (PPE) to complete their role cleaning aircraft.
On Monday, the court heard how the ground handler, who had worked for Qantas for seven years, advised colleagues of their right to refuse apparently unsafe work.
Then, on 2 February, he was stood down for “directing workers to cease unsafe work, and that is creating anxiety amongst the workforce”.
Qantas defence solicitor Bruce Hodgkinson, however, said that at the time, “the risk [of catching COVID-19] outside of China was very low”.
He urged the case to be seen “without the benefit of hindsight” and based on “what was known at the relevant time”.
Last year, charges were formally brought against Qantas’ ground services unit, QGS, over discrimination for a prohibited reason as defined under the state’s Work Health and Safety Act.
The TWU this week said the case was a “historic” and “landmark” prosecution and hailed its member for taking on a “known corporate bully”.
TWU national secretary Michael Kaine said, “The standing down of Theo coincided with Qantas’ efforts to downplay the deadly virus in public commentary and worker briefings. Shortly after, a Covid cluster occurred in the Qantas baggage room in Adelaide, which almost claimed the life of one of our members.”
Qantas earlier argued that Seremetidis was stood down “while he was investigated” for failing to comply with Qantas’ Standards of Conduct policy, which allegedly included the employee “attempting to incite unprotected industrial action”.
“There are established legal mechanisms for health and safety representatives to follow if they have concerns. Qantas supports and encourages our employees to utilise these mechanisms if they have safety concerns,” it said.
“It’s worth noting that there was not a single positive COVID case carried on our flights back from China.”
Within weeks of the original incident, SafeWork NSW instructed Qantas to introduce new policies and cleaning measures to better protect staff and passengers from COVID-19.
SafeWork NSW issued Qantas with an “improvement notice” and ordered the airline to develop a new system specifically to deal with COVID-19.
Seremetidis was later permanently let go from Qantas, forming one of the 2,000 ground workers that had their roles outsourced.
The case continues.