Australian airline Qantas has sparked backlash after it stood down an employee who refused to clean a flight from Beijing over fears of contracting coronavirus.
The worker, who refused to board the plane to clean it and advised colleagues to do the same on 30 January, has been ‘stood down’ by the airline pending an investigation.
He has been suspended from work without receiving pay, is unable to enter the workplace or attend workplace meetings, and has not been issued with formal allegations, a TWU spokesperson told Yahoo Finance.
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The worker is a delegate of the Transport Workers’ Union and was voted a health and safety representative by his peers.
Qantas worker told coronavirus fears ‘negligible’
On 31 January, Qantas issued a letter to the employee, which has been obtained by Yahoo Finance, reminding the worker that they had been told at the time that risk of contracting the virus was “negligible”.
“In these circumstances, and with the information available to you, you cannot reasonably be concerned that working on aircraft originating from China would expose you to a serious risk to your health or safety or that there is a risk of immediate or imminent exposure to Coronavirus.”
The worker was directed to perform their aircraft duties and was warned that failure to do so could result in disciplinary action or the loss of their job.
Qantas medical spokesperson Russell Brown said that the airline “would never ask our employees to work in unsafe conditions”.
“The TWU knows full well that the risk of aviation workers contracting coronavirus as a result of working on an aircraft originating from China is very low. I briefed them on the situation last week,” he said in a statement.
He added that Qantas’ medical team was in “regular contact” with health authorities and receiving advice from Australia’s chief medical officer and the World Health Organisation.
“Additional protective measures are being put in place on flights from China to further reduce the risk of our employees contracting coronavirus and we are providing them with regular updates on the latest health advice,” he said.
Union calls for worker to be reinstated
The Transport Workers Union has called for the airline to “immediately reinstate” the worker.
“We are very concerned that airport workers on the frontline of this virus outbreak are being threatened, intimidated and stood down from their jobs rather than being supported and given all the protections they need,” said TWU NSW branch secretary Richard Olsen.
“We call on Qantas to immediately reinstate the worker who has been stood down and to withdraw letters of intimidation to people who expressed concerns about working on flights from China.”
Now was not a time for what Olsen called “bullying workplace tactics”.
“Cabin crew, airlines cleaners, caterers, baggage and ramp workers and airport security personnel at the frontline have the right to go to work, be safe and return to their families afterwards without concerns that they are spreading a deadly virus.”
In an interview with Alan Jones on 2GB this morning, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he would address the issue with the airline.
“I am happy to take [this matter] up with Qantas about how they are managing those issues,” Morrison told Jones.
TWU national secretary Michael Kaine said: “We would like to see this issue resolved immediately so that workers can continue to do their jobs but are able to raise concerns when they arise.”
According to the union, airport workers have raised concerns about a patchy approach to protections, where gloves, masks and hand sanitisers are not being provided by all companies.
While these protections are provided for in flights from China, they are not being provided to those servicing other flights, according to TWU.
According to Kaine, airport workers do not have the confidence that their workplace is safe.
“We are calling on the Government to show leadership and instruct all airports and aviation companies to have in place consistent policies throughout their supply chains and to ensure that workers can raise concerns without fear of losing their jobs,” he said. “This will help alleviate worker concerns.”
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