Embattled airline Qantas has been labelled a “villain” after it was found to have illegally stood down a longstanding employee over his health and safety concerns at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The national airline stood down lift truck driver Theo Seremetidis in February 2020 after he raised concerns about the risks of cleaning aircraft inbound from China.
Mr Seremetidis, who was elected as a health and safety representative, had advised his colleagues to stop cleaning the planes due to the risk of exposure to the virus.
On Thursday, Judge David Russell found the airline had acted illegally when it stood him down “to his detriment” for fulfilling his duty.
He determined the discrimination alleged by SafeWork NSW in the case was established and found Qantas was guilty of criminal conduct.
“I find that (Qantas) saw the giving of the directions by Mr Seremetidis to cease work as a threat to the conduct of business and, in particular, a threat to the ability of (Qantas) to clean and service aircraft and get them back in the air,” Judge Russell told the NSW District Court.
Outside court, Transport Workers Union national secretary Michael Kaine hailed the decision in the landmark case, the first of its kind in Australia.
“This is a victory today for a hero, Theo, against a villain, Qantas,” he said.
“This is a victory for workplace health and safety representatives around the country who every day stand up to make sure their workmates are safe and the Australian community is safe.”
Mr Seremetidis cried in court and supporters around him quietly cheered as the guilty verdict was delivered.
Outside court, he said he felt “vindicated” after being “targeted” by his former employer for carrying out his role as a health and safety representative.
“I was doing what I thought was the right thing and I was being punished for it because it didn’t suit the company,” the former Qantas employee said outside court.
“They were willing to punish someone instead of rectifying the issue.”
Mr Seremetidis welcomed the result and said he hoped it would force Qantas to change its behaviour towards employees.
“Today is a message that if you break the law, you will be punished for it and held to account,” he said.
Mr Seremetidis was stood down by Qantas in February 2020 after he advised his colleagues to stop cleaning planes without proper equipment and training.
Judge Russell found the airline “actively sidelined” him by isolating him from other employees who needed his help and requiring him to leave the airport immediately.
He determined Mr Seremetidis had been a “favourable” witness who demonstrated a “detailed and largely accurate” memory of events.
“I formed the view that he attempted to carry out his duties as a health and safety representative conscientiously and carefully,” the judge said.
Qantas was also accused of discriminating against Mr Seremetidis by threatening him with dismissal or disciplinary action in a letter sent in early February 2020.
However, Judge Russell found the letter “could not be construed as a threat” and instead demonstrated “the giving of procedural fairness to the recipient of the letter”.
The airline will be sentenced in the NSW District Court at a later date.
In a statement, Qantas acknowledged the findings of the court and said it would review the judgment before commenting further.
“We recognise that the initial stages of the pandemic caused a lot of uncertainty for our people, customers and the business more broadly,” the Qantas Group statement said.
“Our medical and safety teams worked tirelessly to provide daily updates to employees and to put effective controls and procedures in place to help protect our people and customers.”
The airline previously emphasised “not a single positive Covid case” was carried back from China on Qantas flights.
Mr Kaine noted Mr Seremetidis had been one of 1700 workers terminated by Qantas during the pandemic as part of an illegal decision to outsource work.
He said the airline had been operating for years as a “ruthless” and “uncontrolled corporate dictator” and urged it to show it had “turned over a new leaf” by not appealing the court’s finding.
“We need to see a different approach this time with acceptance and apology,” Mr Kaine said.