Frustrations were high in a Sydney court after a judge pushed back a landmark decision just hours before Qantas representatives were set to be grilled at the airline’s annual general meeting.
Qantas is fighting allegations it acted illegally when it stood down health and safety representative Theo Seremetidis, who raised concerns about cleaning aircraft inbound from China early in the Covid-19 pandemic.
Almost a year to the day since the 10-day hearing kicked off in the NSW District Court, Judge David Russell was due to hand down his decision on Friday.
The court case, the first of its kind in Australia, is assessing Qantas’ conduct and will determine whether the company failed to provide proper workplace health and safety processes for its staff.
However, Judge Russell told the court that he would not be making his decision, as he received in his inbox late on Thursday night a Fair Work Ombudsman judgment from Monday that he said had “some key issues in the present proceedings”.
The back of the courtroom was packed with members of the Transport Workers Union, Mr Seremetidis and supporters who were frustrated at the judge’s decision.
Judge Russell told the court the judgment was like “Christmas pudding, in that there’s something in it for everybody”.
“I am of the view I cannot deliver judgment in this case without giving full consideration to the judgment,” he said.
Outside court, TWU national secretary Michael Kaine said Qantas was a company whose “exploits have been laid bare”, but executive chairman Richard Goyder would be “breathing a sigh of relief” at the lack of outcome.
He said there were “furious” shareholders, members of the general public and workers who were “hoodwinked” by a company that earnt their trust.
“That trust has been ripped away … this case is another example of Qantas fighting and fighting hard to damage workers who are just doing the right thing for themselves and for the Australian flying public,” Mr Kaine said.
“If this decision had been given today and it had found Qantas guilty, that would have been a nail in the coffin of Richard Goyder and this board.
“Richard Goyder and this board have rubber-stamped every decision that Alan Joyce and his management team made and unfortunately we’re not seeing the leaf being turned over that was promised to us.”
Mr Kaine hopes the result of the AGM is Mr Goyder bringing forward his planned departure.
Labor senator Tony Sheldon, who bought shares to attend the AGM but chose to be at the court decision instead, repeated his call for Mr Goyder to step down immediately.
“These people are still giving themselves massive bonuses and their own workforce is being illegally sacked,” Senator Sheldon said.
“This is a situation that is beyond belief, to think that this board has any credibility in light of the way that they have been operating.”
Judge Russell was told the aviation giant stood down Mr Seremetidis at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.
The court was told Mr Seremetidis was let go from his employment amid “increasing concerns by other employees about the risk of contracting Covid-19 after cleaning passenger planes arriving from China”.
He had been a Qantas employee since 2014 in the position of ground crew fleet presentation at Sydney international airport.
In a statement, Qantas said Mr Seremitidis was “directed not to come to work while” being investigated for “failing to comply with our Standards of Conduct policy including allegations of 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,” the statement read.
“It’s worth noting that there was not a single positive COVID case carried on our flights back from China.”