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SafeWork NSW has served a notice of a formal investigation on Qantas and their CEO Alan Joyce related to claims that the company has committed serious offences over the suspension of an aircraft cleaner who raised concerns about workers being exposed to the coronavirus.

As a result, Qantas faces the first prosecution of its kind in Australia, with the airline now facing multiple breaches for “discriminatory conduct and prohibited behaviour” against the worker, who is also a trained and elected Health and Safety Representative.

Each breach carries a fine of $500,000.

The Sydney worker was stood down on February 2. Qantas has refused to reinstate the worker.

In a move that vindicated the worker’s concerns, SafeWork NSW issued Improvement Notices on Qantas in March, reflecting the airline’s “inadequate system of work used to clean planes” with aircraft cleaners forced to wipe tray tables with the same dirty cloths and handle blood, vomit, soiled nappies, used masks and tissues without protective gear. The Regulator’s Improvement Notices stated that Qantas was at risk of exposing workers to an infectious disease.

TWU NSW Branch Secretary Richard Olsen said it was vital that workplace health and safety representatives had the full backing of the law and the regulator to ensure workers got the protections they need.

“If safety reps at Qantas can’t stand up to unsafe work practices, then no worker is safe. The TWU believes there is ample evidence to prove that Qantas engaged in discriminatory and prohibited behaviour,” said Mr Olsen.

“It is incomprehensible to the TWU that the Sydney worker was stood down due to his concerns for his co-workers. Now with the company wide stand down, Qantas have put their own internal investigation on hold, leaving the worker uncertain of his future, and we are watching the company scramble to manage their own actions.”

“Qantas’s behaviour from the start of this pandemic has been outrageous. It has refused to listen to workers’ legitimate concerns and instead shut them down. This has had a massive impact on the entire workforce during a very stressful time as many people have been afraid to raise concerns. This is not the way to conduct a safe and efficient airline,” he added.

Eleven Qantas baggage handlers at Adelaide Airport have tested positive to the coronavirus this week, with up to 100 workers potentially exposed including TWU union officials. The TWU has written to Qantas demanding information and documents under workplace health and safety laws about procedures in place to protect workers. The union also wrote to Adelaide Airport about workers from various companies who have been potentially exposed.

“With Qantas baggage handlers in another state now infected there have clearly been fundamental problems in how Qantas has managed this across its network. We demand that the worker Qantas stood down in Sydney is reinstated and we demand that the airline steps up and begins acting responsibly. This must be done to protect workers but also the travelling public,” said Mr Olsen.