Qantas staff at Australia’s Adelaide Airport were directed to continue working after it was discovered they had been exposed to the coronavirus, the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) alleges.
- The Transport Workers’ Union claims Qantas knowingly exposed staff at Adelaide Airport to coronavirus
- Qantas maintains it has fully complied with SA (South Australia) Health’s directions
- A staff member at an early learning centre was one of two new confirmed cases in SA on Monday.
However the aviation giant claims it has vigilantly monitored the situation and is working with the government to stop further spread of the virus.
SA Health ordered 750 employees into quarantine in an attempt to contain a cluster of cases linked to the airport, including 18 baggage handlers, three other workers and 13 close contacts.
The Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) says it is compiling evidence that Qantas ‘knowingly exposed’ workers to the virus after it was made aware of the first confirmed case.
Union leaders allege that the company was late to act, downplayed the risk to staff and failed to implement proper safety measures.
‘We’re being told Qantas staff were directed to attend work, (they) were concerned about their health and safety, but they went to work,’ South Australian branch secretary Ian Smith said.
‘Some of them have become infected and they’ve infected their families — that’s disastrous and totally unsatisfactory and that could have been stopped.’
Smith said SA Health stepped in after Qantas took a ‘blasé’ approach to managing the issue.
‘SA Health don’t trust the information they’re receiving from Qantas to make such a drastic decision,’ he said.
The quarantine order applies to employees who have worked in certain areas of the airport since March 17, and affects cabin crew, pilots, customer service staff, engineers and baggage handlers.
In a statement, Qantas claimed it has complied fully with SA Health’s directions.
The airline said it has upheld a strict coronavirus cleaning protocol which includes disinfecting work and break areas.
Adelaide Airport also released a statement saying it will continue to assist Qantas and SA Health with all of their ongoing coronavirus investigations, and has undertaken a range of protective measures.
The Australian Services Union, which also represents Qantas staff, called on the company to look after those employees sent into isolation.
Scott Cowen, South Australian branch assistant secretary, said Qantas has reversed an earlier decision not to pay staff who were required to self-isolate.
‘We’ve since been informed that employees directed to self-isolate would be paid as normal,’ he told ABC Radio Adelaide on Monday.
‘We’re working with the company to determine what normal means, because obviously these are not normal times at all.’
Union members are also calling on the company to provide accommodation for employees directed to self-isolate, in an effort to ensure family members are not put at risk.
Cowen said some of the 750 staff could be based at other airports but have travelled to Adelaide, or could work for subsidiary companies of Qantas.
The state’s chief public health officer said the employees who tested positive to the virus were not in areas of the airport accessible to the general public.
SA Health confirmed two new coronavirus cases on Monday, taking the state total to 431.
One of the new cases is a staff member at St Peter’s Girls’ School, prompting authorities to order 10 children and four other staff members into quarantine.
Meanwhile, Qantas has defended its decision not to allow cabin crew who developed Covid-19 after being stood down access to their accrued sick leave entitlements, arguing there is ‘no job for them to be sick from’ and that many of them became infected while on holidays.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) is calling for an immediate reversal of the decision, as the number of cases connected to the airline continues to grow.
- The ACTU says more than 50 direct Qantas employees have so far tested positive to coronavirus
- The company is not offering sick leave entitlements to stood-down staff who later develop Covid-19
- Qantas’s medical director claims the majority of stood-down staff with the virus were infected while on holidays.
More than 50 direct Qantas employees have now tested positive to coronavirus, the union said, with some passing it on to their loved ones.
One cabin crew employee has said they believe they contracted the virus while flying on an international route in March.
They said they started to feel sick within a week of returning home to Australia, and then tested positive to Covid-19.
‘It was like a flu. I had a fever. Aches. Pains all over. And I lost my sense of smell,’ they said.
The cabin crew member said they were paid about four days of sick leave by Qantas before they were stood down, along with 20,000 other people employed by the airline.
After being stood down, they were not entitled to further accrued sick leave, and have been paid out of their accrued annual leave instead.
‘It’s all pretty ordinary,’ they said. ‘I was there for work. Even if I got the virus while on the ground in the United States during my layover, I was still working for the company.
‘I want to be paid for my time in isolation and compensation. They should give me my leave back.’
The ACTU’s president, Michele O’Neil, said that last Friday the 11-year-old daughter of a Qantas cabin crew worker had tested positive, after her mother tested positive too.
‘This was something the cabin crew member was really fearful of,’ O’Neil said.
‘She was worried she wasn’t given any paid accommodation to isolate away from her family and now her worst fears are realised with her asthmatic child having Covid-19.
‘This is a very harsh, unacceptable way for Qantas to deal with workers who are trying to do their very best amongst this crisis.
‘Qantas likes to talk about themselves as the “Spirit of Australia”. This is not in the spirit of Australia.’
Other cases include a group of baggage handlers at Adelaide airport who contracted the virus and then gave it to their families.
- A former head of Victoria’s most powerful construction union has accused the current leadership of a lack of democracy and criticised its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
The comments from Martin Kingham, a long-term secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, (CFMEU) came as the union deleted many critical comments from its Facebook page.
The comments were from angry members criticising the union’s strong support for keeping building sites open.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic causing thousands of businesses around Australia to shut due to strict social distancing measures, construction sites across Victoria remain open.
Two large Melbourne building sites have recently closed temporarily because of coronavirus infections of workers. Opinion is divided among construction union members as to whether the industry should remain open, scale back or shut entirely.
Current CFMEU state secretary John Setka has said construction should go ahead despite the pandemic.
While some comments on the union’s Facebook site contained abuse many simply questioned the union’s position.
Kingham, now a building worker, posted a number of times on the union’s Facebook page in late March and complained his posts were being deleted.
‘I am getting really sick of the CFMEU deleting my posts,’ Kingham wrote. ‘Where is the democracy?’
‘My phone is in meltdown with members telling me they will refuse to renew their tickets,’ he wrote in another post. ‘I am urging everyone to pay their dues like I have.’
Other construction workers accused the union – which has had a strong record on workplace safety – of siding with big business and Master Builders Victoria, and of putting profits ahead of members.
‘At the end of the day we are a commodity which is easily replaced,’ one worker wrote. ‘We are economic fodder,’ said another.
A regular theme of the posts was the CFMEU allegedly putting its financial interests ahead of safety, by keeping construction workers on the job so union fees could be collected. ‘Member dues before health, it’s disgusting,’ posted one member.
A CFMEU spokeswoman defended the union’s support for keeping the building industry open.
‘The Premier’s office, the Prime Minister’s office, Master Builders Victoria and the union working group are all working together to keep the industry safe and operational,’ she said. ‘We will continue to listen to the experts and have put all the recommended measures in place to protect workers.’
Construction has been halted on non-essential projects in cities such as New York and in New Zealand, and shut entirely in other countries – but in many the building industry continues despite the pandemic.
‘I work in construction and really think it’s unsafe for sites to be open. The CFMEU close sites when there is two drops of rain but yet a killer virus seems to be OK,’ one worker wrote.