A Qantas health and safety employee, who refused to clean an aircraft coming back to Australia from China, has been stood down by the airline.
The employee – a Transport Workers Union delegate – rejected the cleaning task on board the Qantas aircraft, which had returned from Beijing and Shanghai, because of fears for his health and safety on board. It is understood the employee also advised fellow co-workers they could do the same if they shared similar concerns.
In a letter issued by the Australia airline, and obtained by news.com.au, Qantas said that the employee’s concerns about contracting coronavirus were “negligible”.
“I understand on January 30, 2020, that you refused to board an aircraft and perform your
duties in relation to Qantas Flight QF130 from Beijing,” the letter read.
“You advised that this was due to your concerns about the risk of contracting Coronavirus. You were advised at the time that the risk of that occurring was negligible and that there was PPE available.
“I again confirm that the risk of aircraft workers contracting Coronavirus as a result of working on aircraft is negligible. This position has been confirmed verbally by a representative from Qantas Medical this morning. We have also provided you with written advice to this effect.”
According to 2GB’s Alan Jones Breakfast Show, the workers taking part in the clean were given masks and gloves to wear, however no eye protective gear and no specific training on risk management was provided.
The airline, which will suspend flights from China from February 9, 2020, said they would never ask employees to work in unsafe conditions, and reiterated that “the risk of aviation workers contracting coronavirus as a result of working on an aircraft originating from China is very low”.
“The Company is formally directing you to perform your duties as required including performing your duties on aircraft originating from ports in China.
“The Company’s position is that the direction outlined above is reasonable and lawful, and
you are required to comply with it. It is important that you are aware that should you fail to
comply with this direction, this may result in disciplinary action being taken against you, up to and including the termination of your employment.”
Transport Workers Union National Secretary Michael Kaine said airline workers were being unfairly targeted, and that the response from Qantas about this employee’s concern was “heavy-handed, bullying”.
“To say their belief is not reasonable when they’re working on the frontline cleaning these flights is a double standard,” he said.
“You have to put yourself in the shoes of workers who are on the front line. They know that these planes have come in from the epicentre of the virus.
“They have to go home to their families at night thinking that they may be potentially infected. It’s a reasonable concern … people are dying left, right and centre. How is it unreasonable to be concerned about your health and safety under these circumstances?”
Qantas Medical spokesman Dr Russell Brown said the airline’s medical team is in regular contact with health authorities, and providing adequate equipment for employees on board these aircraft.
“We would never ask our employees to work in unsafe conditions,” he said in a statement sent to news.com.au.
“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.
“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.”
TWU are now calling on the airline to reinstate the employee.
“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,” TWU NSW Branch Secretary Richard Olsen said in a statement.
“This is not a time for using 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.”
On Monday, flight QF6032 evacuated 241 passengers from the coronavirus epicentre of Wuhan and landed in Learmonth, near Exmouth, midafternoon. Following the plane’s arrival, the aircraft was set to undergo a thorough clean over the course of three days by Qantas health and safety officials.
Flights are still arriving directly from China daily into Australia, including Qantas, Air China, China Eastern and China Southern. While Chinese tourists are currently banned from entering Australia, citizens are allowed through customs.
Qantas say they will be suspending China services from February 9.