A former Qantas health and safety officer who raised concerns about COVID-19 has been fired for inciting “fear” among staff, according to a court.
Crown Prosecutor Patricia McDonald SC on Monday told a district court that Theo Seremetidis was informed by the airline that the risk of the virus was “negligible” in February 2020.
The evidence came at the start of a long-awaited trial in which Qantas was charged with discriminatory behavior and alleged violations of labor protection laws.
Seremetidis previously said his comments to his bosses were partly because Qantas has not yet provided staff with personal protective equipment (PPE) to fulfill their role cleaning aircraft.
On Monday, the court heard the groundhandler, who worked for Qantas for seven years, reminding colleagues of their right to refuse work that appears unsafe.
Then, on February 2, he was fired for “ordering workers to stop unsafe work and this is causing fear among the workforce”.
However, Qantas defense attorney Bruce Hodgkinson said that at the time “the risk [of catching COVID-19] outside of China was very low”.
He urged that the case be reviewed “without hindsight” and based on “what was known at the relevant time”.
Last year, formal charges were filed against Qantas’ ground services unit, QGS, for discrimination on a prohibited ground, as that state defines it Occupational Health and Safety Act.
TWU said this week the case was a “historic” and “landmark” indictment, and hailed its member for taking on a “known corporate bully.”
TWU national secretary Michael Kaine said: “Theo’s resignation coincided with efforts by Qantas to downplay the deadly virus in public comments and workers meetings. Shortly thereafter, a Covid cluster erupted in the Qantas luggage area in Adelaide and nearly claimed the life of one of our members.”
Qantas had previously argued that Seremetidis was fired “while under investigation” for failing to comply with Qantas’ Code of Conduct, which allegedly included the employee “attempting to encourage unprotected industrial action”.
“There are established legal mechanisms that health and safety officials can follow if they have concerns. Qantas supports and encourages our employees to use these mechanisms when they have safety concerns,” it said.
“It is worth noting that our return flights from China did not carry a single positive COVID case.”
Within weeks of the original incident, SafeWork NSW instructed Qantas to implement new policies and cleaning measures to better protect staff and passengers from COVID-19.
SafeWork NSW gave Qantas an “improvement notice”, directing the airline to develop a new system specifically to deal with COVID-19.
Seremetidis was later permanently fired from Qantas and formed one of the 2,000 ground workers whose duties were outsourced.
The case continues.