Qantas chief Vanessa Hudson ordered to face mediation over sacked workers

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Qantas chief executive Vanessa Hudson and the head of the Transport Workers’ Union, Michael Kaine, have been ordered by a judge to clinch a deal face-to-face over compensation for the airline’s sacked 1700 workers.

Qantas last week lost its final appeal against Federal Court judge Michael Lee’s 2021 finding that the national carrier had illegally outsourced the jobs of ground crew during the pandemic, partly to avoid industrial action.

Qantas chief executive Vanessa Hudson has been ordered to attend mediation with representatives of 1700 sacked workers after the airline’s High Court loss.Credit: Bloomberg

Lawyers for Qantas and the TWU were back before Lee on Wednesday morning, a week after the High Court unanimously dismissed the airline’s last-ditch bid to overturn his judgment, preparing to hatch out compensation and significant penalties for the former staff.

“There’s [1700] people whose lives have been affected, together with their families, and I wish to ensure that this matter is resolved as soon as I can,” Lee told the parties.

The judge said he wanted Hudson, who took over the beleaguered carrier from long-running former chief executive Alan Joyce a fortnight ago, to participate in mediation sessions along with Kaine, the national secretary of the TWU, after the court-ordered negotiations begin next Monday.

“I want the chief executive officer to be present, together with the person leading the union to be there,” Lee said. “That, in my view, like the many mediations that I’ve been involved in over many, many years, is appropriate in escalating it to an appropriate level to maximise the prospects of settlement.”

TWU boss Michael Kaine outside the High Court following its unanimous dismissal of the airline’s appeal.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Barrister Richard Dalton, acting for Qantas, said the airline’s in-house counsel would attend, and asked that Hudson be excused. However, Lee pressed his desire for the new CEO to be there.

Last week Kaine called on Hudson to apologise to former employees who had lost their jobs, and called on the board, including its chair Richard Goyder, to resign.

The airline has endured intense reputational damage – fuelled by the High Court decision – involving customer complaints over services, a consumer watchdog investigation into selling tickets for cancelled flights, and accusations from the federal opposition that Qantas has outsized influence in government decision-making.

The court hearing occurred in the same week a Senate inquiry into competition in the aviation sector kicked off, examining the knowledge of the board over the mass sacking, as well as Transport Minister Catherine King’s recent decision to reject Qatar Airways’ application for more flights in Australia.

Mark Gibian, acting for the TWU, said the union wanted a small number of worker delegates to also attend the negotiations with Qantas, and that the union preferred the compensation and penalties claim play out through more open court proceedings, so the affected workers weren’t blind to what was being discussed.

“The TWU is concerned about the contemplation of a process to resolve the compensatory claims affecting those 1700 employees, which may not be transparent to those employees,” he said, but he didn’t oppose Lee’s preference for mediation.

Dalton said Qantas, which last week proposed a settlement with the workers, wanted to negotiate on both the compensation claims and the penalties the airline would incur, but Gibian said the TWU opposed this.

“We don’t wish there to be any perception the resolution for one will be traded off the resolution of the other,” Gibian said.

Lawyer Josh Bornstein, who ran the union’s case, said last week Qantas could be up for a “potentially very significant sum” that would consider the economic harms and health impacts suffered by the sacked workers.

“Potentially it could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars but ultimately, it’s for the court to determine,” Bornstein said.

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