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Qantas has been convicted of illegally standing down a worker during the pandemic after the employee raised concerns about the risk of COVID-19 to staff cleaning aircraft from China.

The airline has been ordered to pay $250,000.

In February 2020 TheoSeremetidis was working for Qantas at Sydney Airport.

The court heard that Mr Seremetidis directed his colleagues to stop cleaning and servicing aircrafts arriving from China.

In response Qantas illegally stood Mr Seremetidis down.

NSW District Court Judge David Russell said “the conduct against Mr Seremetidis was quite shameful.”

Russell said the airline had engaged in discriminatory behaviour, acknowledging that he was unfairly isolated from other staff seeking his assistance.

Last week Qantas agreed to pay Seremetidis $21,000 for economic and non-economic loss.

On Wednesday morning, Judge Russell ordered that QGS be convicted and fined $250,000, finding that the conduct was “deliberate rather than inadvertent.”

“Even when he was stood down and under investigation, QGS attempted to manufacture additional reasons for its actions,” Russell said.

Judge Russell said the reasons for his verdict included that the offences have “significant culpability”, that there was a “gross power imbalance” between Qantas and a part-time worker acting as an HSR, and that “the conduct of Qantas is shameful.”

Half of the $250,000 was ordered to be paid to Seremetidis.

A Qantas spokesperson said the airline accepted the penalties.

“We agreed to compensation for Theo Seremetidis and the court has today made orders for that compensation to be paid,” the spokesperson said.

“We acknowledged in court the impact that this incident had on Mr Seremetidis and apologised to him.

“Safety has always been our number one priority and we continue to encourage our employees to report all safety related matters.”

The decision has been welcomed by the NSW government and the Transport Workers’ Union.

SafeWork NSW brought this first-of-its-kind action after Qantas Ground Services unlawfully stood down a Health and Safety Representative during the pandemic after he raised concerns about workers being exposed to COVID-19.

In October 2021 SafeWork NSW began its case against Qantas filing charges in the District Court alleging that Qantas engaged in discriminatory conduct for a prohibited reason.

These were the first charges ever filed by SafeWork NSW using this section of the Act.

In November last year Qantas was found guilty of one charge and today the court  has handed down the sentence.

The Transport Workers’ Union has also welcomed the District Court of NSW’s landmark conviction.

The union says the unprecedented prosecution, conviction and penalty against Qantas show the need for a Safe and Secure Skies Commission to set standards in aviation and prevent further harm to airport workers.

TWU NSW/QLD Secretary Richard Olsen says the conviction sends a clear message that no business is above the law when it comes to the safety and wellbeing of workers.

“By standing up to Qantas, Theo has shown that the safety of workers must always come first. This prosecution has been a game-changer and has encouraged others to come forward with complaints of discriminatory conduct under the WHS Act. This conviction is a victory for Theo and for every worker who deserves a safe and respectful workplace.

“This section of the WHS Act is crucial in sanctioning health and safety representatives to carry out their duties without fear of retribution. The District Court of NSW has brought justice to Theo and upheld the protective nature of the WHS Act. Now the focus must be on preventing the likes of Qantas from treating workers with such disregard.”

TWU National Secretary Michael Kaine says this verdict is a historic moment for corporate accountability over workplace safety, but workers shouldn’t have to fight these cases.

“Convicting Qantas was the right decision. Qantas put workers’ lives in danger during a global pandemic, denied them the representation of their trained health and safety representative, and treated Theo Seremetidis appallingly as a warning to workers that their safety concerns were not welcome.

“Deterrents are important, but prevention is the best way to protect workers’ safety. We need to rein in Qantas and keep its operations in check through an independent Safe and Secure Skies Commission to set standards across aviation. Worker and passenger safety must always be prioritised over executive bonuses and shareholder dividends, but in privatised airlines and airports, priorities are back to front. We must reverse this excessive corporate greed to rebuild a sustainable aviation industry.”

Qantas has 28 days to appeal the decision.