Qantas Might Be Profiting, But Its Staff Are Barely Getting By

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With the business making money and Alan Joyce cashing in, it’s time to return some of the success to the people who make it happen, writes Tony Sheldon.

This is an important time for Qantas, its shareholders, and its employees. Management has been able to showcase at the airline’s annual general meeting its dramatic turnaround from huge corporate losses and pleas for public money just last year to almost $1 billion profits and dividends for investors. That cash has enabled the company to reward its top brass handsomely. Chief executive Alan Joyce will take home a pay packet of almost $12 million this year with the total pay packets for the top six executives costing the airline over $23 million.

All of this fanfare will come as a bitter pill for employees working directly or indirectly for Qantas. They have seen jobs in aviation fundamentally change from well-trained, full time positions to part time, casual posts.

A survey we have recently published shows the dire situation for many aviation employees.

Over 40 per cent of those surveyed are working part time on wages that leave many below the poverty line. Because of this almost 70 per cent of employees say their pay does not allow them to meet their costs while over three-quarters say they cannot afford to retire at 65.

These employees are crying out for more hours to support their families and pay their bills. One father-of-three working as a baggage handler in Cairns airport left a comment in the survey saying: “I would like full-time work. It’s very hard to live on part-time hours.” Another father-of-two working as a baggage handler in Perth airport said he wanted, “more hours, more full-time jobs, no more four-hour shifts”.

Qantas is an important lynchpin in defining what a job in aviation now looks like because it is the market leader. Over the last four years it has sacked 5,000 full-time employees and replaced them with 9,000 part-time workers. These new employees do not work for Qantas Airways. The company has stated on numerous occasions that it will not hire any new full time employees and they have been true to their word.  Not one new full time ground worker has been hired since 2011.

Instead new employees work for Qantas-owned subsidiaries such as Qantas Ground Services (QGS) or labour hire firms such as Aerocare. The pay and conditions of QGS employees are crippling: none of the QGS workers surveyed was on full time work as the company only guarantees 20 hours a week. Labour hire firms are pitted against each other to see which one can provide services at the lowest cost.

What this adds up to is an industry no longer willing to provide work which allows working families to live and retire in dignity.

It is appalling behaviour when you consider the industry economics. Aviation is not a sector under strain. It is worth $81.1 billion to the economy while airlines such as Qantas are now making huge profits. Airports themselves are also highly lucrative with a report by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in April showing Australia’s four main airports had revenues of $2.8 billion in 2013/14.

Aviation directly employs 312,000 people and over 495,000 people indirectly. The number of jobs will have to increase in line with government projections that airline passenger numbers are to double over the next 15 years.

But the industry will only grow and be sustainable if it can attract a motivated workforce that sees a future in it. Forcing people onto part time work and paying them wages so low that they are constantly struggling will not achieve this.

It is incumbent on employers and regulators to ensure that employees have a stake in the future of aviation. An industry generating this much wealth can and must support decent jobs. Decency is as much a corporate responsibility as shareholder returns. If corporations can’t be trusted to share the wealth generated by workers then it is time for tougher government regulation guaranteeing employee rights.

Aviation is critical to our nation’s economic wellbeing. A truly sustainable industry supports decent jobs as much as it supports airline profits.

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Tony Sheldon is the National Secretary of the Transport Workers Union.

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