Unions have won a landmark federal court case over jobkeeper against airline Qantas, with the federal court ruling companies have to pass the full wages subsidy on to workers.
If Qantas does not successfully appeal it will be required to make backpay to hundreds of workers, each of which unions estimate could be due thousands of dollars.
Other companies across the economy could also be forced to make similar payments.
A group of unions, including the Transport Workers Union and the Australian Services Union, publicly accused Qantas of manipulating shifts to avoid paying workers anything on top of the $1,500 a fortnight jobkeeper payment.
But while the unions accused Qantas of wage theft, allegations that Qantas deliberately manipulated rosters for company gain at the expense of workers or taxpayers were not put before the court.
During the legal proceedings, Qantas argued that payments made during a fortnight for work done previously should count against jobkeeper payments.
But on Thursday judge Geoffrey Flick found that the jobkeeper law “means what it says” and refers “only to the monies an employee is contractually due to receive during any given fortnight for work performed during that same fortnight”.
“If the consequence of the interpretation now given … is that idiosyncrasies arise in respect to the quantification of amounts that an employee is to receive – including the prospect that employees may benefit from a “windfall” – so be it,” he said.
“It remains a matter for the legislature to “tweak” or adjust the scheme if it sees fit.”
He said the ruling potentially affected all employers and workers receiving jobkeeper.
TWU national secretary Michael Kaine said workers at Qantas “have endured systematic wage theft at the hands of an out of control management”.
“This is an important win for Qantas workers who have had their pay raided by senior management in a disgraceful abuse of the jobkeeper scheme,” he said.
Assistant national secretary of the Australian Services Union, Linda White, said Qantas’s behaviour was “the clearest example of wage theft we’ve seen in the aviation sector”.
“Qantas have a legal and moral responsibility to pay workers their penalties, but it used tricky legal manoeuvres to dodge that responsibility.”
A Qantas spokesman said it was “misleading of unions to suggest employees should expect a sudden windfall out of today’s judgement”.
“Qantas has based all of its decisions on jobkeeper on the legislation and guidance provided by the ATO and made sure all employees receive a ‘safety net’ payment of $1,500 per fortnight,” he said.
“That ‘safety net’ assurance is a central part of the government’s jobkeeper policy. Today’s judgement appears to cut across that principle.”
He said Qantas was “carefully considering” whether to appeal.
“The judgment will likely have adverse implications for all companies receiving jobkeeper, who are already reeling from the impacts of Covid,” he said.