The Guardian 15 March, 2006

Greedy Qantas slashes jobs

Tom Pearson

Qantas’s threat to send off-shore 2,500 heavy maintenance jobs over stalled enterprise bargaining negotiations has begun with the announcement that 480 workers will lose their jobs when the airline’s management closes its Boeing 747 heavy maintenance plant in Sydney in May. The threat of sending the 2,500 jobs overseas, most likely to China, remains and Qantas, with the backing of the Business Council of Australia, is preparing to wield the Howard Government’s anti-union WorkChoices legislation to achieve its objectives when it comes into force this month.

The tactic is to try and drive down the conditions and wages of the maintenance workers. Qantas Chief Executive Geoff Dixon is demanding that they meet stringent efficiency targets. Qantas wants to save $100 million a year, with the overall goal of slashing $3 billion in costs.

The Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) said the airline is moving its maintenance operations to Avalon in Victoria because many of the workers there are employed through a labour hire company, Forstaff.

The Avalon workforce build up their overtime pay in a bank from where they are paid during quiet periods when they are stood down. Management has put overtime on the table to be bargained away as a cost-cutting measure. The union estimates that cutting overtime will result in a 30 percent pay cut.

"We are talking safety, jobs and our country’s skills base", AMWU Assistant National Secretary, Glenn Thompson said. "Qantas is prepared to risk all of that to impose its cost-cutting agenda."

The unions have joined forces to resist clawbacks of thousands of dollars a year from family budgets. Said Dixon, who is paid $6.1 million a year, referring to the 480 workers he had just thrown out of a job, "This is not as good an option as going offshore, but it is a good option." He said maintenance costs were 20 percent lower in Asia.

Dixon’s strategy flies in the face of an assurance he gave workers that he would talk about jobs with their unions once the Federal Government handed down its aviation policy.

The Government announced last month that Singapore Airlines would continue to be frozen out of the lucrative Sydney-Los Angeles route.

"We are not going to engage in bargaining that will reduce terms and conditions. Qantas is the world’s most profitable airline with the best maintenance record", Mr Thompson said, before Dixon’s announcement last week.

"Maintenance workers are sick to death of being used as political pawns when the safety and reputation of the airline rests in their hands.

"We want Qantas to level with us, and talk about the future of its heavy maintenance.

"There are more effective ways of addressing costs than simply slashing the living standards of Australian families."

The job shedding is also connected to a Macquarie Bank profits drive. A Macquarie Bank subsidiary, Macquarie Airports has been gouging Sydneysiders, and tourists, since paying the Federal Government $5 billion for the airport two years ago.

The precinct is becoming a no-go zone for families and friends of travellers as prices for everything, from a cup of coffee to luggage trolleys and parking, has gone through the roof.

It was the privatised airport’s insistence on a gigantic shopping precinct, over the objections of local authorities and state government, which cost the city nearly 500 high-skilled jobs.

A plan, released last November, set aside insufficient room for ongoing maintenance operations. Instead, the there are plans for a massive retail and cinema complex, that planners warn will lead to traffic chaos and threaten the future of existing suburban shopping centres.

Qantas engineering general manager, David Cox, confirmed space had become an issue, under the new regime.

"There is not sufficient for us", he said.

Cox said shopping centres hadn’t been part of airport planning five years ago.

Meanwhile, Qantas will charge travellers up to $75 if they change their international bookings by phone in a drive to force people to use the internet for making bookings. The aim is to cut call centre jobs. Pensioner groups have angrily criticised the move.

"We absolutely condemn new charges like this. It’s just another example of the ugly face of privatisation", said Morrie Mifsud, from the Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association of NSW. "People like to talk about the whole of society getting on the internet, but actually not many elderly, disadvantaged or disabled people have access to such technology, the skills to use or even the will to use it.

"For many people $75 is nothing, but for most pensioners it is a lot. These people are on a financial cliff-edge."

"Industrial action will be a last resort but if Qantas goes ahead and puts safety in jeopardy by slashing jobs it will be inevitable", AMWU National Secretary Doug Cameron warned.

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