Federal Court finds FWC can resolve Qantas stand down dispute

By Tarsha Gavin, Erin Mangan
Employment & Safety

In brief 2 min read

The Federal Court has confirmed that the Fair Work Commission (the FWC) has jurisdiction to hear a dispute about the legality of stand downs Qantas and Jetstar initiated under their enterprise agreements (EAs), and has shed light on the dispute resolution clauses in those EAs.

Key takeaways

  • Employers should approach dispute resolution clauses in their EAs with considerable flexibility, since little formality in procedures may be required for these provisions to be satisfied.
  • As an example, not all employees affected by an issue need to be present at dispute resolution meetings. Conversely, the ultimate scope of the dispute must be confined to the issues canvassed at preliminary meetings.

What was the dispute about?

The dispute arose in relation to the legality of stand downs that Qantas and Jetstar implemented in relation to a number of aircraft engineers in March this year. The Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association (ALAEA) applied to the FWC, arguing that the stand downs were unlawful because the employees could still be usefully employed and there had been no real stoppage of work. See our Federal Court opts to rule on Qantas stand down case for the details of this application and its preliminary outcome.

Outcome – dispute referred back to the FWC

In hearing the substantive application, the court decided that the dispute resolution clauses under the airlines' EAs must be read flexibly. This is consistent with the industrial context in which the clauses were drafted. The EAs only required the airlines to call a meeting in which employees were invited to put forward their opposing views to the airlines' proposal regarding the stand downs. In addition, it was not necessary for all employees affected by the stand downs to attend the initial meetings. Therefore, the preliminary meetings the airlines called to announce the stand downs were sufficient to comply with the requirements under the EAs.

The court also accepted the airlines' position that the scope of the dispute should be limited to issues raised at the initial meetings. This meant that ALAEA's application was confined to the argument that the aircraft engineers could still be usefully employed.

The result is that the FWC is required to resolve the stand down dispute. Although the scope of the dispute was to be confined to the issue of whether the aircraft engineers could be usefully employed, it was for the FWC to determine the outer boundaries of the dispute.