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Thursday, 10 May 2012
Page: 3059

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (09:31): In Australia we are lucky enough to take aviation safety for granted. We have an impeccable safety record that is the envy of the world, but that is something that we must never be complacent about. It is fair to say that in the last few years the aviation sector has been under increasing pressure. There is a concern by those who care about safety the most—pilots and cabin crew—that there are matters that need to be addressed. That is why the Senate Rural Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee undertook a comprehensive inquiry last year into aviation safety issues and made a number of key recommendations which, unfortunately, the government has not accepted, particularly in relation to ensuring that pilots who are in control of a large passenger capacity jet aircraft have at least 1,500 hours experience before they are in the cockpit. There is real concern that it is something that needs to be maintained.

The 2011 rural affairs and transport committee's inquiry into pilot training and aviation safety issues, unfortunately, raised more questions than it answered. Since then, the more answers I have tried to find, the more questions I have been forced to ask. Aviation Australia is a far cry from the organised, diligent system it appears. During that first inquiry, a pilot said to me privately, 'Better a Senate inquiry now than a royal commission later.' It is a thought that bears deep contemplation. We have reached the stage where if we do not act, if we do not do all that must be done, that appreciably materially compromises aviation safety in this country. That is the motivation behind this bill, the Air Navigation and Civil Aviation Amendment (Aircraft Crew) Bill 2011, and the Qantas Sale Amendment (Still Call Australia Home) Bill 2011 that will be debated shortly.

Last year I was contacted by Jetstar cabin crew over their concerns about how Thai based Jetstar crew were being treated. These crew were based in Thailand but regularly worked on flights travelling between Australian domestic airports and carrying domestic passengers. Even though they were flying domestic routes on Australian planes, often working side-by-side with Australian crew, they were employed under Thai contracts. That meant their pay was a fraction of what their Australian colleagues were earning and their contracts were not subject to Australian workplace conditions. Shifts of up to 20 hours straight with no limits on duty extensions meant that these flight attendants were so exhausted they doubted whether they could react appropriately in an emergency.

On average Thai based flight attendants get paid a base salary of $258 a month. For each hour they fly they get an additional $7 plus allowances. In fairness to the CEO of Jetstar, Mr Bruce Buchanan, with whom I have had some constructive discussions about this, he says that the base pay is not a fair comparison because they do get those extra allowances. But their pay would still be about one-third of that of an Australian based crew for the same sort of work. They do not have sick leave entitlements and they have about half the annual leave of their Australian counterparts. When they do take leave, they are only paid $9 a day on top of their base wage.

These flight attendants approached me via Australian based crew who were concerned about their conditions. They are terrified of the consequences and terrified of repercussions if they speak out. They are employed by a company called Tour East Thailand which has contracted workers to Jetstar. The approach of the Qantas group in relation to this is to say, 'It's a separate entity; we didn't know what was going on.' Well, Tour East Thailand is 37 per cent owned by Qantas. Qantas is a substantial shareholder in that company.

As it turned out, the cabin crew were right to be frightened. In April last year five Thai based crew pulled out of a domestic flight between Sydney and Melbourne because they were exhausted after a series of international and domestic flights, including back of clock operations where they were literally up all night as part of their duties. Typically it could be Sydney-Denpasar-Sydney, which is an 18- to 19-hour shift from the time they are picked up from their hotel to the time they are dropped off. Instead of being supported in their decision not to risk passenger safety, they were threatened with dismissal by Tour East Thailand. They were admonished; they were threatened with repercussions if they ever did that again. The letter they received from Tour East Thailand stated that 'poor time management' was not accepted and that the company required an undertaking that they would not 'repeat these behaviours in the workplace'. That is simply outrageous. It is unacceptable because, when it comes to issues of fatigue and aircraft safety, it is important that cabin crew are there primarily—as they remind us, as they should—for our safety in the event of an emergency. If crew are simply so fatigued that they would not be able to function in the event of an emergency, that is a serious concern. What concerns me is that CASA, our regulator, which does have a significant and onerous task in dealing with aircraft safety in this country, is still working on issues of fatigue management and is proceeding slowly. The sooner there are regulations and rules in place specifically in relation to fatigue management for cabin attendants the better off we will all be.

This bill's purpose is to create a level playing field for those crew members and to stop airlines exploiting foreign labour to cut costs. In response to concerns raised during the committee stage of the bill, I have circulated amendments that will alter the bill to amend the Fair Work Act to ensure that overseas based cabin crew working on domestic legs of international flights come under the jurisdiction of this act. The second amendment introduces a requirement for all holders of Australian aircraft operators certificates to have a fatigue risk manageĀ­ment system in place. That is long overdue. These are sensible and fair measures to ensure both passenger and crew safety.

It is worth reflecting on a story on the ABC1 Latelineprogram on 30 September last year, which revealed that a Jetstar worker had quit over conditions and safety concerns. A former flight attendant told Latelinethat he quit his job at Jetstar because of safety concerns over long shifts for cabin crew and about staff not being able to answer safety questions. This piece of investigative reporting revealed that a clause in the contract of Singapore based Jetstar crew states that they can be forced to work shifts that are longer than 20 hours—something an Australian based crew cannot do, nowhere near that. Two weeks before quitting, former Jetstar flight attendant Dallas Finn filed an incident report about fatigue after flying five return international flights in five days. He said:

The majority of these flights were quite busy. I found that my sleeping patterns were drastically affected to the point of fatigue. Clearly there are safety issues here pertaining to cabin crew if an emergency situation arises on the return flight from Saigon or Manila where the duty is 12 to 13 hours return.

Mr Finn told Lateline that cabin crew were forced to work long hours. He said:

The majority of the flights out of here from Darwin are all back of the clock, so you're leaving early evening and you're not getting back till quite early the next morning.

He then described how the Ho Chi Minh flight could be 12 to 13 hours. But Mr Finn said it was a flight that he shared with Singapore based staff that gave him more cause for concern. He said:

Before we actually get on a flight we have to go through a briefing; one is ... the questions are on emergency procedure, on occupational health and safety procedure, and a medical question.

I went to answer the emergency and the medical question when the cabin manager stopped me to get the Singapore crew to actually answer the questions, and basically they couldn't answer the emergency procedure and they couldn't actually answer the medical question.

It was the first time I've ever been scared of actually flying because if something went down I didn't know if that crew would be able to back me up.

Jetstar says that they comply and that there are no issues for concern. But, when pilots from Jetstar have told me—and I am very grateful to those pilots for contacting me on a regular basis to tell me about their concerns—that there are cabin crew they have concerns about, where they actually have had to say, 'I don't think you should be flying,' that is a real concern in terms of the way Australian aviation operates.

Jetstar is now under investigation by Fair Work Australia due to these practices. In response, Jetstar has said that it will cap the number of domestic routes that overseas crew can fly. So in a sense it is fair to say that Jetstar has been caught out and that it has now changed some of its practices, which is welcome. I do welcome the dialogue I have from time to time with Mr Buchanan, the CEO of Jetstar. I will be able to expand on that in the other bill. Their concern is that aviation is a very tough international environment and that, in order to survive, they need to take these sorts of operational decisions in order for Jetstar to be competitive. But I beg to differ in relation to that, given that the cost of cabin crew as a proportion of an airline's total operating expenses is a very small fraction of what it costs to run an airline. If the cost of paying people one-third of the Australian wages on a domestic flight is upped to Aussie conditions, I cannot see how that would add a punitive onus on that airline.

The current laws and regulations are not tight enough to make sure that a company cannot wriggle out of its obligations. That is my concern. Currently, flights are tagged with identifying numbers that show whether they are international or domestic, but the numbers are assigned by the airlines themselves and they do not appear to have any strict regulations or criteria to determine what constitutes a domestic versus an international flight. When I asked a question in the Senate about this, I think the minister was genuinely trying to be helpful but it did not really answer the question in that it was left to the discretion of the airlines. For instance, a flight that originates in Adelaide and is tagged with an international number can fly to Melbourne and then to Sydney and then on to Brisbane before it leaves on its international leg, and that is not prevented under the current rules. All of that is fine, but problems arise when the airline carries domestic passengers on those legs. If all the passengers that get on the plane at each domestic airport are going to stay on the flight until it reaches its international destination, it can properly be considered an international flight. I have no issue with that. But, if a passenger gets on in Melbourne and flies the domestic leg to Sydney, is it still a truly international flight? Is it appropriate for some of those cabin crew to be paid one-third of what their Australian counterparts are getting?

Overseas based cabin crew who operate on flights with domestic tags are required to hold 457 visas. These visas come with various rules in relation to pay and workplace conditions. Importantly, these visas can only be granted where an employer can demonstrate that there is a genuine need that cannot be filled with Australian workers. However, overseas based cabin crew working on Australian flights with international tags are paid under a special visa designed to facilitate their entry into the country since, reasonably enough, they are not expected to stay for long periods. This visa does not carry any of the conditions of a 457 visa, and the decision of which visa to grant relies almost solely on what tag number the flights have. The tag number, as I mentioned earlier, is chosen by the airlines themselves and is apparently not subject to any regulations. It should be, and that is what this bill is trying to deal with. An airline can use this loophole to save a few dollars in wages without any difficult workplace relations conditions to get in the way.

I acknowledge the work and the contribution of my colleagues Senator Gallacher and Senator Sterle to the Senate inquiries into this matter. They both have long and esteemed careers in the transport industry and know a thing or two about it. My plea to Senators Sterle and Gallacher is that this loophole needs to be addressed. It is a loophole that has been fixed up in shipping, which I will refer to shortly, but not in relation to this. In fact, the savings that can be made through this loophole are apparently so great that, according to Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce—who I do not think is any relation to Senator Joyce—

Senator Joyce: He might be. You never know.

Senator XENOPHON: He might be. Senator Joyce has a cheeky grin on his face; I do not think they are related. They might be, but very distantly. According to Alan Joyce, the Qantas Group would have to quite simply pull out of its Darwin and Cairns operations. That is scaremongering of the highest order. It is misleading, and the Qantas Group, to my understanding—and Senators Sterle or Gallacher can correct me on this—has not given us details of how much the cabin crew make as a proportion of their costs. I think Senator Sterle is saying that is the case; it has not provided that information, as it indicated that it would during the Senate inquiry.

This threat, made in the Rural Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee's 6 February 2012 hearing into the bill raises the question: is the Qantas Group so dependent on underpaid workers that it will fold a number of its routes if it has to pay people a fair wage? It has been estimated that cabin crew costs make up less than 10 percent of aircraft operating costs, according to an article from the Economic Times in January 2010, and, as I said we are still waiting for that information.

I have asked questions of the Minister representing the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship in the Senate to see if the circumstances surrounding visas could be clarified. They could not. There appear to be stricter rules applying to international airlines with international crew, but little that applies to international crew on Australian airlines. I strongly urge that the Department of Immigration and Citizenship investigate these circumstances because it is not right, and it is not fair that overseas workers be exploited to make an Australian airline a quick buck.

During the committee inquiry process I faced accusations that I had something against Qantas and did not want it to succeed. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I was on a Qantas flight this morning. Like most Australians, I feel an incredible sense of pride in the flying kangaroo. There is nothing better than sitting in a foreign airport and catching sight of that red tail as the plane thunders past. There are few companies that inspire such fierce loyalty among its employees and its passengers. The very reason I fought so hard for these changes is I share that same loyalty. I do not want a truly Australian Qantas to be a thing of the past, and I do not want Australia's safety reputation to be in any way compromised as a result of cost-cutting measures.

The true intention of this bill is not just to protect overseas workers from being exploited. It is also to make sure there are regulations in place to stop staff being pushed to their limits and into a physical and mental state that is just not safe; not to them and not to the passengers they are there to protect in the event of an emergency. In an emergency, cabin crew must react instinctively to direct passengers and operate safety equipment—they must not be physically and mentally exhausted from excessively long hours. There are also the post-flight conditions to think of. For years, cabin crew members have been complaining to Jetstar about excessively long duties that have left them too tired to travel home safely. I have heard a number of stories of people having accidents on their way from a long shift because they were simply too fatigued.

I also note the similarities between the circumstances I have outlined and changes that the government has made in a similar area. 'Flags of convenience' are almost universally popular in the shipping industry. Essentially, your ship abides by the rules of whichever country it is registered in—hence the popularity of Panama and similar countries, where the laws relating to everything from safety and maintenance to workplace conditions are far more lax and, in some cases, virtually non-existent.

In 1992, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Transport, Communications and Infrastructure published a report titled Inquiry into ship safety: ships of shame, which detailed stories of crews paid a pittance or not at all, of unseaworthy vessels, of uncertified crew and poor safety equipment, of falsified documents and of brutal treatment. The committee found that commercial pressures were the major factor behind these problems. A further report in 1995 revisited the issue because the exposure of the first report had 'not ended the exploitation, denial and physical abuse of seafarers'.

Finally, some changes came into effect in January 2010, with the regulations for the Fair Work Act specifically stating that vessels with continuous voyage permits and those with three or more single voyage permits issued in a 12-month period are covered by the Fair Work Act. If the government has deemed it reasonable to take this step there is no reason it cannot deem it reasonable to take similar steps for the aviation industry. Effectively, if a foreign registered ship is travelling from Sydney to Melbourne and is carrying domestic cargo it must pay Australian rates and conditions. What difference is there when we are talking about an Australian aircraft flying a domestic route and carrying domestic passengers, but not paying its workers on that flight Australian rates and conditions? It is as simple as that. If we can deal with 'ships of shame' we should be able to deal with 'planes of pain'.

The government must take action on this. It is not fair. It is not acceptable. It is, quite simply, unjust. It is exploiting overseas workers and it is also taking away Australian jobs in circumstances where they should not be taken away. This is only one small aspect of the problems facing Australia's aviation industry, but it is an important one not just in terms of safety but also in terms of people's rights.

I said earlier that my involvement in these issues has raised more questions than answers. This is one of the very few answers; this bill and the amendments circulated do not place an undue burden on airlines. This is about fixing an anomaly—a loophole—that needs to be sorted out here and now. This is an opportunity for this chamber to deal with it. This is an opportunity to remedy a clear loophole that must be sorted out once and for all.