On average, up to one in 10 bags are lost or not loaded every day on Qantas domestic flights at Sydney Airport, according to a baggage handler who works for the company to which the carrier has outsourced jobs .
Guardian Australia can separately reveal that Swissport – one of the main companies that Qantas has contracted to provide baggage handling services – was itself forced to contract two separate labor hire companies to find workers for the shifts Qantas assigns to him.
Amid widespread staff shortages in ground handling and aviation as the beleaguered sector struggles to cope with a return to pre-pandemic travel demand, attrition rates are soaring. boom among new hires scarred by chaotic scenes and poor conditions – with Swissport now offering $50 a day bonuses to baggage handlers at Sydney Airport simply for showing up for their shifts for the rest of the year.
While global and local carriers have long relied on third-party contractors to provide ground handling services away from their hubs, the dominance of Qantas and its low-cost carrier Jetstar in Australia has led to the recent increase in lost luggage and its emergence as the airline with the worst on-time performance and cancellation rates in May have been major contributors to the chaotic scenes at Australian airports this year.
Qantas has suffered a shortage of baggage handlers since its 2020 decision to outsource around 1,700 jobs. The move was deemed illegal and partly motivated by anti-union sentiment, and the airline is now trying to challenge the decision in the High Court.
In an interview with Guardian Australia, a Swissport baggage handler in Sydney – who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal – raised concerns that those loading and transporting baggage to and from Qantas and Jetstar flights were overworked, poorly paid and unable to handle the raise. in luggage in recent months as domestic travel boomed.
The worker said that of the approximately 100 wheelbarrows, or trolleys, which transport 30 to 40 pieces of luggage to and from the bellies of Qantas aircraft each day at Sydney Domestic Airport, “nowadays there are around 10 wheelbarrows each days who only donate, I won’t make it”.
They said that during recent peak school holidays, office managers from Qantas and Swissport had rolled up their sleeves and helped move luggage alongside handlers, but “there are still not enough of us to access all the bags”.
In recent months, Swissport has engaged labor leasing companies Star Aviation and Workfast – the latter not specific to aviation – to fill shortages in its teams working on Qantas and Jetstar operations. Training and processes differ by airline, with the type of aircraft dictating how baggage is loaded.
The Swissport worker who spoke to the Guardian said around 25% of his colleagues each day come from labor hire companies, many of whom have no specific training. As a result, they said some were taking shortcuts or doing less thorough work.
“A lot of us get frustrated because we don’t do basic things right. Sometimes they just move around but don’t scan the bags which is a necessity as it can mean we don’t know the weight distribution on a plane or if a bag has arrived.
“They also dropped off transfer bags on arrival carousels, which is why bags don’t arrive on flights with passengers,” they said.
The worker said staff attrition became a bigger issue as the airport environment became busier and more demanding, and said many of those who had joined Swissport at that time, as well as in the following months, had left for jobs in different industries as well as with other airlines and aviation companies at Sydney Airport who pay more than Swissport.
They said that while staff weren’t complaining about the temporary $50-a-day bonus for showing up for work, they were still frustrated with the conditions. “Swissport offers anything but permanent salary increases.”
Moreover, in the jobs that Swissport advertises in cities like Brisbane, the company stipulates that new employees spend their first month at Sydney Airport – touted as a “great opportunity to experience Sydney” – where it also pays their hotel accommodation.
At a recent job fair at Sydney Airport, Swissport was hiring on part-time contracts, but offering workers full-time hours under those contracts, at $23.41 an hour .
The worker said Qantas’ recent big-spend coverage on new ultra-long-haul planes for direct flights to Europe had angered weary workers, and Swissport employees were increasingly talking about the organization union. “I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to see Alan Joyce on the televisions where we work to show these shiny new flights.”
The worker also expressed concern that on a recent busy shift, when a co-worker was injured, the supervisor and manager were busy helping with other activities, and in the absence of a health and safety representative on site, there was no one to report the injury. at.
“I would say to everyone, do not check your bags when traveling with Qantas at this time, or even better if you can avoid it, do not travel with Qantas at all,” the worker said.
Staff shortages and attrition were a growing problem for ground handling providers and the airlines that rely on them. An industry source told Guardian Australia that over the past few weeks a company has taken on 20 new staff at 9am on a Monday at an Australian airport. By 4 p.m. that day, eight of them had quit, and by Friday that week, only seven of the 20 employees remained.
“Young people who come into these roles, they get yelled at, they get paid badly, and now they say ‘you know what, shit, I’m going to work in a cafe because I get paid the same or more than me here and I I don’t have the stress”.
“And those who were laid off during the pandemic say they don’t want to go back to the industry that shut them down overnight. So we have this huge vacuum of experience,” the source said.
The transport workers’ union has long criticized Qantas’ outsourcing decision, successfully challenging it in federal court. TWU national secretary Michael Kaine said Swissport had “no choice but to keep wages low as contract compression by Qantas is neither sustainable nor secure”.
“It is not surprising that Swissport cannot recruit or retain staff. Swissport would rather pay workers an extra $50 a day to show up for work, bring in interstate workers and subcontract to companies like Star Aviation than pay proper wages.
A Qantas spokesperson told the Guardian that ‘resourcing continues to be a challenge for the entire aviation industry’ and that its ground handling providers had ‘improved significantly since the holiday peak in April”.
“While there is still much to be done to improve our operational performance, the rate of mishandled baggage has improved in recent months,” the spokesperson said.
A Swissport spokesperson said the company had worked with Qantas to varying degrees for decades because “the scale of our operations means we can provide a cost-effective, safe and reliable service”.
“The rapid rebound in travel demand has put pressure on resources across the aviation sector, here in Australia and around the world.”
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