If Qantas stewardess Lisa Robertson thought interest in her encounter with actor Ralph Fiennes was waning, she’s in for a surprise when she picks up today’s Daily Telegraph – it carries her photo and comments from her father in the presumptuously-titled “Ralph’s Mile High Hostie”.

“Lisa just does her job and if someone wants a cup of coffee and biscuits, she looks after them,” Dad told the Tele. “She’s not a bad-looking girl. If you do the right thing people take a liking to you.”

Despite the same newspaper publishing a statement in which Robertson claimed she was innocent of any amorous wrong-doing, the Tele’s coverage wink-winks and nudge-nudges at the salacious undertones of the story. It also completely fails to raise the issue of Robertson’s treatment by Qantas and her employer – fair, unfair, or otherwise.

Barely had the wheels touched back down in Australia before Robertson was stood down without pay pending the outcome of an investigation. According to the Flight Attendants’ Association of Australia (FAAA), strict procedures are in place to handle such incidents. It appears those guidelines have been adhered to.

But while the rules might have been followed, Robertson’s case raises questions about the balance of power in employee-employer relations in Australia, fairness of treatment at work, and more basically, the presumption of innocence.

Robertson is employed by Morris Alexander Management (MAM), a recruitment company specialising in airline industry staff. Despite her pay cheque coming from MAM, Robertson was recruited and trained by Qantas to their standards and for their planes, yet the company will only employ her on a casual basis.

A spokesman from the FAAA told Crikey that approximately one third of the Qantas workforce is casual, an arrangement which confers significant benefits on the airline. Casual staff receive no long service leave from the airline, they have no entitlement to the Qantas superannuation scheme or sick leave. Further, Qantas’s casual staff operate under a significantly lower wage structure which isn’t indexed over years of service as it is for full-time Qantas staff. (Qantas was contacted for comment but didn’t respond prior to publication.)

Those conditions are not unique to Qantas or the airline industry: they’re a reality for most casual employees. But as the FAAA points out, if Robertson was a Qantas employee, there would be a greater financial imperative to resolve the issue quickly. That urgency doesn’t exist with casual staff, with many resorting to Centrelink payments during periods of unemployment. The FAAA also says this case illustrates why Qantas is eager to base full-time staff in countries like Thailand where the labour laws are more generous to employers.

While this arm’s length employment arrangement contravenes no laws, Robertson’s case raises other questions, especially with the private equiteers circling the tower waiting for approval to land.

With the profit motive poised to hit the booster rockets, how real is the threat posed to Qantas’s Australian workforce by cheaper, easier-to-manage overseas and casual staff? And do the current labour laws give casual workers enough protection in the case of, say, an unwanted mid-flight moment with a Hollywood heart throb?

Peter Fray

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