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Virgin ground crew step towards strike for new pay deal

Ayesha de KretserSenior reporter

Virgin Australia ground staff could walk off the job as talks over pay and conditions stall, and the Transport Workers Union claims the airline is leaving baggage handlers in “pay poverty”.

Ground crew on Monday asked the Fair Work Commission for a protected action ballot after months of negotiations over a deal on pay and conditions. Virgin cabin crew are also seeking higher wages in a tight employment market.

Months of negotiations have failed to secure a new pay deal for Virgin ground staff. James Alcock

“Australians have watched in horror as standards have plummeted in aviation following Qantas’ illegal outsourcing of ground workers,” TWU assistant national secretary Nick McIntosh said.

“These are workers that get planes safely in the air: securing loads, ensuring weight is balanced, handling dangerous goods, and feeding vital information to pilots. They’re the ones making sure passengers can collect their bags, wheelchairs and pets at their destination.”

Unlike Qantas, which has no plans to reinstate the 1700 ground crew who were illegally outsourced to save on costs during the pandemic, Virgin has kept its equivalent workers in-house. The group has been locked in pay talks for some months, while cabin crew and pilots started negotiations more recently.


The TWU said negotiations had only yielded a 73¢ an hour increase for ground crew on the lowest pay grade, where salaries had already been forced higher when the award minimum wage rose from July 1.

Virgin’s current offer – which workers have rejected – is on average 3 per cent higher in year one, followed by 3 per cent increases in years two and three.

“Virgin now has some of the lowest pay and conditions across the industry and is turning a deaf ear to its workers, including by failing to commit to a five-point plan for a better future,” Mr McIntosh said.

“If this is how Bain Capital intends to run the airline. Passengers should brace for disruption as turnover increases and workers are pushed to pursue protected industrial action to achieve safe and sustainable conditions.”

The TWU said ground workers and cabin crew were experiencing “pay poverty” and have had to secure second jobs to pay home loans and rent as interest rates soar.

Earlier this month, Virgin said it had delivered its first annual profit in 11 years and that it had paid eligible staff a 6.5 per cent bonus. The TWU said the $129 million profit “failed to recognise the hard work and sacrifices of its workforce who stuck by the airline throughout COVID and administration”.


“In an aviation industry in high demand with soaring profits, it’s unbelievable that workers are pushed to find second or third jobs to keep a roof over their head,” Mr McIntosh said.

Soaring profits are being eroded by higher fuel costs, with Qantas last week flagging it would raise airfares by an average of 3.5 per cent to offset some of the pressure. 

Virgin ground crew are also seeking better job security in the form of more full-time jobs and increases in the minimum number of part-time hours offered. They also want minimum crewing numbers increased for cargo loading and baggage handling.

Cabin crew are also said to be considering asking Fair Work for a protected action ballot, given concerns about wages, rostering and fatigue.

Like airlines globally, Virgin has struggled to rehire staff since the pandemic, putting pressure on its monthly on-time performance. In September, just 67 per cent of Virgin flights departed on time, while 67.7 per cent arrived on time. It cancelled 3.9 per cent of flights.

Among the major domestic airlines, Jetstar had the highest rate of cancellations last month at 4.9 per cent, while Qantas cancelled 3.2 per cent of flights, higher than the long-term average of 2.2 per cent.


Virgin pilots are also in negotiations with the airline, seeking much higher wages in line with international peers. United States airlines, in particular, have ramped up poaching efforts globally.

In July and August, United Airlines and American Airlines each negotiated 40 per cent-plus increases for their pilots over four years.

If the Fair Work Commission approves the protected action ballot, the Australian Electoral Commission would open a vote for employees. If a deal cannot be struck, crew could walk off the job as soon as next month.

Ayesha de Kretser is a senior reporter with The Australian Financial Review covering the aviation and tourism sectors. She has previously reported on banking, mining and commodity markets. Connect with Ayesha on Twitter. Email Ayesha at

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