SYDNEY, July 28, 2011 (AFP) - Budget Australian carrier Jetstar strongly denied claims Thursday that it was exploiting foreign cabin crew and overworking its staff following reports of 20-hour shifts.
The airline said it took fatigue "extremely seriously" and denied "it forces cabin crew to operate when fatigued" after former and current staff and pilots told ABC television flight attendants were overburdened.
Foreign crews based in Bangkok were especially vulnerable, according to the ABC report, with open-ended employment contracts stating the maximum 20-hour shift could be extended and punitive exit clauses.
Jetstar chief Bruce Buchanan said a lot of the claims were "completely false and we completely deny them."
"The claims about slave labour and the claims that we pay these people a pittance -- our salaries in Thailand for instance, we are paying these people Aus$20,000-$30,000 a year in Thailand. That ranks in the top few percent of salaries in that country," Buchanan told ABC television.
Contracts obtained by the ABC for Jetstar's Thai staff set a shift limit of 20 hours but stipulates that the "planned limit and operational extensions may be extended by the employer".
They get paid just Aus$258 ($285) per month and $7 for every hour they fly, plus allowances, ABC said, with penalties of up to 4.5 months of their base wage if they quit early or are sacked.
Australia's minimum wage is Aus$590 per week.
Buchanan said Jetstar was "competing in Asia" and in line with local conditions, with two-thirds of its 3,000 flights per week to 17 countries in and around Asia and one-third of its staff from the region.
ABC said there had been almost 40 fatigue complaints from staff on Jetstar's long-haul domestic routes in Australia, with some expressing concern that they would be ill-equipped to handle an emergency after lengthy shifts.
One former Australian crewman told ABC he "felt like a slave" on the round trip from Sydney to the Indonesian island of Bali, with a 15-hour overnight shift, which could easily become 20 hours with delays.
Though Jetstar did not roster anyone for 15-hour stretches Buchanan said there "were situations where people do extend" and fatigue management was a joint responsibility of the company and the individual.
"Look at the hard facts -- our cabin crew work an average of 24 hours a week and you can't do too many 20 hour shifts (in a 24-hour week)," he said.