“Aerocare, you don’t care, pay your workers fair and square!” was the chant echoing through the grand space of Melbourne Airport’s departures terminal. Responsible for all the noise was a rally of workers who are all too familiar with the harsh reality behind the transport hub’s shining white facade.

Just one of the demonstrations that took place at major airports across Australia on 16 February, and the second of such actions in the past few months, the rally was organised by the Transport Workers Union (TWU). The union is protesting the worsening conditions aviation workers are copping from bosses. One employer in particular, Aerocare, is being targeted by the campaign. It was in court that day to get permission from the Fair Work Commission to impose a new suite of nasty measures on its workforce.

As TWU national secretary Tony Sheldon explained to Red Flag: “The company has put forward an enterprise bargaining agreement that allows for split shifts, that effectively means that our people are paid on part-time jobs …working only six hours, but having a 15-hour day – the wages are so low that workers can’t afford to go home. We’re seeing starvation wages; people are actually earning less than the poverty line”.

As early as March last year, the ABC reported on the squalid conditions some workers endured to make ends meet on split shifts, including making temporary homes beneath the airport while they awaited the start of their next shift.

“We’ve got reports – one of the baggage handlers working for Qantas – he’s had his family investigated by social services because sometimes he just can’t afford to send his kids to school with breakfast or lunch.

“This is a horrific environment – [Aerocare] has over 3,500 workers, and three quarters of those workers are on part-time or casual work … they’re trying to bring a roster system in that pays between $500 and $1300 a month less than the award.”

One aircraft caterer and union delegate, who wished to remain unidentified, spoke to Red Flag about the experience of workers on the job: “They sleep in cars, they use faulty equipment, there’s been numerous accidents over the last couple years because … they aren’t trained up properly”.

The bosses are also threatening the conditions of older workers with a flood of less experienced and underpaid labour. “They’re paying [trainees] at a lower rate; there’s a high turnover. Basically [the trainees] are realising what the job entails, and they’re getting $21/hour flat rate … they’re saying ‘I’m not going to do that job – throw bags, or cater aircraft – for that money, when the person next to me is getting paid a lot more and got job security, got other benefits’. [Trainees] get no benefits; if they get injured at work, they’re off work on their own money.”

Statistics published by the federal Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities show that 5.44 million passengers were carried on domestic services in November 2017 alone and almost 60 million per year. More than 40,000 tonnes of cargo were moved by air domestically in the same month. All of these numbers have been increasing in recent years. For the airlines and airports, this has translated into an industry-wide profit of $1.8 billion in 2017, according to Tony Sheldon.

Add to this the recent ABC report revealing that Australia’s major airlines are part of the 20 percent of corporations sneaking their way out of paying taxes, and it’s easy to see what the bosses want. As the union delegate put it: “These big companies are trying to get cheap labour … so they can put more money in their pockets. It’s getting out of control – we need to sustain our wages, to pay our bills.

“They still keep putting [power bills] up, and our wages are getting less and less. They cry poor around EBA time – ‘Oh, we got no money, we need a pay freeze!’ – but enough’s enough, we can’t afford it any more with the cost of living.

“Our fathers and grandfathers have fought for these workers’ rights.”

Sheldon said that the TWU “will carry out civil disobedience across the aviation industry, which will include strike action and community actions.

“These aren’t veiled threats, these are things we will have to do.”