Matt McCarten: Lax legislation extends far beyond Pike River mine

12 Dec

There should be a commitment not to allow disasters like Pike River to happen again. Photo / Bay of Plenty Times

By Matt McCarten December 9, 2012

Prime minister John Key sent a letter on Thursday to families of the Pike River Mine apologising for the deaths of their loved ones.

His letter admitted that the lack of Government safety regulations, that allowed greedy owners to cut corners to make money, caused the deaths.

Anyone who has read the findings on the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the 29 workers would be hard pressed to claim it was an accident.

Based on the findings, I believe it was manslaughter – or worse.

Labour MP Andrew Little, the former head of the union to which some of the dead had belonged, was attacked when he proposed that New Zealand needed legislation where corporates that have their employees or the public maimed or killed through their gross and deliberate negligence should be liable for criminal charges.

We have a system in this country that the police tend to defer to labour inspectors when it comes to work-related deaths and injuries.

The problem is that there are few inspectors and they are out of their depth when it comes to laying blame where it lies. It seems every death or serious injury is an “accident” where an ambulance picks up the victims. Then it is left to the public hospital system and the Accident Compensation Corporation to pick up the pieces.

There’s always some other person to fill the vacancy.

I believe the owners and management of Pike River have gotten away with murder.

All the families of the miners get is the Prime Minister popping down this week to say how sorry he is and promising it won’t happen again.

But it will. Not necessarily in mining, but the same lack of regulation that caused the tragedy at Pike River is rife everywhere. That’s because this Government ideologically believes in less regulation in everything. It looks good on an election bumper sticker but it’s nonsense.

In my day job as a union official I have a bit to do with the security industry. Last year a young man, Charanpreet Dhaliwal Singh, started as a security guard. On his first night he visited a work site. Hours later he was found dead and a man is facing a murder charge.

The fact that this young man had no training, yet was sent out on his first night alone, was, in my view, appalling.

Our novice was sent out without a torch, phone or walkie-talkie. Was his employer charged? In a rare move, yes, though they have denied failing to secure his safety. The case is yet to be heard.

Our union at the time called for regulation of the security industry and a clampdown on cowboy, fly-by-night security companies. What happened? Nothing. Today, any charlatan can set up as a security firm as long as they have a cellphone, a cheap vest and a car. Most businesses are required by their insurer to have security.

The cowboys will undercut each other to get any job. They literally employ warm bodies. Very few companies have any training. If a security guard is attacked they have no back-up.

Even the established security companies have joined the race to the bottom. They tell me if they don’t compete with these cowboys they will go out of business. I’ve even heard that to save costs their staff are instructed to only go to work sites where a client checks they are there. The rest aren’t visited.

Some in the industry treat it like a racket. Security employees who raise concerns can find their hours reduced. I have a current case for a worker who raised safety breaches with her company and has now been “restructured” out of the job.

It’s not the same impact as Pike River where so many deaths occurred at once. But on a regular basis security guards are being killed or badly injured. And everyone turns a blind eye.

When we raised this matter this week, the minister responsible for this industry, Chester Burrows, professed to know nothing about the problem.

Really? If the Prime Minister is genuinely sorry about the lack of safety rules and enforcement by his officials then he can make a commitment not to allow the same thing to happen again. Otherwise his apology to the families of the Pike River miners means nothing and he’s just an empty vessel.

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