In a bid to boost his electoral fortunes at the upcoming state election, Victorian Labor premier Daniel Andrews has promised to introduce new laws that would make manslaughter at a workplace a criminal offence if he is re-elected.
More than just bigger fines, the changes could result in jail terms of up to 20 years for employers who cause the deaths of workers, passers-by or visitors due to their negligence in the workplace.
This announcement has come after years of the trade unions warning about inadequate protections for workers to prevent fatalities at work. According to Safe Work Australia, there have been 58 people killed at work Australia-wide in just the first six months of 2018.
In most cases, the employers who have disregarded the safety of workers, or the public, only get a slap on the wrist and a modest financial penalty. The bigger the company, the smaller the impact a penalty generally has in relation to forcing them to change their practices.
One example is Grocon, one of the largest private construction firms in Australia, who have a notorious record of flouting safety requirements. In 2013 a wall collapsed on one of their sites in Melbourne, killing three pedestrians. Despite being found guilty of negligence, they only copped a $250,000 fine, pocket change for a big business.
Workers and the community will welcome laws that crack down on the reckless behaviour of rogue employers, many of whom “cut corners” when it comes to safety as a way to reduce costs and boost their profits.
Socialists support all measures aimed at holding employers to account. We want industrial manslaughter laws to be enacted on a nationwide basis. At the moment, there are only two jurisdictions in Australia with industrial manslaughter laws: the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and Queensland.
But even in these jurisdictions the laws have big loopholes in them that need to be addressed. In the ACT, commonwealth public sector workers are not covered by the laws. In Queensland the mining sector is exempt from the legislation.
While these loopholes need to be closed, and the laws need to be extended across the country, we should recognise that the threat of jail alone will not be enough to force employers to maintain safe and healthy workplaces.
In the first instance employers generally have significant resources at their disposal when they face legal battles. This is one reason why, so far, there has not been a single employer jailed for industrial manslaughter.
But most importantly, rather than just pursuing dodgy employers after someone has been killed we should be focused on implementing a strict on-the-job regime that can prevent workplace deaths and injuries in the first place.
We need to campaign for occupational health and safety laws to be stiffened up in every state and territory. State workplace safety authorities need more resources and powers to monitor employers. Fines and penalties for breaches of health and safety regulations need to be increased dramatically.
We also need a trade union movement push for more employee-elected health and safety representatives. We should demand that health and safety representatives are afforded more rights, including the right to shut unsafe sites. In medium and large workplaces these representatives should be allowed to perform their duties full-time.
While Labor may be prepared to implement a new law that is rarely used or successful, it will not go so far as to really challenge the employers and their profit-first motives. Meaningful reforms will need to be fought for.
The union movement should unite around the idea of a zero-tolerance approach to workplace deaths. Any time a worker is killed a state-wide 24-hour stop work should be called, along with a mass protest for improved safety laws in the city centre. The time off could be used to perform safety audits on thousands of sites.
This type of mass action would put a dent in the employers’ profits and put immense pressure on governments to go much further than mere token gestures.
By Tim Tran