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Allowing employers to send workers into unsafe conditions is criminal

By Peter Lewis - posted Friday, 7 November 2003

It has taken the tragic death of 16-year-old Joel Exner to focus public opinion on the gaping hole in our laws that allows an employer guilty of killing a worker to get off with a measly $1800 fine.

That’s right, $1800: the amount the employer responsible for the death of another teenager, Dean McGoldrick, three years ago, has paid for sending McGoldrick to his death.

That fine has exposed the problems in the current law – a system of fines that allows individuals to hide behind a corporations law that allows companies to dodge their debt by liquidating and rising like a Phoenix to continue business as usual.


It has also exposed a judiciary that sees nothing wrong with locking up drink-drivers who kill but draws the line at company executives with QCs who say sorry.

And it has exposed a state bureaucracy that exhibits all the finesse, forethought and follow-through of a subbie who sends a teenager onto a roof without a harness.

In short it has exposed a vicious cycle of employers who cut corners, courts that see this as acceptable and government that is not prepared to take on the Top End of Town.

While 10,000 building workers have made a noise about this pathetic state of affairs outside NSW Parliament this week, the response from inside the gates has been a deafening silence.

The Minister for Industrial Relations (now, ironically, known as "Commerce") has taken the Sir Humphrey option and ordered a number of reviews of the system, while the Premier has ruled out legislating to make industrial manslaughter a crime. As for the Opposition, what Opposition?

The resistance of the Carr Government to the simple proposition that employers must take personal responsibility for workplace deaths is bewildering, particularly when compared with its hairy-chested rhetoric on most other aspects of the criminal code.


There is no way you can legislate against genuine accidents but you can – and should – put penalties in place for conscious acts and omissions that lead to a person’s death.

The Premier’s argument that there is already a crime of manslaughter in the criminal code is disingenuous. Police will attest to the fact that without a special crime that links criminal sanctions to the management of workers, there is no prospect of a successful employer prosecution.

Moreover, Bob Carr knows better than anyone else that the deterrent value of specific crimes and their vigorous enforcement do lead to behaviour change.

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Article edited by Gail Hancock.
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This article was first published in Workers Online.

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About the Author

Peter Lewis is the director of Essential Media Communications, a company that runs strategic campaigns for unions, environmental groups and other “progressive” organisations.

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