Protecting the safety of all workers

With the Health and Safety Reform Bill soon to have its third reading in Parliament, family members of workers killed in the workplace arrived in Wellington yesterday to appear at a Parliamentary hosted event.

Representatives from Labour, NZ First, the Greens and the Maori Party were there to show their support, as were the Council of Trade Unions, who have helped organise both this event and the previous ‘white cross’ vigils that moved across the country.

Bernie Monk
Bernie Monk

All who spoke made clear their frustration and disappointment at a bill that was supposed to deliver significant reform and protection for New Zealand workers, but has been significantly watered-down since its original conception in the wake of the Pike River Mine disaster of 2010.

Parliament’s legislative chamber provided a suitably sombre atmosphere for what was an emotionally charged gathering. Five family members spoke, all struggling to hold back tears when speaking of those they lost, the signs of grief still evident and confronting.

The overwhelming message from the families was of the heavy and corrosive touch of human loss. Sarah Kane, whose brother Michael died after falling and suffering a head injury at work, spoke of her brother’s three children and how they struggled to accept that their father would never come home. Their frequent wonderings of ‘if he had his birthdays in his coffin’ provide a stark reminder of the human cost behind workplace statistics.

Bernie Monk, the father of Pike River miner Michael, held up a book about the disaster showing the photos of the 29 men killed, ‘How can we move on when we have no one to bury?’ He spoke of the promises made to the families after Pike River and said if the bill passed in its current form, there would be ‘no justice, no accountability.’

Capturing the feeling of the event and showing how much Pike River still resonates, he finished by declaring ‘they murdered our men’.

If the mood was sorrowful, the statistics also make for sad and disturbing reading. A full third of workplace deaths since 2010 have been in our agricultural industry; 35% of all workplace deaths happen in small businesses; New Zealand workers are 8 times more likely to die in the workplace than in England.

The current changes to the Health and Safety Reform Bill remove the requirements for small businesses – those with less than 20 employees – to assign an employee health and safety representative when requested by workers. But as the families so succinctly pointed out, their loved ones died working for small businesses, as did the miners at Pike River.

The bill was to have its third reading last night – after this gathering – but was postponed by Workplace Safety Minister Michael Woodhouse due to apparent ‘technical difficulties with minor parties.’ It will be discussed and voted on today in Parliament as will the amendments proposed by Labour and the Greens which, if supported by the Maori Party and United Future, would reinstate the changes, making the requirements applicable for all businesses regardless of size.

It is clear where the families sit on this issue – they want the safety of all workers in New Zealand protected. This is how the memory of those they lost can be best honoured. In their bravery and dedication they help to highlight how the cost of human life is truly measured – without compromise and through definitive action.

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