Interview: Union for the Dispossessed
Unions: Joel's Law
National Focus: Spring Carnival
Bad Boss: Fina and Fiends
Industrial: The Price of War
Economics: Who's Got What
History: Containing Discontent
Review: An Honourable Wally
Poetry: The Colours of Discontent
Governing the Corporates
Tau Rehareha remembers one thing about former Blacktown schoolmate, Joel Exner, more than anything else. "His smile, man, it lit up," Rehareha said. "Joel was a great guy. He was a funny dude."
Rehareha expressed his respect for Exner's memory the best way he knew how, leading more than a dozen fellow pupils in a haka on George St, outside Sydney's bustling Town Hall station. The haka is getting more and more public airings in Australia these days but more of that later.
After their challenge, Rehareha and friends fell in behind wives, sons and daughters of workers who have laid down their lives for the city's building boom. A number carried framed photos and one, Karen Boland, held a homemade banner that read simply:
26th Feb 2003
Two girls grasped the other end - "Michael Boland - Our Daddy".
The march they led from Town Hall to State Parliament was not the biggest of recent years but, without doubt, it was one of the loudest and most passionate.
Nearly 10,000 people, mainly male and predominantly building workers took the familiar route, demanding that NSW enact industrial manslaughter legislation that would introduce the deterrent of prison for employers who play fast and loose with occupational health and safety.
To do so, they openly defied powerful forces determined that building workers lose any say over workplace safety.
The rally flew in the face of Federal Government insistence that unions restrict their agitation to site-by-site contract negotiations every few years. It used the Town Hall as its launching point despite opposition from Lord Mayor Lucy Turnbull's underlings, and only took place after the CFMEU fought off a Master Builders Association application for an injunction that would have prevented any public commemoration of Exner's death.
The haka was appropriate because the rally challenged findings of the $60 million Cole Royal Commission that tried to eliminate safety concerns from its public hearings.
A louder, more adult rendition had brought the city to a halt barely 12 months earlier as Sydney Maori challenged Cole over the loss of several members of their community on building sites.
Yet, while Exner's untimely death was the focus of last week's anger, the issue goes much wider than the building industry.
In the same week that the teenager died on a job that didn't provide the most basic safety equipment, two other Sydney workers also failed to come home.
Few headlines marked the passing of a 53-year-old woman crushed by a truck in a city depot, or the woman who lost her battle for life the day after a metal gate fell on her at a Mascot factory.
No doubt their families suffered every bit as much as the Exners, Bolands and McGoldricks who marched on State Parliament.
In fact, statistics show, our workplaces claim one NSW life every 43 hours.
The issue has galvanised worker representatives, across the Left-Right spectrum, to demand sanctions capable of making profit-hungry employers think twice.
The Carr Government argues its sweeping OH&S overhaul of 2001-2002 provides the most comprehensive safety regulations in the country but its own chief legal officer, the Crown Advocate, acknowledges " a pattern of excessive leniency" in the sentencing of bosses who kill.
According to figures released by the NSW Judicial Commission, fully 75 percent of employers found guilty of contributing to, or causing, the death of employees receive fines of less than 20 percent of the maximum available.
In only nine percent of cases did authorities slug them 50 percent of the maximum and not once was a penalty of 80 percent or more imposed.
No employer has been imprisoned over the death of a worker in a state where people have been gaoled for killing fish or burning rubber tyres.
Industrial manslaughter has, however, been embraced, albeit sometimes briefly, in other jurisdictions. The Bracks Government introduced legislation in its first term that was knocked off by Liberals and Nationals in the Victorian Senate.
Re-elected with control of both houses, it shows little sign of revisiting the initiative.
In the ACT, Industrial Relations Minister Katy Gallagher is facing down the usual opponents and ushering industrial manslaughter onto the statute books.
"The message is simple," Gallagher says, "good employers have nothing to fear. It's employers who aren't doing the right thing by the their workers that will have to change the way they operate.
"Industrial manslaughter law is good law. It's about protecting workers and it's about sending a strong message to our community, here in the ACT, that avoidable workplace deaths will be dealt with in the strongest possible way."
NSW Labor Council secretary, John Robertson, sings off a similar song sheet. He doesn't want to see any employer go to gaol, he says, he just wants them to stop killing their employees.
CFMEU secretary, Andrew Ferguson, laid out some of the facts of workplace justice, NSW style, as it currently stands ...
- Joel Exner, 16, fell to his death just three days out of school. His employer, Garry Denson Roofing, provided neither scaffolding nor safety harnesses
- Another employee of Garry Denson fell from a Central Coast job, also without scaffolding or safety harnesses. The 42 year old father of two suffered injuries across his body. Fitted with metal plates, he has been told he will never work again, certainly not in building or construction. He has told the CFMEU he has never been contacted by Workcover.
- The employer of Dean McGoldrick, killed three years ago in a Broadway fall at the age of 17, has paid only $1800 of a $20,000 fine imposed by the Chief Industrial Magistrate's Court.
"As we have just heard, Dean's boss hasn't even paid his fine," mother Robin McGoldrick said, choking back tears. "They will never shut me up now."
Sue Baxter, Joel's Mum, took the microphone challenging Bob Carr to come outside and explain why NSW didn't imprison employers responsible for the deaths of teenagers.
"Jail bosess who kill, jail bosses who kill," marchers responded.
Someone informed the gathering that Premier Carr was holding a meeting with his cabinet in another part of town and couldn't possibly face the bereaved and their supporters.
"Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit," they roared.
Then up stepped Henry Rajendra, a former schoolteacher of Joel's at Blacktown.
He praised the "wonderful kids" of Evans High who had joined the rally before addressing himself to a young man he remembered as "loveable, fun-loving, respected" and a talented rugby league player.
"Sadly," he said, "Joel's death will always be a reminder to his family and friends of how easily it could have been avoided".
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