A lack of corporate accountability
On 19 November 2010, 29 men went to work and never came home. At 3.44pm, Pike River mine exploded, cutting power and communication into the mine. As people desperately waited for news about their loved ones, further explosions made it clear there would be no survivors.
Explosions continued to occur in the following days, and all attempts at re-entry were abandoned. To this day, no bodies have been recovered from the mine.
In the aftermath, a swathe of documents were released, detailing serious issues with the health and safety practices of the company responsible for these deaths. It was established the business was aware of its own poor practice, and the dangerous conditions that their workers operated within. The company was aware of the risks to their workers and still chose to prioritise profit over safety.
In 2013, charges against Peter Whittall, CEO of Pike River Coal, were dropped. Because the communications which led to that decision are confidential through legal privilege, there has been no explanation as to why the charges were dropped. Over 10 years later, the families’ persistence to fight for justice has seen a recent court case to allow the families to see that privileged information to see why the charges were dropped.
To date, no one has ever been prosecuted or held accountable for the safety failings that led to 29 men being killed.
A need for closure
During the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, the CTV building collapse was responsible for 115 deaths. This tragedy led to a four-year investigation into the building’s structure. In 2017, the Police announced they would not pursue any prosecutions for those responsible for the building’s collapse. The basis for this decision was that a prosecution was unlikely to led to successful convictions.
This decision drew attention due to the loopholes in the law that never saw anyone convicted when investigations showed that there was a level of negligence in the design and construction of the building. Many people saw this as a failure to hold the people in charge to account.
Both the CTV building collapse and Pike River Mine explosion still stand as stark reminders of the tremendous impact that corporate negligence has on the lives of working people.
Work-related fatalities in New Zealand have remained consistent and unacceptably high on an annual basis for the last 10 years. On average, a Kiwi worker is killed on the job every week. Between Jan 2013 and Jan 2023 New Zealand averaged 5.9 fatalities a month.
Not captured here is the estimated 700-900 deaths annually as a result of work-related health, such as exposure to toxic chemicals like asbestos.
These statistics illustrate that workplace casualties are an embedded part of New Zealand’s working landscape and, the current legal and regulatory functions are not able to properly address this problem.
This issue is highlighted by New Zealand’s forestry sector, which has killed 48 workers in the past decade. Forestry deaths equate roughly 7% of the total work-related fatalities in Aotearoa New Zealand during this period. A disproportional representation, as according to Stats NZ, there were 7,590 Forestry Jobs in Dec 2021, making up only 0.3% of the total jobs in Aotearoa.
The forestry sector has attracted national attention for its ongoing poor practices. To date, these systemic issues have not been meaningfully addressed.
“…in 2018 in a review of the Forest Industry Safety Council, that fatigue among workers was serious and widespread, and that parts of the industry remained “in denial” about health and safety leadership, risk management and worker engagement. A 2017 audit showed 90% of forestry contractors were flouting employment standards. Forestry, agriculture and fishing had the highest incidence of ACC work-related injury claims [in 2020].
So, how could a corporate manslaughter law help?
Corporate manslaughter laws are designed to hold corporations accountable where they flagrantly breach their legal duties and workers are killed or are seriously injured as a result.
The laws would apply in the most serious cases of offending, ensuring that those responsible for the worst offences against the Health and Safety at Work Act (2015) are held accountable.
Introducing a legal framework would also give the public confidence that their wellbeing at work is protected and that severe transgressions would be penalised.
Explicitly labelling corporate killing as a crime would signal to businesses that workers’ health and safety is not simply seen as part of a weak regulatory framework, where workers being harmed is just a cost of doing business. Notwithstanding that HSWA does define criminal liability in some cases.
Additionally, these laws would also stop companies from avoiding punishment by using their status as a company to hide from responsibility, and so would help deter wrongful conduct on the part of corporations.
If you want further detail about what Corporate Manslaughter legislation could look like, click here.