OHS Matters: History of Industrial Manslaughter in Victoria, Part 2


Last edition we looked at the unions’ struggle to achieve industrial manslaughter (IM) laws in Victoria, and how, in 2017 under Luke Hilakari as Secretary, the VTHC relaunched the campaign for these laws.

Since the earlier campaign, two other jurisdictions, the ACT and Queensland had introduced IM laws - but neither had had any successful prosecutions. So we wanted better laws, laws which would ‘work’.

In its submission to the Federal inquiry into industrial deaths, the VTHC and the Victorian union movement advocated for legislation which would:

• Insert a crime of corporate and industrial manslaughter into the Occupational Health and Safety system.

• Adequately punish corporate negligence where the negligence results in the death of a person (whether an employee/worker or not);

• Adequately punish negligent decisions by senior managers in control of a substantial part of the business where that negligence results in the death of a person;

• Bind the Crown in its role as an employer;

• Provide two exceptions for:

• Emergency services employees operating in good faith; and

• Family run small business where the deceased is a family member of the business owner/operator.

This time the campaign was different in that it was ‘multi-pronged’ – we knew that we had to put the issue of Industrial manslaughter back on the agenda – for workers, for families, for the Labor Party and for the cross-benchers.

In order to do this, it had to be a grass-roots campaign, and put pressure on Victoria’s decision makers.

These were some of the things the Trades Hall team in the OHS unit did to build the campaign:

Built an OHS network of elected health and safety representatives and interested workers/delegates/union officials – these became our ‘activists’

•Organised regular network meetings to provide opportunities for workers to discuss the problem, have input into the policy and what our ‘ask’ was

•Made submissions to any inquiry where we could raise the issue

•Targeted marginal Labor seats to get the candidates’ commitment to support IMlegislation in Victoria

•Worked with our activists to develop scripts so they could speak to their local politicians

•Ensured that we acknowledged and ‘advertised’ every workplace fatality – through stark ‘tally tiles’ on our Facebook pages and by putting up a large banner at the Trades Hall declaring “A worker was killed today”

•The annual International Workers’ Memorial (IWMD) events focussed on highlighting that every workplace death is preventable – and that too often no-one was held to account.

•Worked with the families of the two young men, Charlie Howkins, 34, and Jack Brownlee, 21, who were killed in the trench collapse in Delacombe in March 2018. Dr Lana Cormie widow of Charlie, and Jack’s parents, Dave and Janine Brownlee were an extremely important part of the campaign, meeting with the Premier and Workplace safety minister, speaking at our IWMD events, making a video with Trades Hall, and much more.

•At successive HSR conferences, we put the IM issue to the 1000+ attendees – they supported the campaign, endorsed the call to the Labor Party to commit to the legislation, volunteered to participate in actions

•Got a commitment from the Labor Party – both Victorian and federal – to introducing IM legislation if they won the next election

•Made it an election issue, together with Education, Aged Care and Health – and rallied thousands of union members to door knock other members in Victoria’s marginal seats, asking them to think aboutthe commitment to IM laws when voting. Hundreds of door knocks were organised.

As soon as the second Andrews’ Labor Government was re-elected in October 2018, the VTHC and the families were on to it. With the Jill Hennessy, Attorney General and the new Minister for Workplace Safety, the government established Workplace Manslaughter Implementation Taskforce to help develop the new laws. Led by Parliamentary Secretary for Workplace Safety Natalie Hutchins, the taskforce included members and representatives from business, unions, industry and victims’ families.

The resulting Bill passed the lower house, Victoria’s Legislative Assembly, on 29 October, 2019. But to become law, it would need to pass the upper house, the Legislative Council, where Labor did not have the numbers. It was also facing fierce opposition from employers and their organisations, who were making all sorts of outlandish claims.

VTHC organised a Workers’ Parliament Day, where small groups consisting of bereaved family members, activists, union organisers who had seen members killed at work, met with politicians – from the cross bench in particular, but also Labor members, to ensure they understood why it was so important that the legislation be passed, and to provide them with what they needed to argue against the conservatives and the employer groups.

On Tuesday November 26, 2019 Victoria became the third Australian jurisdiction to enshrine the offence of industrial manslaughter in law, with an Amendment Bill (and the country’s highest work health and safety fine) passing Parliament without any changes.

It is now a crime to kill someone at work. The law has a maximum fine of 100,000 penalty units (which at the moment is $16,522,000) for bodies corporate, and jail terms of up to 20 years for company officers, who negligently cause the death of a worker or member of the public.

The law is not retrospective, and came into effect on July 1, 2020. It puts no new duties on employers or companies, but the VTHC and our affiliates believe that this legislation will prevent future workplace deaths. There are some who doubt this – arguing that a prosecution will only occur after someone is killed. But we believe it will make employers and corporations take their OHS responsibilities and duties more seriously.

What is crucial now is that the next time – because tragically there will be a ‘next time’ - someone is killed due to the negligence of an employer, that employer is investigated, prosecuted and sent to jail.