Fighting attempts to wind back clock on mine safety

Andrew Vickers
General Secretary

Incredible as it may seem, at a time when our Kiwi cousins across the ditch are looking to Australia’s laws to improve safety in their coal mines we have forces in Australia pushing us down the path that led to the Pike River Disaster in which 29 miners lost their lives in November last year.

Under the guise of national harmonisation of health and safety laws, we have mining bosses, politicians and government bureaucrats pushing an impossible deadline for consideration of significant changes that will affect every single mineworker in Australia.

Mining bosses through their peak bodies like the Minerals Council, are pushing for greater safety deregulation that they believe will reduce operating costs for them.

The mining bosses want to quickly push through a process that needs proper time to consider the complex details contained in various reports and recommendations on occupational health and safety that run to thousands of pages.

They hope that rushing through the process will create a smokescreen to conceal their real purpose of deregulating and undermining the existing mine safety laws that are written in the blood of the thousands of mineworkers who have been killed in our industry.

Our Union has fought for generations for the strongest possible safety laws to protect mineworkers and for agencies to enforce them. Australia’s record on health and safety in coal mining is second to none in the world.

That is why the Kiwis look to us for guidance as they attempt to recover from the disastrous deregulation that led to the Pike River tragedy.

But don’t take my word for it.

In the current Inquiry into the Pike River Disaster New Zealand’s former Chief Inspector of Mines Robin Hughes lashed out at the downgrading of safety in the country’s mining legislation, saying it was a factor in the tragedy.

During his recent official visit to Australia, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key admitted that his country’s mine safety standards are below par and needed to be changed.

In an interview with The Australian newspaper, Key said that the Pike River mine, which was a single-entry uphill mine, “couldn't have been constructed in Australia” because it would have been “illegal”.

“There will be changes in New Zealand”, he said.

Our brother Union in New Zealand that represents coal mineworkers, the EPMU, has been a lone voice for years now warning that the mine safety deregulation path conservative governments took the industry down would lead to disaster.

Tragically, it has taken the loss of 29 lives at Pike River to spark action. Indeed, it prompted an independent safety audit that exposed serious deficiencies in health and safety systems in New Zealand's underground coal mines.

But at least now, even a conservative New Zealand Government is committed to change for the better with a promise of stronger safety laws and practices in mining.

While Australia must learn from the Kiwi experience, we have the tragic lessons of our own past to draw on too.

There is no way that our Union will cop mining bosses pushing to deregulate our safety and health standards in mining.

As General Secretary, I have written to the ACTU and received the support of the trade union movement to demand that the whole hurried process to meet an artificial deadline driven by mining bosses, politicians and senior bureaucrats be abandoned and replaced by a proper timeframe to adequately consider and discuss the entire range of proposals.

The only changes that are acceptable to mineworkers on health and safety laws are those that strengthen them. We are not against a properly considered review of existing laws and arrangements that improve our health and safety but any proposals need the time to be carefully and fully considered to ensure that they improve things and not make them worse.

Our Union will not accept any process that weakens our health and safety laws and regulations and we will fight any attempt to rush through proposals that end up providing a smokescreen for deregulation.

It is simply a matter of life and death for us.

The tragic lessons of the Pike River Disaster and the Kiwi experience show just how high the stakes are.