Xstrata and another big company, Centennial Coal, backed by other coal bosses in the Minerals Council, are trying to overturn the criminal provisions in occupational health and safety laws.
Underground coal mining is one of the worlds most dangerous industries. Centennial Coal has also been found guilty in the 1998 death of Barry Edwards, a miner at its Awaba colliery.
The issue has been brought to a head by the historic case before the New South Wales Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) over the Gretley disaster eight years ago. Newcastle Wallsend Coal and its parent company, Oakbridge, were convicted last August of breaching the Occupational Health and Safety Act by failing to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of their employees.
On March 11 the IRC issued fines of A$1.46 million against Wallsend and Oakbridge, now owned by Xstrata Coal. Fines amounting to A$102,000 against two managers and a mine surveyor were also issued. This is the first time individual bosses have been successfully prosecuted over deaths in the mining industry.
The miners at the rally carried four coffins and placed them in front of the court building in memory of the four men who drowned Nov. 14, 1996, in the Gretley mine. The coal mine is located near Newcastle, north of Sydney.
Edward Batterham, 48, John Hunter, 36, Mark Kaiser, 30, and Damon Murray, 19, died when their continuous mining machine broke through the wall of the adjacent Young Wallsend colliery, which was abandoned and had been flooded.
The four workers believed they were working safely 100 meters from the abandoned mine but had been provided with inaccurate Mining Department maps, copied from 1892 originals. In fact, they started their shift only eight meters from death.
A 1997 state government judicial inquiry lasted nine months and heard 70 witnesses. The investigation found that the miners were suddenly engulfed in hundreds of tons of water that pushed back the men and their 50-ton machine 17.5 meters down the head of the tunnel.
After Xstratas decision to appeal the court penalties on March 11, Ian Murray, whose son Damon died in the mine collapse, spoke for the families of the victims. He was quoted in the March 12 Sydney Morning Herald saying the families had been through hell for over eight years campaigning for justice. The conviction of the mine owners should have provided us with closure, but with Xstrata going to court to overturn the laws that secured the Gretley convictions, the issue is far from over, Murray said. If Xstrata is successful, he said, mining companies would be immune from prosecutions for breaches of safety laws.
Over 4,000 miners have died
Over 4,000 coal miners have died, Tony Maher, general president of the mining and energy division of the CFMEU union, told the rally. Most of the deaths have occurred in Australias underground mines in New South Wales over the past 200 years. The Gretley tragedy, he said, was the incident that forced the government to start prosecuting. There have been only three successful prosecutions, and all since 1998. Maher called this record a disgrace.
Maher said a debate has opened up over industrial manslaughter laws, which are being discussed by the states Labor government after a number of recent workplace deaths. The rising pressure peaked when thousands of building workers, many in the CFMEU, organized to stop work and demonstrate in the streets of Sydney over the death of 16-year-old construction worker Joel Exner in October 2003. In August 2004 workers excavating a cross-city tunnel walked off the job after the death of another worker.
Maher pointed to a campaign by the mining companies as part of gathering opposition by employers to the possibility of tough new workplace death laws. We should tell them [the Labor government] Dont dare back off! and we should back it up with action, he told the rally.
Workers at the action, which included pit delegates from across the state and two from Queensland, adopted a motion warning of a statewide strike if Xstratas appeal succeeded. The resolution declared that if safety laws are unenforceable, it will be unsafe to work in the mines.
Ross Whitaker, 50, an underground miner since 1977, works at the Whitehaven mine. At the rally he told the Militant that Xstrata was trying to weasel out of its obligations after the complete and utter negligence of the mine owners at the time of the disaster. The bosses put production ahead of mens lives, Whitaker said. The union fought for the right to go home at the end of the shift in the same shape as you arrive.
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