Kill a Worker, Go to Jail!

April 28, Day of Mourning for Workers Killed or Injured on the Job

The Demand Remains the Same:
Kill a Worker, Go to Jail!

April 28, the Day of Mourning for workers killed or injured on the job, is an occasion to reaffirm the determination of BC workers to step up the defence of our right to safe and healthy working conditions. Events in many communities will highlight the fact that the current arrangements do not provide this right with a guarantee and instead permit monopoly right to prevail.

This situation is illustrated sharply in the coroner’s inquest into the Lakeland mill explosion in April 2012, which is being held in Prince George. On April 23, 2012 the Lakeland sawmill in Prince George, BC exploded and burned to the ground around 9:00 pm. Two workers, Alan Little and Glenn Roche, were killed and 24 others injured. On April 14, 2014 the Criminal Justice Branch, Ministry of Justice, announced that no criminal charges would be laid against Lakeland mill owners. The government has repeatedly rejected calls for a public inquiry and insisted that a coroner’s inquest is all that is required.

Day of Mourning, Burns Lake, April 28, 2012, shortly after a massive explosion destroyed the local mill. (Worksafe BC)

The Lakeland inquest began on March 2 and was adjourned on March 25 when Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe ruled that an investigation done by a Seattle forensic engineering firm for the sawmill owners should be presented to the inquest and the lawyers for the company considered whether it would comply. The inquest is scheduled to resume May 11 and this evidence is to be presented. The Lakeland mill explosion was the second mill explosion in BC in 2012 which caused deaths and serious injuries.

On January 20, 2012 the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake, owned by Hampton Affiliates of Portland, Oregon, exploded and burned to the ground. Two of the 250 night shift workers, Robert Luggi Jr. and Carl Charlie, were killed and 20 others injured.

Despite the demands of the workers, their families and the United Steelworkers (USW), the union representing the workers, the government has failed to take action to hold the mill owners to account by laying criminal charges. The owners have been assessed an “administrative penalty” and “claims cost levy” totalling $1,011,639.62 by WorkSafeBC. The company has appealed the fine.

BC Attorney General Suzanne Anton announced there would be no criminal charges against the owners Hampton Affiliates or senior management but a coroner’s inquest would start in July 2015.

A coroner’s inquest has the mandate to investigate the causes of an incident causing death, but no mandate to assign blame. It can make recommendations but has no power to enforce compliance by government or private owners. It is not acceptable that in these and other cases workers can be killed or injured without those responsible being held to account and measures taken to ensure that the conditions that led to the tragedy are never repeated.

The USW has been active in a “Kill a Worker. Go to Jail!” campaign since the Westray Act, Bill C-45, was passed unanimously in the House of Commons and the Senate and signed into law in May 2004. C-45 added Section 217.1 to the Criminal Code which reads:

Rally at WorkSafe BC in Prince George, April 23, 2014, demands public inquiry into 2012 sawmill explosions at Lakeland Mills and Babine Lake.

“Everyone who undertakes, or has the authority, to direct how another person does work or performs a task is under a legal duty to take reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm to that person, or any other person, arising from that work or task.”

The Criminal Code provides for criminal charges if employer negligence is found to be a factor in the death or injury of a worker.

The Westray Act was won through a national campaign following the tragedy at the Westray Mine in Nova Scotia where 26 non-unionized miners were killed in an underground methane explosion in 1992. The Nova Scotia government conducted a public inquiry that published its report in 1997. Many examples of employer negligence emerged, but no criminal charges were laid because the Crown decided a conviction was unlikely. A national campaign gave rise to the Westray Act, but to date no arrests, charges, or convictions have been made under it.

The slogan Kill a Worker, Go to Jail! was taken up by the Ontario Federation of Labour in 2009. The demand remains relevant and just for the working class in BC with respect to both the Babine Lake and Lakeland explosions, and in other cases.

This is why the demand on April 28 across Canada must remain: Kill a worker, go to jail! The logic for this demand is simple. To work without injury, illness, or even death is a right. When workers agree to exchange their capacity to work with an employer the employer is obligated to provide that right with a guarantee. Monopoly right must be restricted and blocked from violating the rights of workers to safety on the job.

The enforcement of the Westray Act, a hard-won recognition of the responsibility of employers for the safety of workers, is a just demand. It is unacceptable that the BC Attorney General has, with this tool at her disposal, chosen to allow monopoly right to trump the rights of BC workers. It shows that workers cannot rely on the employers or their government to protect them.

The USW’s withdrawal from the Lakeland inquiry on March 23 is an example of how the workers and their defence organizations are being frustrated in their attempts to hold employers to account for the right to safe workplaces. In a press release, District 3 Director Steve Hunt explained; “It is now clear that the inquest is not going to adequately answer any of the questions that demand to be answered. The withholding of crucial evidence from the employer would have made a difference as to how the USW conducted its case and we will not participate in an exercise that does such a disservice to the families who lost loved ones and to the larger community.”

Everyone should support the public campaign of the USW for a public inquiry and the persistence of the families of the Lakeland and Babine Lake workers, as well as farmworkers, forestry workers and others, for thorough investigations and for criminal prosecution of employers whose actions lead to illness, injury and death of workers.

The best way for the BC working class to make its independent voice heard on this issue of life and limb is to stick to its just slogan: “Kill a worker, go to jail.” That’s the demand which must ring loud and clear at all the Day of Mourning events on April 28.

BC Worker

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