Pike River update: Compensation and investigation

By Byron Clark (Christchurch branch WP member)
‘‘I know a number of external parties who have expressed interest in the asset”

These were the words of Pike River Coal chairman John Dow, quoted in The Press on January 14th in an article where the main topic was the police decision to ‘pull the plug’ on attempts to recover the bodies of twenty nine miners from the Pike River mine. It’s a strange world we live in where “asset” and “mass grave” can be interchangeable. With the police ending their recovery attempt, responsibility for the mine lies with the receivers, PricewaterhouseCoopers. Receiver John Fisk told Radio New Zealand that they have about $10 million in cash, plus a number of assets above the ground and in the mine. However, if there is not enough money to re-enter the mine, the land will be handed back to the government. If that happens, the Department of Conservation is most likely to assume control of the mine, and responsibility for the bodies of the workers still encased within it.


The families of the deceased miners have continued to speak of being “kept out of the loop” in regards to the body recovery programme. Bernie Monk who lost his son Michael in the disaster and is the spokesperson for miners’ families told NZPA that they believed Police Commissioner Howard Broad and Prime Minister John Key were given the wrong information when they said it was too dangerous to carry on with recovery attempts. Mr Monk said the families wanted Harry Bell, a gas and mine expert who had worked on West Coast mines for more than 40 years, to be running the recovery and giving police the advice they needed. He said the families wanted to know from the police who made the decision to abandon the body recovery programme, and where and how they got their information. The families have the backing of the EPMU, the union that represents miners.

The bulk of their compensation to families has came from public donations, and ACC is expected to be paying out between $10 and $20 million in total. Pike River Coal’s receivers paid $10,000 for each miner to their families plus $2500 for every child and/or parent just before Christmas. Other Pike River employees who were made redundant were paid up to $18,200 each. Pike River Coal’s secured creditors (NZ Oil and Gas and BNZ) however, will be paid $80 million by PricewaterhouseCoopers. The EPMU has found other jobs on the West Coast for a hand full of the 150 former Pike River employees, the rest have received offers from mining companies operating in Australia.

Over the next four months the Department of Labour (DoL) will be conducting an audit to determine if there were any breaches of the Health and Safety in Employment Act prior to the November 19th explosion. The audit will involve physical inspections of the mine, and a review of the health and safety systems and processes that were in place. As was noted in the December/January issue of The Spark, concerns about the safety of the mine have already been raised. Safety standards were condemned by experts such as Andrew Watson, the operations manager of United Kingdom Mines Rescue Operations, who noted that methane levels had to have reached 5 to 15 percent of the atmosphere for the explosion to occur. In British mines, work stops if methane levels reached just 1.25 percent, and mines are evacuated once they reach 2 percent. There was no backup generator for the mines ventilation system and geologist Murray Cave had warned back in 2007 that the geological risks at the mine site included a pit bottom with deep, highly gassy coals and the associated risk of “outburst”, or gas explosions. What may be neglected by the Department of Labour investigation is the failure of the government to implement what workers and unions asked for when the DoL held public consultations on ways to improve health and safety in mines following two underground deaths in 2006. They simply wanted check inspectors elected by workers.

Wider issues concerning cause and possible prevention are likely to be covered by the Royal Commission of Inquiry which began on January 27th, which was the same day that miners families were issued with death certificates. The DoL are conducting their audit independently but may share information. At the time of writing the latest from the DoL is that “It is too early to say what, if any, enforcement action, the Department may take as a result of this investigation.” This vagueness reflects the whole attitude that the state apparatus and government have been spinning since the incident occurred. We argue clearly for severe sentencing and punishment for the culprits at the conclusion of the investigation.

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Comments

  1. This is not surprising, coming from a prison abolitionist, but I don’t understand what the political purpose for calling severe punishment would be.

    There may be individual ‘culprits’ to be found (they may even be contract workers. I’ve heard there’s some evidence that contractors sometimes tampered with the safety systems with the knowledge of supervisors because, because they weren’t paid if they didn’t work). But any culprits that are found by the Royal Commission won’t be the shareholders. They won’t be the government’s lack of safety systems. And it certainly won’t be capitalism. To suggest that there are individuals that can be found and punished seems to me to be the opposite of structural analysis.

    And then beyond this what point is served by severe sentances? I genuinely want to know. Obviously I have my own views about prison. But I don’t see what purpose revolutionaries could possibly see in sending people to prison.

    Surely the point isn’t find individuals to blame when 29 people die. But demand that work is organised differently.

  2. Hi there,

    “Surely the point isn’t find individuals to blame when 29 people die. But demand that work is organised differently.”

    Yes I agree that’s the main point and The Spark has dealt with that in a previous lengthy article. However this particular article is focussed on updating with regard to the aspects of the compensation and the investigation.

    It isn’t specifically calling for prison, as I assume that could only occur through negligence or something like that. Although I am not a prison abolitionist, so if there was clear negligence by the company then I wouldn’t be opposed to a prison sentence/s. Penalties available through breach of H&S legislation are limited to fines.

    I think the concluding sentences are more saying that we don’t accept that this is a kind of vague blameless situation. Of course it’s a structural matter, but within the general there are also the particulars that need dealing with. Or else everything is just an abstraction.

    Cheers, Jared.

  3. “I think the concluding sentences are more saying that we don’t accept that this is a kind of vague blameless situation.”

    Of course, and I (and Maia no doubt) agree with that. But that isn’t what the article stated. What it shows is that you (naively and wrongly IMO) have faith in the investigation to assign blame to particular individuals, and then to decide and carry out their punishment. Is this faith consistent throughout all areas in the bourgeois justice system? Or do you think this investigation is a special case of fairness, in which case I’d have to assume you think that the state is somehow biased towards prioritising workers and their health and safety, over the interests of capital.

  4. Let me find aniother example. It’s like I don’t expect the police to not arrest people at demonstrations or during a strike, but I still argue that the police shouldn’t arrest people at demonstrations or strikes.

  5. That’s not another example of the same situation. Another example would be if you’d said:

    I don’t expect the police not to arrest people during a strike, but if there was an investigation ordered and run by the State into the strike, I would support the investigation and “argue clearly for severe sentencing and punishment” of those who the investigation determines to be to blame.

  6. I disagree with you. I am concerned here with your logic not the creation of a substantially similar situation as in your post. The logical question is; If one places a demand on an institution does it then follow (or was it priorly premised) that one has faith in that institution. Obviously not.

    I do not believe that this article asseses the usefulness of the investigation, let alone support it. It deals with the investigation as an objective fact/objective reality. The concept of the state not running some forms of investigation would have no bearing in reality.

    It concludes that ‘We argue clearly for severe sentencing and punishment for the culprits at the conclusion of the investigation’ as opposed to vague attitude of the state apparatus – i.e. it’s pretty clear that the attitude of the article is inherently against the government and state apparatus’s attitude.

    Now I look at it, I’d agree the final two sentences are potentially problematic in that people who are wrongly identified or blamed could become culprits.

    But I definitely don’t think the problem is the one that is suggested by you. But cause it’s admittedly not the best formulation, I’m not going to dig my toes in much further.

    Cheers, Jared.

  7. “The logical question is; If one places a demand on an institution does it then follow (or was it priorly premised) that one has faith in that institution.”

    From reading the WP article, however, you aren’t placing a demand on the investigation. You aren’t saying “We demand that the investigation look into the structural factors behind this, the culpability of Pike River bosses, and anything else necessary to ensure that workplace accidents, at mines or other workplaces around New Zealand. We demand that workplace health and safety reflects the needs of workers, not of profit” or something similar.

    In fact, you don’t make any demands on the investigation as far as who or what is investigated goes – your sole demand on the investigation is for “severe sentencing and punishment” of those the investigation decides are the culprits.

    Given the investigation is run by the state, which operates in the interest of capital, it is safe to assume it will not find anything which contradicts the needs of capital.

    In supporting the right of the investigation to sentence and punish as it sees fit (and indeed, encouraging it to be more severe than it otherwise might be) you fall into the trap of failing to challenge the basis of the investigation and of workplace health and safety in New Zealand in general.

  8. Woops, left out a couple of words, the sentence in the second para should read:

    “and anything else necessary to ensure that workplace accidents, at mines or other workplaces around New Zealand do not happen again.”

  9. Well you’re perfectly right in your last post that we don’t cover all the tick-boxes in terms of what a formal set of demands placed upon the investigation would look like. That was not my meaning, and I assume you know that.

    Given that it is an article more in the straight news style, it’s ok to not tick all those boxes. It is a follow-up article to a previous lengthy article. Come to think of it, I don’t think the prior article contains a full list either of demands that we would place upon an investigation.

    What I still don’t understand is why you are still implying, after a fairly considered explanation from me, that the article contains a faith in the bourgeois state. For example, you still write, “Given the investigation is run by the state, which operates in the interest of capital, it is safe to assume it will not find anything which contradicts the needs of capital”.

    Yet it has been clearly explained to you that we believe demands should be made despite the fact that the capitalist state rules in favour of capital.

    Further, while the above is true, social pressure can actually make a difference on the rulings etc of reactionary institutions.

    We are not pretending to place a coherent list of demands on the state in this article however. That is not it’s purpose so I do not know why you wish to attribute that to the article. It’s purpose is to outline what has happened in terms of compensation and investigation since we last reported. Within that we have noted that given that there is an investigation going ahead we argue for clarity and not letting those responsible off the hook. That is *in direct contrast* to the government/state position, which has clearly been to contain criticism of the culprits.

    Thanks, Jared.

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