Skip navigation
We Are Union VTHC
We Are Union Journal
News from the working class
Featured:
McKell Report finds bad bosses are driving apprenticeship drop outs

Workplace Manslaughter and the Long Fight for Justice

0iUkn2QA-min.jpeg

On March 21st, 2018, two mates went to work and never came home. Charlie Howkins and Jack Brownlee were carrying out trenching works in Delacombe when the trench they were working on collapsed. As news of the incident spread rapidly through the Ballarat community, frantic attempts by their families to reach the two men got more and more desperate until it was clear that they would not see their beloved Charlie and Jack again.

More than three years after the incident, on Monday August 30, Pipecon pleaded guilty to one charge of failing to provide supervision to ensure a safe workplace. A second charge was dropped upon this admission of guilt. 

Many see the Delacombe trench collapse and the tireless campaigning of the bereaved families as the catalyst that helped push Workplace Manslaughter legislation over the line, which was successfully achieved in 2019. 

1998: “Corporate Killing”

Anthony Carrick, 18 years old, was killed on his first day of work on November 12, 1998.

Anthony and another 18-year-old were dropped off at Drybulk in Footscray by a labour hire company and told to sweep the floor in front of several 5.5 tonne cement slabs. The unrestrained slabs had been known to shift and wobble due to vibration from nearby traffic. One fell, killing Anthony and seriously injuring his colleague. The company was fined $50,000 but it went into liquidation and the fine was never paid. The laws treated these kinds of matters as criminal matters - negligence, specifically - and thus did not take into account the complexities of a workplace environment. More than that, they did little to penalise the companies charged.

Soon after the fatality, the company owning Drybulk re-opened and operated from the same premises. 

Was justice served? No. Not in any sense of the word. But Anthony’s family weren’t finished.

As a result of pressure from bereaved families, Victorian Labor, then in opposition, adopted a policy to criminalise “corporate killing” in its 1999 election platform. Labor was successful in forming government in September of that year, and quickly set to work.

The Bracks Government established an Industrial Relations Taskforce in April 2000, which released its final report in October of that year. On 22 November, 2001, Attorney General Rob Hulls tabled the Crimes (Workplace Deaths and Serious Injuries) Bill in the Legislative Assembly. An amended Bill was passed by the lower house on 14 May, 2002. 

Addressing a union rally outside Victorian Parliament on 23 April 2002, Anthony Carrick’s mother told the crowd that the legislation was needed to stop companies like Drybulk from killing people and getting away with it.

In a terrible blow to Anthony Carrick’s family, the Bill was rejected by the Legislative Council on 29 May.  The Upper House was not controlled by Labor, and the Government failed to win support for the bill. 

Despite enjoying an overwhelming majority in both houses of government at the 2002 state election, the Bracks Government did not recommit to seeking justice for bereaved families and workers everywhere. 

So the conversation seemed to be over, for the time being. Other jurisdictions had successes in legislating forms of workplace manslaughter. Most notably, in 2017 Queensland was successful in passing laws that would see a Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU) go to jail if found guilty of causing the death of a worker through their action or inaction. It was an important precedent.

In the meantime, every few weeks, workers continued to be killed at work and bosses were getting away with manslaughter. Victoria averaged 37 workplace deaths per year between 2014 and 2018. Each one of these was a worker who didn’t come home to their family at the end of a day, and all of them could have been prevented. 

2018: Delacombe

Lana Cormie’s husband, Charlie Howkins, was one of the two men killed on that tragic day in Delacombe, just outside of Ballarat. She is unable to say too much about Pipecon’s admission of guilt as there is still sentencing to be handled, but her sense of justice has always been wider than simply punishing her husband’s former employer. 

Along with Jack Brownlee’s mum and dad, Dave and Janine, Lana told her story in this powerful video as part the union movement’s campaign in the lead up to the 2018 Victorian election:

“When something really terrible happens, and that exposes that the system isn’t working and the laws are insufficient, you have a choice to try and do something about it or not.”

For Lana Cormie, that meant campaigning publicly to bring about Workplace Manslaughter legislation.

“Before Charlie died I just lived in a state of blissful ignorance that things were okay in the world, that when these tragic things happened in the workplace, the systems worked and people were supported. I found out first-hand that that wasn’t the case and tragically still isn’t the case.”

Lana wanted to make sure other families didn’t suffer like hers.

“It felt like a duty. Coming home from work is a human right and that wasn’t being afforded to so many workers and it wasn’t being supported by the legislation. We had an opportunity to do something and we took that opportunity."

With a state election looming and a Labor Government seeking a second term, the time was right for putting pressure on politicians. That campaign saw union and OHS activists by the hundreds and thousands take action in their communities and electorates. Doors were knocked, phones were dialled, street stalls were set up at train stations and shopping centres all across the state.

Union and OHS activists got active in their communities in the lead-up to the election, bringing the public’s attention to the issue of workplace manslaughter.

Union and OHS activists got active in their communities in the lead-up to the election, bringing the public’s attention to the issue of workplace manslaughter.

Lana, Dave and Janine also met with politicians directly to share their story, including Premier Daniel Andrews. While policy decisions often get dragged into the realm of the technical and abstract, the very real human cost of doing nothing in this area was impossible to ignore. It was, in fact, during one of these meetings with the Premier in which he first committed to changing the law, which shows the power of personal stories in public policy. 

With Labor re-elected in a landslide, unionists kept up the pressure on the Andrews Government to introduce Workplace Manslaughter laws, and Lana, Janine, Dave and several other bereaved families met with crossbenchers to make sure the 2019 bill wouldn't meet the same fate as the 2002 version. In the end, this was the final push that saw the legislation get over the line. 

Lana is quick to acknowledge the many people involved in this “very long fight” - going back to the Carricks in the late 90s.

“We stand on the shoulders of one another’s work.”

2021: The Work Continues

Workplace Manslaughter was not the only legislated change that came from the campaigning of family members and people affected by workplace incidents. 

The Workplace Incidents Consultative Committee (WICC) was established, by Regulation (Chapter 7A), in order to give a voice to stakeholders that have long been left alone to grieve and suffer in silence. 

Lana Cormie is the co-chair of the Committee. 

“Even when everything first happened with our families, we advocated for affected families to have a voice,” she says. 

“Our belief is that we are arguably the most important stakeholder and we didn’t have a seat at the table. Now we have a legislated committee which will go some way to future-proofing that voice being heard.

“We have a direct line to the Minister, which is really important.”

“We also got to have a say in how it was set up and what it would do. Committees aren't just committees, and we wanted to make sure it was a meaningful one, not just tokenistic consultation.”

“There’s really two kinds of justice,” says Bette Phillips who runs Griefwork, a support program for families dealing with the loss of loved ones in workplace incidents. She counsels these families, and has done for 24 years now. In that time she has seen widely varying outcomes, and widely varying reactions from families. 

“There’s legal justice, which goes through the courts and is important for society. 

“But there’s also individual justice, and for some families that means there’s no justice. Some people are pleased with the outcomes they get, but many feel it just isn’t enough. You can’t ever replace a loved one with a legal case or money. 

“When an employer admits that they’re guilty, there’s a sense of justice in that, but no amount of fines will make up for the loss of someone’s family member.”

Dominic Melling is the lead of the OHS campaign team at Trades Hall. "Getting Workplace Manslaughter legislated was a huge win, and for a lot of union activists, it was unfinished business" he says. 

"But the work continues. We know the WorkCover system is incredibly traumatic for injured workers, and we want changes to address that. We want better protection for psychological health and safety at work. COVID safety is going to continue to be a big priority for the foreseeable future.

“And of course, we have to make sure the laws get used. No company or individual has yet been charged with Workplace Manslaughter, but it is our duty to make sure that if a preventable tragedy occurs, justice is served.

"We remember the dead, and fight like hell for the living. That's not just a line. It means we keep fighting, until everyone is safe at work."

On March 21st, 2018, two mates went to work and never came home. Charlie Howkins and Jack Brownlee were carrying out trenching works in Delacombe when the trench they were working on collapsed. As news of the incident spread rapidly through the Ballarat community, frantic attempts by their families to reach the two men got more and more desperate until it was clear that they would not see their beloved Charlie and Jack again.

Subscribe