Employers not listening to workers is a matter of life and death



Once I got a call from a call centre union member to say the building she was working in smelt like gas. She had informed the manager but the manager said its nothing just get back to work. She felt physically ill – did she and her colleagues have to stay? No, I said. get out of the building immediately and take others with you. The manager called HR and senior management to try to get the workers to stay. They all called me, livid I had told the workers to leave and falling over themselves to lay out the disciplinary processes that would follow. Meanwhile one of the maintenance workers uncovered there was a gas leak in one of the rooms. Everyone was immediately evacuated.

With the odd exception most managers I’ve dealt with have not been interested in genuine engagement with its own employees or the union. Even when its a matter of life and death.

Employers are quick to set up their own employee organisations or health and safety committees to disenfranchise unions but they ignore the findings of these organisations just as swiftly as they do unions.

Author Rebecca Macfie has revealed in her new book on the Pike River mine disaster the extent that the anti-union management at the mine contributed to the deaths of those 29 men. On numerous occasions men informed management and the health and safety committee of their safety concerns, in particular the lack of a second emergency exit at the mine, and were soundly ignored.

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At one point a union delegate noticed a lack of vehicles to evacuate men from the mine in the event of a disaster. Union organiser Matt Winter gave advice to the workers to walk out of the mine, a right they have under health and safety law. Like my experience, rather than deal with the concerns at hand, the HR of Pike berated Matt , telling him the union would be sued. When a health and safety manager tried to have the union involved in health and safety training he was reprimanded for even using the word ‘union’ in the same sentence as Pike.

Last month in San Francisco railway workers at the Bay Area Rapid Transit took strike action citing their concerns for safety linked to changes management were proposing. Management, eager to sideline the unions relevance, kept the trains running using strike breakers (often referred to as scab labour). Due to the lack of skill and experience of those brought in to cover the work, two railway employees inspecting the tracks were hit by a train and killed.

Rabid anti-unionism goes hand in hand with neo-liberal ideology. While these examples are at the extreme they go to show the devastating result of what happens when ideology gets in the way of listening to those on the shop floor with the experience to know what will work and what won’t , what is safe or unsafe.

It is tiresome and infuriating engaging in a daily battle with employers who refuse to accept this basic premise and continue to treat their workforce with suspicion and disdain – whatever the cost.


  1. Well I would like to tell you that the incidences you have given are just extreme cases and most managers act responsibly to workers, but my own recent experience forces me to conclude that you are right. And something else I should add. Human resources will NEVER take the workers’ side. They are paid by management and will not bite the hand that feeds them.

  2. After reading this contribution by Tali, where there is also mention of the Pike River Mine, I had to think of Bill English’s (and I think also John Key’s) frequent recent references, in reply to challenges by the opposition that the families of the miners deserved some compensation.

    ACC is supposedly looking after them so well, I hear, and more will be paid to them through ACC, is the claim by English at least.

    Now what happened there, at ACC, not so long ago? And what did Nick Smith oversee there, which a ’60 minutes’ program last year described the “exit strategy” they applied to get complex claim cases off their books. Indeed thousands have been shifted from ACC onto WINZ benefits over recent years.

    Today I came across this, which was apparently already reported on by ‘Seven Sharp’ (TV One), also earlier this year.

    The reality always tends to look a lot grimmer than what the wider public are told.

    National was in government when they abolished certain safety provisions and check inspectors for the mines. The consequences of bad policies have shown in Pike River, in too many deaths in forestry, construction and farming.

    Once a worker is seriously injured and incapacitated, then they face the grim treatment by ACC, and once they have been off-loaded via an “exit strategy”, there is WINZ, who now pressure sick and disabled to look for supposedly “therapeutic” work.


    It seems the common worker gets shafted endlessly! It starts with some employers cutting corners, breaching regulations and worse, and it ends as being the 3rd class citizen in one’s own country, when a person is no longer able to work and earn a living.

    Surely it is time to restore the voice of workers, their representatives and decent working conditions!

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