The “satanic mill” at Pike River


It’s like a scene from a Charles Dicken’s novel.

Imagine the owner of a 19th century “satanic mill” factory guilty of reckless disregard for the safety of workers as he engages in the “noble pursuit” of profit at any cost. 29 workers are subsequently killed but the owner walks free from court after getting his insurers to pay blood money to the families of the dead workers. This is accompanied of course with lots of pompous denials of a deal from the judge, weasel words from a bevy of bloated lawyers and the Prime Minister while the families of the dead men are left in frustration and disbelief.

Not much has changed. In 21st century New Zealand that’s the outcome of the Pike River tragedy.

This was confirmed with the public release of the letter from Peter Whittall’s lawyer, Stuart Grieve, offering $3.41 million in return for the dropping of the 12 charges against Whittle for health and safety breaches leading to the death of the 29 Pike River miners.

Grieve wrote the letter on 16 October last year just a few weeks before the case came to court. It was kept from the public and only released last week under the Official Information Act.

Grieve’s letter said that in

‘‘advance of the $3.41 million being made available, it is proposed [with precise terms to be agreed] that … the Ministry will not proceed with the charges laid against Mr Whittall by advising the Court that no evidence will be offered in support of any of the charges.’’

Seven weeks later the charges were dropped in the Christchurch District Court and it was announced Whittle and other Pike River board members would pay $3.41 million to the families.
At the time there were strenuous denials at any dirty deal from Grieve himself, from Judge Jane Farish who threw out the charges and from the Chief Executive of the Ministry responsible for the prosecution.

With the release of the letter the denials are being vigorously repeated by everyone involved. Even the Prime Minister has joined the chorus of those trying to argue that black is white. The establishment are closing ranks to protect one of their own.

TDB Recommends

The dead men’s families deserved to have this case heard and Whittall deserved to have his day in court to defend himself. But to his eternal discredit he slunk away from responsibility and the state helped him on his way.

WorkSafe NZ chief executive Geoffrey Podger said the offer was not solicited – as though that somehow changed anything. He also said that in his experience, most legal letters of this kind ‘‘invariably make that kind of suggestion’’.

He would know. Immunity from justice is always for sale in New Zealand when it comes to employment law.

Dirty deals are done every day as employers escape responsibility for breaches of employment law and health and safety regulations with the payment of blood money.

New Zealand was once a lot better at looking out for workers but we’ve gone backwards in employment conditions and health and safety under the free market deregulation policies of Labour and National.

When an employer pays less than the minimum wage; when they employ people as contractors knowing they should be employees; when they bring in migrant workers and coerce them into silence with the treat of deportation because the employer holds the visa (and often the person’s passport) or when they breach health and safety regulations and a worker dies the worst they can expect is a few thousand dollars in fines and a slap on the wrist.

Let’s be honest. The lives of workers in New Zealand today don’t count for more than they did in the “satanic mills” of Victorian England.


  1. I sort of expected something in the Herald opinion pages today about this, and I have just had a quick look at the WhaleOil blog (can’t stay there too long without feeling the need for a long shower) and again, nothing. There is a deathly silence over this.
    This has been the first opportunity that I’ve found to comment on an article about this whole thing.
    My worst fear is that people will yet again swallow a John Key throwaway line, the one about it being a pointless, costly exercise going through the courts.
    Where do you start with this, I honestly cannot find the words to describe my disgust with what clearly looks like a case of if you got the money you got the justice, and regardless what anyone says, that is what it looks like – you know how it goes, looks, walks, quacks.
    I fear that this deal has been done because in the process of finding that Whittall could not be held to be singularly responsible that govt departments and regulations were going to be made to look utterly and maybe even criminally woeful. Again – looks, walks, quacks

    • Raegun,
      Still haven’t seen anything in the opinion pages, unless I missed it.
      There was this from the families on…
      Pike River families spokesman Bernie Monk said Mr Grieve’s letter had not been distributed to all families yet, and as a result he could not comment.
      However, widow Anna Osborne said it “reeked” of a backroom deal.
      She said families handed over bank account numbers last year expecting Government compensation, and instead the payment came through from Mr Whittall and the directors.
      “If I had known the charges were going to be dropped and the deal was for Peter Whittall’s insurance money, I would never have handed over my bank account number,” Mrs Osborne said.
      She said Mr Whittall had not lost a cent in the process because the insurers had done all the paying.
      She understood that even if new evidence came forward now, Mr Whittall could not be charged again.
      He could get on with his life “and we still don’t have accountability”.

  2. Aye John, NZ workers’ conditions going backwards as the profit line goes upwards.

    22 September 1934, The Gresford Disaster in NE Wales.

    “You’ve heard of the Gresford disaster
    Of the terrible price that was paid
    Two hundred and sixty three colliers were lost
    And three men of the rescue brigade….

    Now the fireman’s reports they are missing
    The records of forty two days;
    The colliery manager had them destroyed
    To cover his criminal ways……

    ,,,,,They have worked out their shift and now they must lie
    In the darkness until Judgement Day.

    ….The owners have sent some white lillies
    To pay for the poor colliers lives.

  3. Absolutely right on there John.

    Bought justice now. Quite in keeping with this obscene currency trader led government we are forced to endure at present. You have the money, you can buy your way out of anything it seems, even negligence leading to the death of 29 people! And with the blessing of a government ministry as well! Corruption in all it’s filthy, rotten decadence!

    Bring on the election and a Labour/Greens government, along with it some social and economic justice for ALL Kiwis, right across the whole spectrum.

  4. This was the dirtiest done deal ever.

    So this is where we’ve arrived at as a society after 30 years of free market reforms? I’m disgusted, pissed, and frustrated that no one will be held to account for this.

    I wonder what the judge must be thinking after his participation in this fiasco?

  5. Perhaps at the other end of the scale is one where a Court ruling refused to terminate a lease, requiring the occupants to remain in unsanitary conditions and instead electing to order compensation be paid to the occupants IN ADVANCE. Yes, your health and safety has a price and is up for sale … in this case $12.50 per week per occupant. As one occupant remarked “Anyone who thinks I’m prepared to prostitute my health for 12 bucks fifty a week needs their head read.” This is what we have arrived at alright. Disgusted is far too tame a word.

Comments are closed.