Employers who preside over safety standards that result in the death of workers could face criminal penalties, including jail time, in a majority of states and territories from the beginning of next year.
The Northern Territory and Western Australia recently followed Victoria in announcing plans to introduce industrial manslaughter laws by the end of this year. NSW is reportedly considering such laws, which already exist in Queensland and the ACT.
Unions have hailed the move as an overdue step towards bringing justice to families who have lost loved ones and are pushing the federal government for a national industrial manslaughter scheme.
But some experts doubt if stricter laws will see more bosses behind bars and say the money required for prosecutions could be better spent preventing deaths.
ACTU deputy secretary Liam O’Brien was aware of only two cases in which bosses had been jailed for causing the deaths of workers.
“We need strong laws that discourage employers from cutting corners that we know kill workers,” Mr O’Brien said.
An average of about 200 people a year died while at work in Australia. Mr O’Brien could not say how many of those deaths might fall under industrial manslaughter.
No one has been prosecuted under ACT’s industrial manslaughter legislation, which has been in place since 2004.
Queensland’s laws, passed in 2017, have yet to see their first prosecution. A source said one was in the works.
Rick Sarre, a law professor at the University of South Australia, described himself as a “proud unionist” who would support anything likely to cut workplace deaths. But he doubted judges would hand heavy jail sentences to bosses facing first-time convictions and suggested the chilling effect of stricter laws could be counter-productive.
“The states that are coming on board are really just bowing to union pressure,” Professor Sarre said. “It’s more of a statement than a policy that’s going to make a difference.”
Federal Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter said the government was working with other jurisdictions to “examine current enforcement, investigation and prosecution practices as the first key step to considering further possible changes in this area”.