Negligent bosses could face up to 20 years in jail or multi-million-dollar fines over the suicide of their employees under workplace manslaughter laws proposed by the Victorian government.
Under the tough new laws, an employer could be held liable if a worker committed suicide as a result of sustained workplace bullying and the employer, aware of the abuse, did not take action to reasonably guard against or respond to the conduct.
The new workplace manslaughter offence, if legislated, will apply to all workplace fatalities, including those resulting from mental as well as physical injuries.
Victorian Attorney-General Jill Hennessy said an employer could face liability for a suicide where an employee’s mental health had been “brutalised” at work, and the employer had rejected the worker’s requests for assistance.
She said the criminal standard of negligence would have to be met and causation established. “The standard is very high because the penalty is very high,” she said, adding the offence would not be easy to prove.
Under the proposed legislation, a suicide found to be a direct result of negligent workplace practices and policies that substantially contribute to the death could constitute workplace manslaughter.
Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary Luke Hilakari said 30 workers died each year in Victoria at work and tens of thousands were injured annually. “As long as every worker comes home from work, no boss needs to be jailed,’’ he said. “Until that happens, maybe there does need to be some bosses who go to jail and that will be the lesson.”
He acknowledged proving an employer liable for an employee’s suicide would be difficult.
He said workers in the past had been subject to horrific treatment at work and a specific case would have to be “appalling” for a prosecution to be pursued
Master Builders Victoria chief executive Rebecca Casson said the proposed laws, if passed as drafted, risked failing to create safer workplaces while imposing fines of about $16m and up to 20 years’ jail for employers responsible for negligently causing death. She said a workplace manslaughter offence should apply to anyone who has engaged in criminally negligent conduct resulting in death, not just organisations and senior officers.
“There is no reason for excluding employees,” she said. “This can only worsen safety outcomes.”
Ms Casson said more education and support for business was required to help them focus on prevention and provide the safest possible workplaces.
She said WorkSafe needed to ensure its officials were prepared to manage the complexities of a manslaughter case. Currently, manslaughter investigations are conducted by highly trained Victoria Police officers.
“We accept that the government has a mandate to introduce workplace manslaughter legislation, but these laws should be fair and equitable.”
Ms Hennessy, who unveiled the proposed legislation alongside parents who lost their children to workplace fatalities, said “in this day and age, people deserve to go to work and come home safe”.
Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Mark Stone said without some changes, the legislation might result in unintended consequences and have detrimental effects on safety, investment and jobs.
“We consider the laws will disproportionately impact small business,” he said.