Pay up, Westray Miners Say

Miners seize upon ruling to demand province pay up without waiting to sell assets

Pay up, Westray Miners Say

Labor tribunal awards $1,200,000 in severance pay
to 117 who lost jobs

By Rachel Boomer and David Rodenhiser

This article appeared on the front page of
The Daily News
Halifax, Wednesday, 31 December 1997

More than five years after the infamous mine explosion that cost them their jobs, former Westray miners have been awarded their 12 weeks' worth of severance pay.

Now they want the Nova Scotia government to pay up.

The province's labor standards tribunal awarded $11,200,000 in severance, plus compounded interest from June 1992, to 117 unionized mine workers yesterday. That works out to between $5,000 and $12,000 per person.

"It's the principle, really ... that people have accepted responsibilities," said Len Bonner, one of the Westray miners left jobless by the explosion.

"The sooner we can put all this to rest, the better."

Miners' lawyer David Roberts said the province, which owns the rights to the mine's assets, shouldn't wait to sell the equipment before it pays the workers.

"What we would like them to do is to pay the claim and then go about selling the assets," said Roberts.

"There's no need to wait any longer. Let's get it over ... and let them get on with their lives."

The workers' union filed the claim after the May 1992 explosion, which killed 26 men. It first appeared before the tribunal in 1995, but was deferred pending the release of Justice Peter Richard's inquiry report.

Richard's report, made public on Dec. 1, 1997, blamed the explosion on mine management's "incompetence, apathy, cynicism, stupidity and neglect."

Under provincial labor laws, employers must pay 12 weeks' severance to laid-off employees unless they can prove the cause of the layoffs was beyond their control. That was the argument mine owner Curragh Resources Inc. originally made when the claim was filed, but the tribunal said yesterday Richard's findings invalidated that argument.

Premier Russell MacLellan said cabinet will consider next Thursday, January 8th, whether the province should provide severance to the miners while awaiting the sale of Curragh assets.

MacLellan said he didn't want to preempt cabinet's decision by publicly stating his opinion on the matter, but he did say: "I think it's dragged long enough. I think it's something we should make a decision on."

Labor Minister Gerald O'Malley said he was "extremely pleased" by the tribunal's decision. Five years is an "exceptionally long time" for the miners to wait for their benefits, O'Malley added.

"This money has been due these men," he said. "It's rightfully theirs and this judgment confirms that. Therefore, it's our responsibility to do whatever we can to satisfy that judgment."

O'Malley wouldn't predict what will be decided next week, but he suggested "cabinet would be pre-disposed to seeing that justice is rendered in this situation."

The tribunal could place a lien against Curragh assets, much of which is machinery in demand by other mining companies, O'Malley said. He wouldn't give an exact figure on the value of the remaining Curragh assets, but said it is "far in excess" of the $1.2 million owed to the miners.

United Steelworkers of America spokesman John Kingston said the compensation will mean a lot for some former miners.

"We have a number of people who have never been able to get gainful employment since the mine exploded. We have others that have worked and had to quit work again ... due to traumatic stress," Kingston said, adding that at least seven former miners living in Pictou County haven't worked since the explosion.

"Some of these guys moved down from Alberta ... moved down here with a promise of 15 years work, (and) worked eight months. It's a small amount for the loss, said former miner Shaun Comish, now working as a computer consultant. "I don't really feel like waiting another five years while they sell the property."

On Dec. 19, the province apologized for its role in the disaster. It accepted 74 of the inquiry's recommendations and fired three Department of Natural Resources personnel criticized in the inquiry report.

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