Nova Scotia Urged to do The Right Thing

$1.2 million in severance pay awarded

Nova Scotia Urged to do Right by Westray Miners

By Dean Jobb,
Halifax Chronicle-Herald

This article appeared in
The Calgary Herald
Calgary, Wednesday, 31 December 1997

HALIFAX (CP) — The Nova Scotia government is being urged to make good on $1.2 million in severance pay awarded Tuesday to more than 100 people who lost their jobs when the Westray mine exploded.

"They've already apologized and I think now's the time to pay the fiddler," said John Kingston of the United Steelworkers of America, the union representing 117 workers laid off in June 1992.

A Labor Standards Tribunal ruled that Westray's operators failed to take measures to prevent the May 1992 explosion that killed 26 miners and permanently closed the Pictou County coal mine.

Under the province's labor code, the workers are entitled to 12 weeks' severance pay unless their employer could prove the layoff was beyond its control.

Westray's owner, now-bankrupt Curragh Inc. of Toronto, did not contest the claim.

The claim totalled $910,000 but the tribunal awarded compound interest for the past five years, swelling the pot to about $1.2 million.

Workers will receive between $5,000 to $12,000, depending on their individual wage scale.

With Curragh bankrupt, the award will have to be satisfied from sale of assets, including unused mining machines estimated to be worth several million dollars.

The province, which holds title to the mine site, is under pressure to pay the money up front and recover it once the assets are sold.

"We hope they will do it, they've been quite sympathetic to the plight of these people and the fact they are owed this money," said David Roberts, lawyer for the miners.

Lennie Bonner, one of two former miners who attended the hearing, had some advice for the government after the ruling.

"Save some face and make everybody happy," he said.

"I think they should just pay us and they can wait for the money. We've waited long enough."

Nova Scotia's labor minister said the province is pleased with the tribunal's decision.

Gerry O'Malley said any payout would have to be approved by cabinet and Premier Russell MacLellan, but that will be dealt with as early as next week.

Bonner, who completes training as a denturist in the spring, expects to receive at least $10,000, which will help him set up a practice in his home town of Sydney Mines, N.S.

For others scattered across the country, the money will be little compensation for the financial hardship they've endured.

Kingston, the union's local representative, said at least seven former employees in Pictou County remain out of work. He knows of a former miner in British Columbia who is on welfare, and noted others were forced to declare bankruptcy.

The claim was about more than money, Bonner said.

"People have accepted responsibilities, that's a big part of it. By them paying the money it's showing some kind of responsibility (that) before wasn't there."

The tribunal deferred the severance claim in 1995 pending the outcome of Justice Peter Richard's inquiry into the disaster.

On Tuesday, tribunal chair Susan Ashley said the inquiry's December 1st report led to the "inescapable conclusion" that Westray management could, and should, have prevented the disaster.

In his lengthy report, Richard found that management's incompetence, flouting of safety laws, and emphasis on producing coal at all costs was primarily responsible for the hazardous conditions that caused the explosion.

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