Westray Miners Awarded Severance

The first time in Nova Scotia

Miner insulted, reprimanded, demoted, and ultimately suspended.
He complained about unsafe working conditions at Westray...

Westray Miners Awarded Severance

Former workers to get $1.2 million

By Kevin Cox
Globe and Mail Atlantic Bureau, Halifax

This article appeared on the front page of the
The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, 31 December 1997

HALIFAX — Former Westray miners won more then $1.2 million in severance pay yesterday after a Nova Scotia tribunal said their now-defunct employer, Curragh Inc., could have prevented the explosion that killed 26 of their colleagues.

The decision by the provincial Labour Standards Tribunal to award the 117 miners severance pay for 12 weeks after the mine was destroyed on May 9, 1992, is the first time a company in Nova Scotia has been ordered to pay employees after being found responsible for destroying a workplace.

It also marks the first of several legal proceedings that will likely focus on the findings of the Public Inquiry into the explosion headed by Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Peter Richard. His report found that the operators of the Westray mine ignored proper safety procedures in pushing to increase production and created the environment in which a methane and coal dust explosion destroyed the mine.

Curragh Inc., which had initially insisted that the miners lost their jobs through circumstances beyond the control of the company, won't be paying the award.

The company, which received more than $100-million in federal and provincial financing, went bankrupt after the blast.

The Nova Scotia government is trying to sell the remaining assets, which are estimated to be worth between $1-million and $5-million, and has vowed to compensate the miners out of the proceeds from the sale of the equipment and facilities.

But David Roberts, lawyer for the United Steelworkers of America, said the union will ask Premier Russell MacLellan to have the province pay the miners first.

The province, he said, could then try to recover the money from the sale.

"The right thing to do is to pay the money and you can replenish that amount by selling the equipment," Mr. Roberts said. "Everyone understood that the people there (at Westray) had been treated wrongly and now the appropriate tribunal is saying that legally they were treated wrongly. There is no need to make them wait any longer. Let's give them the money and let them get on with their lives."

Under the Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code, a business employing more than 100 people must provide 12 weeks of severance pay, in lieu of notice, if it closes suddenly, unless the closing is caused by circumstances beyond the employer's control and the employer used due diligence to try to prevent it.

For former Westray miner Leonard Bonner, the award of about $10,000 will help him establish a new business as a denturist in Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia. But he acknowledged that many of his former colleagues suffered financial hardship after moving from western Canada to Nova Scotia to work at a mine that Curragh executives boasted would provide steady employment for fifteen years.

The mine exploded nine months after it opened.

"This is just a little bit closer to closing this whole thing up," he told reporters after the tribunal decision yesterday. "It will help out some of us, but others weren't so lucky. Others have had some pretty rough financial difficulties over the past few years."

Mr. Bonner, who was insulted, reprimanded, demoted, and ultimately suspended for complaining to Westray managers about unsafe work practices at the mine, said the principle involved in the award was more important than the money itself.

"People have accepted responsibility, that's a big part of it," Mr. Bonner said. "By them paying the money that's showing some kind of responsibility where before that wasn't there."

When Judge Richard made his report public on December 1, the Nova Scotia government apologized to the families of the miners for the Westray tragedy. The provincial government has acknowledged that its regulators failed to ensure that the mine was a safe place to work and vowed to bring forward legislation and training to improve safety conditions in the workplace.

John Kingston, regional representative for the United Steelworkers, said he knows of at least seven former Westray miners who are still unemployed 5½ years after the explosion and another, now living in British Columbia, who is on social assistance.

Shaun Comish, another former Westray miner, said the tribunal's decision is a relief. The action began in June, 1992, shortly after the Westray local of the union was certified.

However, the tribunal said it would not make a ruling until the public inquiry reported on the causes of the explosion. The inquiry itself was delayed by the aborted criminal trials of former mine managers Gerald Phillips and Roger Parry.

"This has been dragging on for 5½ years and there is no need for it," Mr. Comish said. "I'm just happy it's over. It kept everybody hanging."

While Mr. Comish said the money will help people who had to get loans after Westray closed, the cash can never compensate for the mental anguish caused by the explosion and the subsequent recovery of fifteen of the bodies of the dead miners. Eleven bodies are entombed in the mine.

"It's nice to see that it's over and done with but I can't put a dollar figure on all that stuff. I just couldn't," he said.

Mr. Parry and Mr. Phillips are facing a new trial in 1998 on charges of criminal negligence causing death, and manslaughter, in the deaths of the 26 miners. As well, the inquiry report will provide plenty of ammunition for the families of the Westray miners who have launched law suits seeking over $30-million in damages in connection with the tragedy.

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