24 Aug 2023

Company failed two young men killed in a crash on their way to work, coroner finds

5:28 am on 24 August 2023
Floyd Harris

Floyd Harris. Photo: Supplied

An $80m-a-year company relied on a young worker-for-hire in ways it should not have. Two people died. What went wrong? Phil Pennington reports in the first of a two-part story.

A coroner has described how the precarious working life of two young men in the provinces at a leading labour-hire company - insecure, early starts, long commute, low pay - tipped into a double fatality.

Jake Ginders was a gamer. The 23-year-old "had lifelong friends" though didn't go out much. He worked hard and had plans to go into business together with his father, Mark, his family told an inquest in March. "A gentle soul," his brother Luther called him.

Floyd Harris was a loud, happy 21-year-old with autism, a Speedway fan who helped out at a pet shop, quick to joke and eager to please. "He had a heart of gold," his mother Sharon Harris said.

Harris regularly drove 50km to work without the required licensed driver supervising him and with no 'L' plate on his car, for a 6am start.

Nevertheless, his employer, the country's biggest manual job-hire firm AWF, got him to pick up other workers, paid their travel time at $18 an hour, and paid his petrol sometimes. This was not legal, and it was not safe.

AWF had Floyd's learner-licence status on file, as it did for Jake.

It was "difficult to comprehend" why no one checked, said the coroner.

Her finding released today, is that AWF failed in its duty of care to the two young men, who died on the drive from Palmerston North to Oringi on 16 January 2019, when their Ford hatchback slid sideways into the path of a ute on State Highway 2 near Woodville.

Mark Ginders, left, with a photo of his son Jake when he was younger, and Jake's uncle Wayne Ginders (right).

Mark Ginders, left, with a photo of his son Jake when he was younger, and Jake's uncle Wayne Ginders (right). Photo: RNZ / Phil Pennington

Luther had offered to take Jake to work that day, but it was a long way and very early, so his brother went with Floyd. Their father Mark had made it clear not to take rides, "but the boys knew they would slip down the list" for work if they could not make it, Jake's aunt Diane Chandler told the inquest.

"Jake was put into a situation by his employer AWF that took his life," she said.

The pressure was on their sons to go along, to get along, the families recounted, and the coroner has noted how the "informal" commute "directly facilitated by AWF", benefited the company by helping it fill its quota of workers for clients.

The families have blamed AWF, saying it tried to evade its responsibility. The company denied this, saying it had always fronted up over its "terrible oversight".

The families wanted answers, they said.

They waited four years. Now, part of the answer has emerged in the new findings - that work risks, including lethal ones, fall unequally on the young and vulnerable.

"Unlicensed drivers, or those on learner or restricted licences, may be reluctant to volunteer details of their licence status to others, including their employers, for many reasons," Coroner Janet Anderson wrote.

"Jake and Floyd were both young, low paid and low-skilled workers with limited employment opportunities.

"They lived in an area with little public transport, representing a further barrier to employment options.

"As temporary workers, they were vulnerable to irregular assignment of work and fluctuating incomes.

"It is essential that employers who take on responsibilities for arranging transport in these situations recognise that there may be barriers to workers raising concerns or objections."

Any travel had to be safe and legal. "I do not consider that AWF met these requirements in this case," she said.

She referred the case back to the regulator, WorkSafe, which has the power to prosecute, to look at it again, but the agency has already said it would not.

The inquest had heard that Floyd was tired and annoyed at having to pick up other workers. He had worked for AWF for three years, and the company knew him well enough not to prevail upon him in this way, his mother said.

"Floyd was too worked up and frightened to say no, and he drove that morning and never made it to work alive," Sharon Harris said.

He did not tell AWF about the anti-anxiety medication he had been prescribed for years, and may not have been getting much sleep, but the work hours allowed for rest and it was not known if fatigue was a factor, the findings said.

Jake was worried about Floyd's driving, but he did not tell AWF, said the coroner.

The job was his only source of income. "Mark gave evidence that money was getting very tight for Jake by early 2019 ... Mark describes Jake as having to 'push' AWF to get some work."

The team leader who bought $60 of petrol on a company credit card for the commute, "acted with the best of intentions" to get Jake to work, but did not check Floyd's licence.

The sum of the parts was catastrophic.

"Floyd's disregard for the conditions of his learner licence had tragic consequences," the coroner said.

But also "the absence of a licence-checking requirement ... represents a serious deficiency in the systems and processes that AWF had ... and it contributed to the tragic events".

A company with revenues of almost $80m, lacked the systems to keep a young employee safe, and not trespass on his good nature. Floyd hated to disappoint anyone, especially those in authority, his whānau said.

AWF, which has 21 branches and places about 1000 workers a week, mostly in manual jobs, denied at the inquest that it put any pressure on workers, adding they gave it high marks for health and safety in company surveys.

"There is no recrimination towards an employee if they choose not to take an assignment," the coroner quoted a manager. "She accepted that staff may however have concerns that if they refuse work they may not be offered other assignments."

WorkSafe knew about this dynamic in the labour-hire industry as a whole. It had done research around the time of the Woodville crash that concluded labour-hire workers were at more risk than regular workers, and made many more claims for injuries at work. But WorkSafe did not investigate the young men's deaths.

Jake's brother Luther had also worked for AWF. He gave evidence "he was often told to jump in the car of other colleagues to get to a worksite, and that he 'kept his mouth shut' about a lot of speeding and unsafe driving because he was financially concerned for himself and thought that management might look elsewhere for people to do the work if he said anything".

Mark Ginders often drove his sons to and from work.

The coroner told AWF and other employers to check that their travel systems were safe and legal.

AWF had tightened its policies and practices since 2019. It should look at what else it could do to help young workers without transport to worksites, to reduce barriers to employment, Anderson said.

She referred the case back to WorkSafe to take another look, and it would be good to clarify the law around where employers facilitated travel, Anderson said.

But the safety agency's lawyer told her "the threshold for further investigation has not been met".

Even before this, the families had accused WorkSafe of inaction (more on this in part two).

The crash preceded the 2020 Covid lockdowns that put AWF under significant pressure. It had run short of new workers, but "demand for their services is strong", said the 2022 annual report of its parent group, the NZX-listed Accordant, which had revenue of more than $200m last year.

"We acknowledge the coroner's findings, and we have already made changes to our processes, ensuring no informal shared travel is facilitated and that only AWF-registered vehicles are used where formal arrangements are made. People are at the heart of our business, and we remain committed to the safety and wellbeing of our team," AWF said in a statement.

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