FACK Statement on the suicide of George Arthur Cheese, apprentice at Audi Dealership, Reading
The Coroner Peter Bedford has concluded that Audi Reading management were not responsible for the death of apprentice George Cheese. 1
Stressing that there were other factors in play, Peter Bedford said he understood Cheese’s parents’ desire to blame the Audi dealership, but added that steps taken by the management following his death had succeeded in improving conditions there.
Families Against Corporate Killers has taken up this case as it highlights yet again the completely inadequate way in which work-related suicides are handled by the criminal justice system, and especially those relating to bullying of young people. We were not present at the Inquest and did not hear the evidence the Coroner took into account in making his conclusion. But whatever other factors were ‘in play’ in his death, the appalling bullying George suffered at work, as reported at the Inquest, must be addressed and those responsible held to account. This verdict only lets employers off the hook.
We are concerned that there does not seem to have been an investigation under the Joint Protocol on Work-Related Death; there may be no-one held to account for the bullying George suffered at his workplace, which as reported at the Inquest was known about and allowed to continue by management. We do not feel that steps taken by his employer after George took his own life in any way absolve them of their actions. The catalogue of bullying abuse George faced is heartbreaking and includes:
“His parents said George “over the moon” when he got the position at the Audi dealership, but he soon started coming home covered in bruises and had holes burned into his clothes
“George Cheese’s coworkers at the Reading garage locked him in a cage, doused him in brake fluid and set his clothes set on fire.
“The court heard of one occasion when four men held him down while a fifth punched his leg, leaving him with a long-lasting limp.
“Much of the abuse was dismissed as “banter” and “horseplay” by his then colleagues.
“After the police returned his belongings, his mother found 14 diary entries saved in the calendar app on his iPad, describing traumatic events from his workplace. One said: “My boss told me to hurry up and hang myself because I’m a useless piece of shit.”
“Cheese referred to a “PC” in his diary entries, writing: “PC tied me up, pressure-washed me. Thought it was hilarious. I couldn’t stand up afterwards. He called me a pussy and I had to walk home soaking wet.”
Another entry said “PC” had approached Cheese after his parents complained to the company and called him “a pussy who went telling tales to mummy”.
Work-Related suicides are on the rise and we estimate account for at least 300 deaths per year. 2 The HSE excludes suicides from being reported under the Reporting of injuries, death and dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) 3 and they are not properly investigated under the Joint Protocol on Work Related Death 4.
Consequently the employers and managers who play a role in the bullying or other work conditions that lead to a death by suicide are not held to account, and there are rarely any prosecutions for the work-related actions such as bullying, or long hours, excessive workloads, low pay and insecurity, all of which are reported to drive workers to take their own lives.
The Inquest is not a place to determine or ascribe blame, but to ascertain who died, when, where and how. It is the authority responsible for enforcing health and safety in the workplace – the HSE or Local Authority in this case- and the police under the Joint Protocol for Work Related Death which should investigate, hold employers to account, take enforcement action to ensure future compliance, and if there is sufficient evidence take prosecutions for breaches in the law.
Work-related suicides are not counted by the HSE, therefore do not count and are not taken seriously. Even when there is a blatant link with work, such as taking of a life in a workplace and letters specific work causes. 5
In a similar case to that of George Cheese, in Manchester in 2003 , 18 year old Hannah Kirkham took an overdose and died because she was being bullied at KFC. Unlike in George’s case, the effect of the bullying was accepted as a major cause of her death. At the Inquest in 2005, the jury delivered a narrative verdict saying ‘she meant to kill herself by taking an overdose, was clinically depressed and this was “significantly influenced” by bullying at work.’ 6
However, as in George’s case, the Coroner ( Simon Nelson) , also noted favourably the employers’ action after her death: ‘KFC’s reaction to this inquiry in my view was appropriate, sensitive and proactive.” He added he hoped anti-bullying policies made by the firm would prevent “similar tragic incidents”.
In both George’s and Hannah’s case, management were aware of, or shamefully, participated in totally unacceptable behaviour towards a vulnerable young colleague yet are not held accountable for the tragic outcome. In both cases the Coroners referred approvingly to action taken after the death.
‘Lessons have been learned’ are often the cruellest words a family can hear after someone they love has been killed by an employer’s negligence. While everyone wants to ensure no-one else dies, it is surely only to be expected that improvements will be made? That an employee’s death would be a ‘wake up call’ for a negligent employer ? But changes put in place afterwards, which should by law have been there before to stop the person dying, are cold comfort and should not be used to absolve the employers’ failures or show them in a better light. It is not sufficient for justice that future deaths are prevented if employers are allowed to get away with the actions that contribute to a worker taking their life.
FACK are looking into work-related suicides generally and George Cheese’s death in particular. We feel that work related suicides cannot be left to Inquests alone as they cannot hold employers to account for actions they have taken, or failed to take, that contribute to the suicide. We are calling for
- The HSE to change their policy and make it a duty under the Reporting of Injuries Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) – http://www.hse.gov.uk/riddor/reportable-incidents.htm for employers to report suicide of employees when there is any suspicion it might be work-related.
- Ensure that all signatories to the Join Protocol on Work-Related Death – http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/wrdp1.pdf- investigate suicides for work-related issues.
- The Local Authority with responsibility for enforcing health and safety legislation in George’s workplace to take action to ensure the employers are held to account for the failings that allowed George to be bullied and contributed to his death, and to take enforcement action to ensure future compliance.
- The Whole Story”: http://www.gmhazards.org.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Hazards-Campaign-challenging-the-HSE-statistics.pdf
- RIDDOR: http://www.hse.gov.uk/riddor/reportable-incidents.htm;
- Joint Protocol on Work-Related Death: http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/wrdp1.pdf
- The Last Goodbye http://www.hazards.org/suicide/suicidalwork.htm
Inquest into Hannah Kirkham’s death: . http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/manchester/4508022.stm