An Unregulated Industry

    One thing that shocked me about the industry was the sheer lack of rules or regulations.  There is pretty much no governing body to watch over what goes on and no real repercussions in many cases.  Talking with several undertakers they all spoke of a desire for more regulation and how others have tried over the years and failed miserably.  They said the industry has never been regulated and have depressingly resigned themselves to the thought that it never will be.

    You need no qualifications to join the industry, a drivers license is useful but not essential in certain situations.  There is also no age restriction, one undertaker now a veteran in his own ways told me how he joined the industry at 15 as part of school work experience.  His first transfer was a gruesome affair where the deceased had been cut in half in an industrial accident.  The job involved buckets and scooping, and this was one of his first days at only 15.  Now, some may think that this was quite a while ago yet it was only in the late 1980s that this happened.  I have no doubts that there is potential for this to still happen at certain companies.  Anyone can join the industry at any age if the company is willing to employ them.

    The pay for an undertaker (also known as "assistant funeral director") is little more than minimal wage. The wage is about $20 per hour for full time staff, at the entry level.  I have heard that conductors with some companies earn an extra $17 per week on top of this.  These are the people who run the funeral on the day.  When paying so little one cannot expect high quality staff as anyone who wants more than this and is able to earn it will go elsewhere.

    Some of the larger funeral companies such as InvoCare are pushing more and more casual staff to save money.  The situation with embalmers is not much better.  These casual staff have less experience and training, being casual they only work when needed where needed.  The situation is not much better for embalmers.  While there is a shortage of embalmers across Sydney they are not paid enough and companies are going for contract or casual embalmers.

    The lack of experience of staff is an issue for some companies.  As no experience or qualifications are needed some join the industry with nothing to help them.  They need to be trained from scratch in everything.  Many might think of this as a normal thing for most companies, many join jobs without experience or knowledge and leran as they go.  In itself this is not too much of an issue for the funeral industry, however there are certain things and hazards people need to know before starting.  this makes starting the job safer and easier for new staff as well as easier for further training the new staff.  I remember in retail there is an briefe induction course before starting work, with Target it was over two days and with BigW it was a more intense one day course.  These courses covered basic OH&S, security, policy, practices and so on.  Basically all the little and important things that should be gotten out of the way.  Yet in the funeral industry where there is exposure to infectious fluids, lots of manual lifting, driving, etc there is no induction course or training.  I will say InvoCare is outstanding in providing these courses to staff, but it is done after they join.  Instead it should be before they join the industry.  What good are these courses to someone who has almost a years experience?  By then they would have learnt most of what is taught and been exposed to the hazards the courses aim to warn about.

    Another issue with the delegalisation is that ordinary undertakers are the ones who transfer bodies on crime scenes.  With murders, suicides, accidents or so on it is an undertaker who will arrive with their van and move the body to the coroners for examination.  Letting just anybody move the body means that the government has no real control over how the body is moved.  Evidence could be compromised or outright destroyed with mismanaging the body as the undertakers are not trained in forensic techniques.  Many undertakers formal education stops at finishing high school and there is no training provided or needed for police transfers.

    There is also little to no protective equipment provided to the transfer crews.  On a police job they have shower-caps on their feet, but otherwise it's like any other transfer.  They have basic gloves and nothing else, and these gloves are not even sharps/puncture proof like the police gloves.  An undertaker told me of how he had to transfer a body from a murder.  There was blood and needles everywhere and the deceased had HIV and hep C.  The police refused to lend him their sharps proof gloves for the job.  Another undertaker told me of how the deceased had died on train tracks in a tunnel the city.  As they were getting the body one of the police yelled "train" and they had to squeeze against the walls as a train went past.  CityRail has extremely strickt rules and requirements about who can step on the tracks, especially active ones yet these were not applied to the transfer crew.  Nor was the track shut down.  And this was not an old story, it happened in the 80s-90s.  An undertaker also told me of another police transfer where a family member had "lost it" and killed the family violently, they had also brutally killed the family cat.  He said how everything went as usual, they removed the bodies of the people, yet the cat was different.  The police put it in a garbage bag and left it on the street for the garbage truck.  While not directly related to the lack of regulation in the industry it does speak of how things are sometimes seen or done because of this deregulation.

    There are no official governing bodies to watch over the industry and few laws or regulations directed at it.  Nor are there any real consequences for violating what rules there are.  There the Australian Funeral Directors Association (AFDA), yet membership is voluntary and from what I see they do not oversee or enforce much.  So long as certain basics are met and fees are paid membership is guaranteed.  The infamous story of 'bricky' is a good example.  I explain in detail in this post here, but basically he is an undertaker who buried a coffin of bricks because he cremated the wrong body.  So now the industry refers to him as 'bricky'.  When they exhumed the coffin the person in charge opened the lid further than allowed and this meant the health department no longer had jurisdiction.  Instead it had to fall under a commercial framework and was taken to court that the family did not get what they paid for.  Bricky was found guilty, fined a few thousand and let go.  The case was very public making national news at the time.  Yet his business actually increased, not only was he able to continue in the industry with nothing more than a light punishment but he was better for it.  He later went on to stalk a woman with a hearse at night, but that's a whole other story.  I also heard of another much older story where the owner of a funeral home opened all the windows in a nursing home in the middle of winter.  He was at the nursing home on a transfer to remove a body and while there he thought that he might try to increase his business.

    Not all funeral directors are decent people, although most are.  Some are not even real funeral directors having never worked on a funeral in their lives.  They do not even have a physical business and yet they sell funerals.  They're called "briefcase funeral directors" as all they have is a briefcase and a phone.  Everything else they rent out, they rent a temporary transfer crew (as one would rent a courier), they rent a hearse and a space in a mortuary and have no ownership over anything.  As a result they have no quality control or even the ability to check the process and I have heard of serious mistakes being made.  The reason they own nothing is it is cheap, they do not have to pay for staff or facilities and save a lot of money compared to funeral homes.  However these savings are not really passed onto families, they may pay less than with other funeral places but the briefcase funeral director will still make a large profit.  Lack of quality control, room for mistakes and over charging mourners are the outcomes of this type of business.  But what of the AFDA as many would assume their job was to oversee the industry?  As I outlined membership is optional and even then not difficult to acquire.  Furthermore if a company is not a member most mourners would never know or care.  Thus there is plenty of room for just anyone to become a funeral director, even if they have nothing.

    There is a union for those in the industry, however despite my best efforts I cannot find a website for it, perhaps one does not exist.  Also few people in the industry I met were part of this union.  Thus I find it hard to look into the union.  From what I found it does help people, one undertaker told me of how it really had his back in a pay dispute with a company and if it wasn't for the union he would have lost a lot of money.  However I do not think the union has as much influence as it should.  I will briefly say that I am a capitalist through and through.  But capitalism needs unions to give companies perspective and help keeps things safe and decent for staff.  I was surprised how the union was almost hidden from staff, the boss at WNBull would deliberately not put up and remove any notices from or about the union.  I was reminded of my time in retail where all staff were told of the retail union in their initial training, in fact we were actively encouraged to join the union by the companies.  Target and BigW both advertised and encouraged membership officially and unofficially despite butting heads with the unions on several occasions.  Instead with the funeral industry the AFDA is completely optional and the union has low membership.  Thus there is little influence or power from these groups.  I saw that InvoCare monitored and protected its own staff more than these groups.

    There is a story of an ex-InvoCare employee who would make a small cut on the bodies they dressed or prepared.  Quite a 'strange' and completely immoral practice.  InvoCare fired this person on the spot as soon as they found out, walking them off the premises and making sure they never worked in another InvoCare funeral home ever again.  Unfortunately they did not take it further, I personally think that they did not want it to become public as it would give InvoCare a bad name.  Yet I think they handled it well, firing the person the very moment they became aware and making sure it would not happen again.  This shows how InvoCare regulates itself with nobody to watch over them.  While they do a decent job certain people can walk away without punishment or inquiry that is deserved in order to protect the company.

    If anyone is going to change the industry for the better it would be InvoCare.  Due to their dominance they have the power and potential to implement and effect changes.  And after my briefe time with them I honestly believe that many of the higher ups do care.  For example the head of HR was a lovely woman who gave me the impression that she did not just implement OH&S because she had to but because she thought of the welfare of her co-workers.  InvoCare has more potential than any other group to make the changes that are needed.  While I hope they do start to change things I know they wont.  Not because they do not want to but because there is no profit in it.  It is not a cruel company, it is efficient and the heart of InvoCare is 'profit' (like any other business).  There is no profit to be made (or lost) in regulating the industry and so they will not do it.  Simple and regretful as at the end it is everyone who suffers.  Staff risk their safety, the companies risk efficiency the deceased risk their dignity, mourners risk quality and the legal system risks evidence...

    I honestly believe that a license is needed to be an undertaker, that it could reduce the risks and issues.  Or in the least weed out the people not appropriate for the industry.


1 comment:

  1. Anonymous28/2/13 15:04

    100% agree with you, was a funeral assistant. It's crazywhat we had to put up with.


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