Time to shame nations which support the asbestos trade
It’s 25 years since the manufacture of asbestos stopped in Australia but the shadow it has cast over the lives of thousands of families is as dark as ever.
The asbestos tragedy we have seen in Australia is repeating itself in countries like India and Laos, and this time we don’t have ignorance as an excuse to do nothing.
Those who watched “Devil’s Dust” on ABC last week will have been reminded of the toll asbestos has taken, and the story is not finished yet.
Australia had the highest per capita use of asbestos in the world from the 1950s until the 1980s.
Asbestos fibres can sit in the lung for decades before they become fatal, and as a result of this and our previous high usage of asbestos products, the number of asbestos-related deaths in Australia is not expected to peak until around 2020.
By then up to 18,000 more Australians will have died from mesothelioma, thousands more from asbestos-related cancers – and many, many more thousands will continue to die in the wake of this peak.
Australians have learned the hard way about the dangers of asbestos, but I am concerned that the lessons are not being applied in other countries, where the asbestos industry takes advantage of lax regulation to make a quick dollar.
An industry that did everything it could to avoid responsibility in Australia is now continuing to operate in developing countries.
The World Health Organisation estimates that asbestos causes at least 107,000 deaths each year.
This week the ACTU is hosting three international experts on asbestos – from Canada, Laos and India - who are here to meet with the Australian government seeking that it do more to reduce the use of asbestos in our region.
The union movement, and hundreds of brave organisers and delegates, have been at the forefront of the fight for justice for asbestos victims.
We know the suffering it has caused.That’s why we want to see a global ban on the trade and use of asbestos and the encouragement of suitable alternatives for the countries of south-east Asia.
These countries are being set up for a future of thousands of their citizens dying needlessly for the short-term profits of asbestos companies.
In India asbestos is known as “the poor man’s roof” but the long-term effects on those who make or shelter under that roof are still to be felt.
Canada has stopped its own use of asbestos but was happy to export asbestos to India, arguing that if they don’t do it other countries will.
This attitude shows why we need to push for global action to stop the use of asbestos and shame the nations who are still part of the asbestos trade.
The deadly substance was part of the fabric of this nation, the building block of the cheap fibro house. About every third domestic dwelling built between 1945 and 1987 is thought to contain asbestos.
Thousands of Australians were exposed to asbestos, either through mining it, loading it onto ships, or working with it as electricians, carpenters, roofers or other tradespeople.
Renovators who cut into asbestos sheeting were unwittingly exposed to the dust that might later kill them.
After many years of concerted union campaigning the use of asbestos in Australian workplaces was banned at the end of 2003. Today 54 countries around the world ban asbestos.
The story of James Hardie Industries Ltd, the major manufacturer of asbestos products in Australia, and its response to the asbestos crisis in one of the worst chapters in Australia’s corporate history.
There is evidence that James Hardie had knowledge of the dangers of asbestos from at least the 1930s but no warnings or directions were placed on the company’s asbestos fibro products until 1978.
Like many companies whose products can kill people, James Hardie obfuscated, delayed and denied.
In the interim thousands of people were exposed to deadly asbestos.
In October 2001 the James Hardie company moved to the Netherlands and set up as a Dutch company taking with it $1.9 billion in assets from its former Australian companies.
The supposed compensation fund they left behind was found to be woefully inadequate and it appeared that thousands of people would be denied redress for their suffering.
Unions united with asbestos-disease sufferers to force an inquiry into this travesty of justice, which confirmed that James Hardie directors had misled Australia about the amount of money in the fund.
After years of struggle, rallies and lobbying James Hardie was finally shamed into agreeing to a settlement that would properly compensate victims.
It’s worth telling these stories again as a reminder of the way that big companies can act when there’s money at stake, and how innocent people become the victims.
It’s worth telling them again in the hope that they don’t repeat themselves.
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