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.

Shut the door and throw away the key. Photo: AFP

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.

Comments on this post close at 8pm AEST

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    • Mahhrat says:

      06:40am | 21/11/12

      True enough, the work the unions did against asbestos is probably amongst the best work unions have ever done.

      Trouble is, that work isn’t being done now.  You’ve lost your way a bit, tied down by trying to tell people what to think, rather than simply supporting employees.

      Please - because you are so very important - go back to your roots, get out of the boardrooms and back on the shop floors.

    • Robin says:

      07:42am | 21/11/12

      Mahhrat I absolutely agree.  I am not a big fan of unions, (compulsory membership as an electrician left a bad taste) and the recent antics of their senior directors.  But that is another issue.  Unions did fantastic work back then to expose Hardie and support the workers.  It is why they were created. If that is what they kept doing, I would be in full support.  Alas, nowadays they seem to be just a collection pool for the ALP.

    • Haxton Waag says:

      06:41am | 21/11/12

      This is one subject I do feel strongly about. Rather like the Catholic Church, James Hardie’s primary response to their own wrong-doing has been to get the hell out of Dodge before the sheriff’s hand comes down on their shoulder. Let the dying workers eat cake. Another example of corporate callousness. Scrambling for cover ... like cockroaches.

    • ibast says:

      07:58am | 21/11/12

      The problem is with many of these countries is they have a fatalistic attitude to life.  Unless the threat is immediate, then the attitude is “if I die, then it is meant to be”.

      As an international construction company we struggle with this problem in sites all through Asia.

      The other problem is it’s actually a really difficult fibre to find an alternative for.  In high temperature applications it’s perfect from an application and engineering point of view.  So telling a third world nation they have to use a more expensive and less appropriate material is not an easy message to get across.

      Besides, life’s cheap in many of these countries.

    • Kate Dunn says:

      08:22am | 21/11/12

      The use of asbestos in developing nations is a major issue & I support the ACTU in its efforts to encourage the Australian government to tackle this issue in our region.

      However, I don’t think Australian governments are doing enough to clean up our own backyard. Many people don’t realise how many products containing asbestos are still around, how to recognise them, or what to do if they come across them. Plenty of others have no understanding at all of the risks associated with exposure to asbestos.

      In addition to compensation for victims, James Hardie should be made to pay for the clean-up bill to rid Australia of asbestos once & for all.

    • I used to work for a Union says:

      08:52am | 21/11/12

      While I agree with some of the work Unions do, such as this. Having worked for a Union and being bullied out,  I no longer support them. Unions are just as corrupt and are even bigger bullies than the employers they go after and it’s disappointing to see people like Ged ignore the hypocrisy in her own trade Unions and not fixing the current corruption and bullying culture that exists in them.

    • lingo says:

      09:14am | 21/11/12

      Canada exports this vile stuff even though its banned its use in its own country. The people employed in the factories in India are not adequately protected, if at all,  and die prematurely. They are desperately poor and are paid a pittance but its either work in these hell holes or let your family starve. 
      Its pretty obvious that one develops a fatalistic attitude to life when there are no other options. It’s called reality.

    • bananabender56 says:

      10:24am | 21/11/12

      If the first world has banned its use, where would Canada be exporting it to (other than India) and what would it be used for? If Australia is going to get involved in the health of foreign populations, then surely asbestos is a long way down the list - perhaps stopping people smoking in say Indonesia would help.
      Australian industry is uncompetitive, over priced etc, manufacturing dwindling,  and the best that Ged Kearney et al can come up with is stop selling asbestos to India?

    • Josh says:

      09:56am | 21/11/12

      What about fibreglass insulation, wait till you see the damage it does it coming years…

    • ibast says:

      10:36am | 21/11/12

      There are a lot of other fibres we encounter that are not good for us.  They are ranked on the basis of our body being able to get rid of them before a cyst grows over them.  Asbestos is about the worst as it is a barbed fibre and the body can’t reject it.  The cyst grows and these can mutate into cancer.

      Other fibres, the body has no problem getting rid of, whilst most fall somewhere in between.

      So those that believe asbestos is the only fibre to worry about are being a bit naive, but equally very few are as bad as asbestos.

    • mikem says:

      11:28am | 21/11/12

      You can add Indonesia to that list.  Off shoring is driven by the factors of low wages, low regulation and low taxes.  The shame for us is how easily we accept multinationals exploiting these factors so they can make larger profits and give us cheaper goods.

    • Two Cents worth says:

      12:07pm | 21/11/12

      To sit idly by and watch people die from the problems associated with asbestos is not what we, as Australians are all about.
      Our nation has always been about fair play and looking out for the “little bloke” (although I sometimes wonder where this ethos has disappeared to), so why do we just turn away because poorer nations have a “fatalistic attitude”.
      Do we not have a broader responsibility as a developed, civilised nation to look out for the “underdog”? We are one earth of 7 billion people of race, creed and colour diversity, so who cares for the poor and needy if we don’t? Maybe, just maybe we may be able to dialogue with Canada over their role, but as one poster observed - only if our backyard is clean first.
      As I grow older I tire of the “me me me” attitude of the broad Australian population (sometimes/often displayed in these posts). How about we adopt a “We” mentality, as applied to the entire nations of this earth!

    • the moor says:

      12:58pm | 21/11/12

      The coincidence of the show ‘Devils Dust’ and the Appeal Court’s reduction of the penalties given to James Hardie directors was somewhat ironical.  By any moral measure those penalties are grossly inadequate given that by 2030 it is estimated that the Australian death toll from asbestos related diseases will be 60,000 people. Karen Banton’s comment that there is a yawning gap between morality and the law is very true.

    • Fezzbo says:

      01:09pm | 21/11/12

      Waving your achievements around to try to take focus off all that’s wrong with your movement Ged? You’re looking more like a religion than a support stream for people…

    • Fezzbo says:

      03:12pm | 21/11/12

      Oh well, after 3pm and only 15 replies… Irrelevance is closing fast…

    • Knemon says:

      01:35pm | 21/11/12

      ...and to think that Julie Bishop in her role as a lawyer at CSR used procedural tactics to deny victims of asbestosis their day in court…pathetic action from the now deputy leader of the Liberal party, she should be ashamed!

    • mikey says:

      05:50pm | 21/11/12

      Serf’s rights aren’t important to people of the ruling class Knermon.  We are just commodities to be used up and spat out with as little inconvenience as possible.

    • the moor says:

      06:03pm | 21/11/12

      Isn’t a moral lawyer an oxymoron?


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