Chronic asbestos deaths, sudden mining disasters – both indicate deep corporate problems

It is less than a week until the premiere of Devil’s Dust, a movie about asbestos in Australia and the corporate maneuverings of James Hardie Industries to minimise its exposure to compensation claims but its lessons spread beyond asbestos to politics, corporate responsibility and individual morality.

In a recent article on the movie, the depiction of then New South Wales Premier, Bob Carr, was mentioned.  The politics of asbestos is well shown in the Carr depiction.  The asbestos issue seemed to have little importance until a political value was placed on the issue.  Carr, a Labour Party politician, then acted, met people affected by asbestos-related diseases and made clear statements of moral significance about asbestos and corporate responsibility.

Recently Crikey reminded its readers of some comments on asbestos compensation from 2007.  Apparently, the now-Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, Julie Bishop stated

“I have enormous sympathy for those who suffered asbestos-related diseases,” she said in a statement to The Australian. “There were members of the CSR executive management team who also died of asbestos-related diseases who had worked at Wittenoom.

“As one of the lawyers in the case, I acted ethically and professionally at all times in accordance with client instructions.” [link added]

There is no doubt that Bishop acted ethically and professionally in her role as a lawyer but by 2007, the issue of asbestos exposure and compensation had moved to a moral basis.  Are companies who resist providing compensation for illnesses caused by their products being heartless or responsible corporate citizens?

Peter Sandman once told this author that a corporation’s principal responsibility is to the shareholders, that that was the nature of beast.  However the asbestos industry machinations over compensation surely questions one of the moral flaws of capitalism.  Should profit be gained from the exploitation of workers?

The findings of the Royal Commission into the Pike River mining disaster further question the operation of capitalism.  The final report into Pike River has already claimed the career of New Zealand’s Minister of Labour, not to mention the lives of the mine workers in the 2010 disaster, and is likely to create substantial change in how that country administers it health and safety laws, particularly in mining.

The legacy of Pike River is likely to be similar to that of the United Kingdom after the spate of train disasters earlier this century – the removal of any reasons against corporate and regulatory change in safety. But asbestos is not a sudden disaster – it is a chronic social disease where the many deaths it causes do not appear in the news sections of newspapers, only in the death notices.

Does asbestos deaths in Australia matter anywhere else in the world?  Are mining disasters in New Zealand, Wales, or Chile relevant elsewhere? Capitalism remains a major economic model and corporate philosophy, with many companies operating in a multinational and global context.  So yes, these disasters, these abuses and the exploitation of workers, do matter as they establish a state of operational and safety knowledge, within an economic model, that includes a warning. Continue to make profits but not at the cost of people’s lives and health or government will intervene.

Kevin Jones

5 thoughts on “Chronic asbestos deaths, sudden mining disasters – both indicate deep corporate problems”

  1. Australia is wanting to get rid of asbestos in all homes and community buildings by 2030 or 50 I recently read. Although considering that many of Australia\’s old houses still contain asbestos I am not sure the Government will realize this aspiration by that date.

  2. Kevin, even the regulators can\’t get it right and they are the ones supposedly protecting the community from the asbestos scourge.

    I was responsible for reporting an incident in South Australia in recent weeks, when I witnessed the removal of an asbestos roof on a dwelling not 50 metres from my house. The person responsible held a licence to remove asbestos and had applied to Safework SA for a permit to do so which was duly granted.

    The licensee obviously hired a couple of laborers who did not have clue one about what they were doing (no obvious training). No protective clothing, breaking of sheets, dragging sheets across the roof and too many other issues to describe here, but suffice to say, the amount of asbestos dust and free fibres in the air was substantial.

    I called SafeWork SA and to their credit, they had an investigator on site in very short order resulting in the site being closed and the inspector making sure the locals were aware of what was happening.

    The removal has all, but a few sheets, been completed in an improved manner but still not in complete compliance with regulations.

    I have been advised by persons I will not identify that SafeWork SA has not for years inspected any site they have issued a permit for removal of asbestos during the removal process to ensure all work is being undertaken in accordance with regulations and the community is safe. I would strongly suspect this would be the case across Australia.

    This complete break down in the duty of government to protect it\’s citizens let alone workers, from a known deadly agent is unacceptable and those responsible for failure to protect us must not be allowed to continue in their jobs. I suspect the purse string managers are the ones that should be held to account first. A full independent inquiry is demanded in this situation.

    You might say I am a bit peeved, however, when idiots put my family at risk including my grandchildren as a result of ignorance, greed and complete failure to protect the community, then I have an absolute right to be very critical of authority not only for my family but the community at large.

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