Melody Kemp in Vientiane writes:
The apoplectic brouhaha that greeted Wikileaks in the past few months has shown us the power of the internet to upstage, discomfit and enrage. Governments like corporations operate under a variety of ‘commercial-in-confidence’ scores, the cadence of which changes with the degree of self interest at hand. That Wikileaks has been disclosing documents for years is of no consequence to our reactionary leaders. Just as labour groups and activists, long been warning industry about workplace hazards, have been greeted with similarly leaden ears.
Earlier this year, a delegation of international labour activists and trade union leaders visited Laos. While being taken around various work sites by Lao trade union and government officials, they were horrified to find bags of asbestos labeled Produced In China in one roofing tile fabrication shop. They should not have been surprised. The nominal communist bloc states of Asia have close trade, military and strategic ties. In that bloc the proletariat has little status and, like mushrooms, are generally kept in the dark.
One of Lao’s four Vice Presidents is known to foster and enjoy close and at times unseemly business relationships with Yunnan, so it is merely another business deal to import asbestos, and possibly seek Yunnan’s future assistance in exploiting Lao’s own resources. One only has to look at the United States Geographical Service web site to find that Lao’s mineral inventories include asbestos.
“We are doomed to have to discover our own evil, and not learn from the example of others” Dr Dom Yum Paek epidemiologist from the University of Seoul told a meeting of anti asbestos activists in Cambodia last year. And so each nation in Asia has its own flirtation with asbestos only to have the hard numbers of mortality fall on their heads.
But what is of interest here is the new wave of organizing via social media who will tell anyone who tunes in about their experience. Within days of the visit, photographs of the stuff along with impressive expressions of concern appeared in various social media. Thais posted educational materials that may assist Lao’s understand the dangers, and Japanese were extending an invitation to publicise the situation in public fora.
Social media has elbowed the old labour triumvirate off the stage. Instead of the tired model of trade unions employers and governments fighting it out in a Chekhov plot, the new stage is filled with the wild and furry members of the public, activists, environmentalists and victims.
Using Facebook, Twitter and Google Groups, they have engineered most recently, a global protest against attempts to reopen the Jeffrey Mine in Quebec. The mine is a blatantly cynical attempt by Indian industrialists to make money from this killer mineral, out of purview of its citizens and its laws. It’s an even more cynical attempt by the Harper government to use taxpayers funds to kick-start the defunct mine to make export and employment mileage out of a materials banned in most of the Global North, but not in the Global South.
The ILO bogged down as it is in the tripartite niceties, diplomacy and its own elitism, is looking increasingly irrelevant – its slogans hollow and its activities flying over the heads of workers who are looking at more militant activism. The ILO may work behind the scenes to negotiate with national leaders, but to most casualties and their family the ILO is of little importance. Their ISSA documentmight have been a leading source. Now it is one amongst many. Activist nations are producing their own based on their understanding of local vernacular and appropriate media. The language of the ILO is looking increasingly quaint.
The interesting thing about the social media campaign is that it is personal. People tell their stories, own their anger, their grief at the loss of partners, children friends. They post photos so that it is people not statistics or abstract risk that is being discussed. The approach is disarming to those used to bottom line expediency of profits or power positioning. It adds spectacular morality and colour to the backdrop of what is usually leaden theater.
“Alan’s dead and so are hundreds of thousands around the world. With social media advocacy somehow I feel their voices are heard,” said Linda Reinstein in an interview from the US. Linda’s husband died nearly 5 years ago from mesothelioma. She was both grief stricken and seriously pissed off. So she and Doug Larkin founded the Asbestos Diseases Awareness Organization.One of the many global groups, it provides a focal point for campaigning, technical information, policy analysis, comparative legislation and solidarity.
“We do not have the money or time to chase corporations, to take them to court. We can only use the anger, knowledge and the skills of people. Increasingly we have medical community who want to contribute. Sometimes we have to teach them how to post stuff.”
She then founded a group called Voices on the Wall, a closed group, but open to those who have suffered loss of health, job or family dues to asbestos. “I don’t want lawyers preying on those who might be vulnerable which is why the group is invitation only,’ Linda said.
Linda told me.
“In ten days we connected over 150 Facebook ‘friends’. There is so much anger and pain out there especially when you know all this illness and death is preventable… Then knowing that there are so many groups working on asbestos, ABREA and ADAO founded the Global Ban Asbestos Network (GBAN) to help other countries to collaboratively work both nationally and internationally.”
Through GBAN and International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS) founded by the indefatigable Laurie Kazan Allen, http://www.ibasecretariat.org/ readers would know that for instance a delegation from Japan, India, Indonesia, and Korea have just returned from a protest rally in Quebec. Emulating Wikileaks, the organizers of the Asian network A-ban.have excavated the archives to find documentary evidence of Canada’s attempt to circumvent Japan notifying the WTO that is had banned asbestos.
“GBAN.net was build as portal to connect and share information in pursuit of a global ban. The great thing is that we have a translator built in so anyone in the world can check on the site and with a push of the button be able to translate postings into nearly 60 languages. Not perfect translations, but it’s a way of allowing us all to work together no matter language or culture. Imagine how amazing that is.”
The networks also allow the dissemination of technical articles and strategic professional support, such as articles and statements from both the Quebec health officials and the Lancet, sources that most subscribers would not have access to support their arguments.
Social networking has made it harder for companies to ignore local pressures and has decentralized power. Those who once sat on the sidelines of labour negotiations, or were not at all party to them – consumer advocates, the families of victims being amongst them – now find they have a role to play.
But reflecting the law of physics, industry is now presenting an equal and opposite force. A Brazilian member of the network reports that in her country business is using the press to denounce the anti asbestos movement. Fernanda Giannasi co-founder of GBan wrote:
“Brazilian Chrysotile Institute (IBC) and the CNTA-Confederation of Asbestos Workers addressed to the workers (sic) saying that they are going to use the “Social Medias” (Orkut, Facebool, Twitter, Youtube) as their new weapon to “combat the misleading news on asbestos”. Transl.
For years now workers in the Global South have been globalised into some dangerous work; ship breaking, electronics and waste recycling, as well as the drudgery of making garments and shoes for the wealthy North. They would strike, shout and die in global silence. This week asbestos workers in India are on strike and they actions broadcast on social media. They are getting support from the members across the globe as are those who have demonstrated outside Canadians embassies in a bid to have the Jeffery mine remain closed. Increasingly the price paid by low paid labour for the West’s increasingly fickle tastes is being washed up onto our screens. But while capital has fostered divisions between the North and South by outsourcing and globalization of production, activists from all over the world are helping to shrink that divide by what can be described as comradeship, cooperation, communication and respect. Professionals are coming out of the closet of objectivity and offering partisan advice.
This story focuses on asbestos, but there are social media groups around for instance electronics, the gem industry and other major hazardous industries.
Recently social media revealed that Japan’s much vaunted asbestos free status was at question. Its principles and methods of detection flawed. Stories appeared in Japanese language blogs and revealing the Emperor and his Government did not have clothes. The mainstream media increasingly trivialising the big issues, giving Oprah precedence over the political revelations, may not cover a story such as this, but blogs and social media carry the stories globally to those who have an interest.
At a time when work is being restructured and trade unions are losing membership it is heartening to know that a new vibrant and socially inclusive moment is gaining strength. Watch this blog.
 As I found when I worked with the ILO, many of its officers come from elite families and have never actually worked in industry. One appeared for a factory inspection in high heels, a designer suit and diamond earrings.
 US Geological Survey