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.
“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.