Green Left Weekly\'s $250,000 Fighting Fund: No jail for corporate mass killers

June 14, 2008

I declare a personal interest in this story. In 1976, I worked for a year in a James Hardie factory in Western Australia. We were producing asbestos cement sheets; at that time still a popular building material.

At the end of each shift, we would spend the next hour or so blowing our noses to get rid of clumps of asbestos dust. Unmasked factory hands routinely emptied sacks of asbestos fibre into large mixing tubs. Workers had one chest examination a year by the company doctor who gave this cheerful advice: "If you don't smoke, you should be fine."

So far, I have not joined the tens of thousands of workers and consumers hit with deadly asbestos-related diseases. A headline on an article buried in the business section of the June 13 Sydney Morning Herald drew my attention: "Jail rejected in cases like Hardie".

The article reported: "The Rudd Government has been urged to abandon a proposal from its predecessor for a criminal offence aimed at preventing a recurrence of the James Hardie asbestos compensation scandal.

"A report by the Government's adviser on corporate law says the threat of a 10-year jail term for company restructures aimed at avoiding personal-injury compensation is unnecessary."

This comes in the wake of the biggest corporate scandal of the century, where James Hardie, a company that produced asbestos products in Australia knowing they were deadly, deliberately underfunded its asbestos compensation scheme and then shifted the rest of its money to the Netherlands, where Australian asbestos victims couldn't access it.

After a long campaign by unions, asbestos-disease sufferers and community groups and a public inquiry, the company agreed to provide more compensation regardless of its legal liability.

The Jackson inquiry in 2004 identified "significant deficiencies in Australian corporate law" that allowed James Hardie to try to leave thousands of future asbestos disease sufferers without compensation.

Under current law, it is still not a crime for another company to do what James Hardie did. Indeed, people yet to fall ill from asbestos diseases are not considered creditors of James Hardie — which caused their injury — and therefore don't have any legally enforceable rights against the company.

A quarter of those in jail in Australia today are there for traffic offences, and a third for property offences, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology.

A hungry person driven to steal food could still end up in jail, but the CEOs of corporate mass killers like James Hardie and the building companies (that kill one worker a week in Australia on average) don't end up in jail.

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