Asbestos — not here, not anywhere

November 18, 2016
Activists from across south-east Asia are stepping up the campaign to ban asbestos.

Asbestos is a thriving industry and asbestos lobbyists have set their sights on south-east Asia as the next frontier for new trade markets in the Third World. This was outlined at the recent annual South East Asian Ban Asbestos Conference, held in Jakarta in November.

The conference brought together activists from south east Asia, providing them with the opportunity to build alliances and strategise against the powerful and growing asbestos industry. Asbestos roofing is being rolled out in many of these countries and each country is at a different stage of the burgeoning asbestos industry.

Reports from various countries during the conference described the unscrupulous tactics used by asbestos lobbyists, mainly from Russia, to sell asbestos to poor countries under the guise of “being safe”. These lobbyists are “courting” governments to sell asbestos as a cheap and safe alternative construction material.

In her opening address, Union Aid Abroad CEO Kate Lee said: “We need to come together as a global trade union movement, as medical health movements and as community groups to escalate our campaign efforts against these asbestos companies.”

Reports then followed from Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Japan and Australia.

Asbestos’s deadly legacy

Australia banned asbestos in 2004, but ACTU assistant secretary Michael Borowick said although asbestos had been banned, we are still left with its “legacy”. One-third of Australian homes, schools and hospitals still contain asbestos.

Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency CEO Peter Tighe said Australia was facing a “new legacy of threat”, as imports of asbestos products are entering the country undetected, often in the form of construction materials including plaster sheets. Tighe said this was a result of weak laws and customs failures. “Most of the imports are coming from China and some from India,” he said.

As a result of the efforts of lobbyists from the chrystotile (white asbestos) industry, Indonesian asbestos imports have risen by 15%. Imports to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos are also set to rise.

A representative from the Women’s Trade Union Movement of Myanmar said asbestos had only recently been introduced and the government has begun installing asbestos roofing on government buildings. At the same time, the government had also embarked on a “new open-market policy”, relaxing tax arrangements for new foreign investment and embracing the roll-out of privatisations. All of this paves the way for an expanded asbestos industry.

Indonesian representatives said asbestos imports were growing at an alarming rate, coming from Thailand, Poland, Czech Republic, Zimbabwe, China, Canada, Russia, Brazil and India, with China being the largest exporter. The Indonesian government’s denial of asbestos related diseases is a major problem even though occupational health and safety laws are in place.

Victims of asbestos

All of the countries involved in the conference reported common themes of workers’ lack of awareness of the hazards associated with asbestos and a lack of medical knowledge, screening and treatment for the workers if diagnosed. Diagnosis is rare and public medical services are stretched to the limit.

A former worker and victim of asbestos disclosed that workers often slept in the factory where they worked and where the asbestos dust was dense. Factory owners do not tell workers that asbestos could kill and there was little community and public awareness on the issue. Some factories carried out annual medical examinations but the workers were never told the results.

The victims of asbestos showed a photograph — not more than a few years old — of workers inside an asbestos factory. Many of them are now deceased. Another victim of asbestos reported that the factory she worked in had closed down in 2013 rendering financial compensation impossible to pursue.

A Malaysian delegate suggested that the asbestos story is also about justice and the victims’ right to financial compensation for their families who are the poorest of the poor. Asbestos has been used in Malaysia since the 1950s. During that time an estimated 4 million foreign workers from Bangladesh have been exposed to asbestos and have since returned to their country of origin.

“What happens to these people and where is their justice? They go home and the disease is fatal. If you are exposed to asbestos what is the prognosis? It is bad. It is nearly always fatal. They will never have the opportunity to seek redress,” he said.

There are no specialist doctors with the knowledge or facilities to screen, diagnose and treat asbestos-related diseases in south-east Asia. One Indonesian doctor reported that they “were stretched to the limit” and saw on average 100 patients in a day. Unfortunately, asbestos patients were often at the bottom of the pile.

“The majority of doctors do not know what mesothelioma is and that it is an occupational disease,” she said.

Although diagnosing asbestos-related diseases was rare, Local Initiative for Occupational health and safety Network (LION) has embarked on a program of organising workers in the asbestos factories and performing medical screening of these workers. So far they have screened 20 workers and of those, nine have been identified as having lung disease caused from asbestos. They said “this is just the tip of the iceberg”.

Asbestos lobbyists

Many reports highlighted the scare tactics and outright lies of the asbestos lobbyists. According to a Swiss International representative, the asbestos industry “supported” a highly dubious research study into asbestos which was performed in India, one of the largest exporting countries of asbestos. Not surprisingly, the research findings were very favourable towards asbestos. However, the representative said this study “has ultimately discredited the Indian scientific research community for a long time to come”. 

A delegate from Vietnam said the main Vietnamese TV channel advertises asbestos products widely and the lobbying from the chrysotile exporters was “strong and persuasive”. They are particularly active after OH&S conferences, in an attempt to thwart any progress made from real education about the health hazards of asbestos.

Apparently intimidation and even assault are common practice by the lobbyists and security has been increased to prevent such incidents from reoccurring. One reporter recalled being accosted by a very large Russian lobbyist using intimidation tactics in an attempt to stop him from speaking out against asbestos.

More recently, the Russian asbestos lobby has hired the world’s most powerful public relations company, APCO, to progress and grow their markets. This is the same PR company used by the tobacco industry in the 1990s and 2000s to discredit victims of tobacco use.

Fight back

Suffice to say that the health risks associated with asbestos have been known and documented since the 1950s and there is no question mark here — asbestos kills and will continue to kill while this deadly fibre continues to be mined and exported.

This conference highlighted that the rapacious drive by multi-million dollar companies to continue to make profits at the expense of the lives of poor, unsuspecting workers and their families is unforgivable and a crime against humanity.

Asbestos was not a product far removed from the conference either. One had only to gaze out the window to see roofs built of asbestos, many decaying and crumbling. A shard of asbestos was lodged in a hole in the footpath metres from the hotel where the conference was held.

A delegate from the Philippines said a massive power plant, laden with asbestos, was demolished in the open air in the middle of Manila. It was only stopped when the union became involved, but not before thousands of people were exposed to the lethal substance.

An aspect highlighted by the Cambodian representative was that exposure is not limited to workers and their families alone. Tourists are also exposed. Cambodia was visited by 7 million tourists last year so a public awareness campaign, “Asbestos Free Cambodia”, would be a positive message for future tourism, she said.

An informal discussion with a Balinese representative revealed that all the kindergartens in Bali contain asbestos. She counted 380 sheets in one kindergarten alone.

What can be done about this situation? The conference outlined many positive “fight back” measures to stem the asbestos tide.

Workers and victims groups are now being organised through unions and occupational health and safety groups. Medical teams are starting to mobilise for the first time and are actively devising plans to educate their own doctors and increase screening programs for workers.

The conference organisers are already planning to facilitate a legal contingent to focus on seeking justice for the victims of asbestos at the next conference.

APHEDA is working in a systemic way and has expanded its work in south-east Asia to support campaigns and projects linking workers, NGOs and unions in a common goal — to ban asbestos forever.

However, we cannot forget that capitalism underpins the asbestos industry. Ultimately, capitalism causes poverty and poverty allows for the exploitation of workers by the asbestos industry. We need to attack capitalism head on if we are to stamp out this murderous industry forever.

[You can find out more about AHEDA's Asbestos — not here not anywhere campaign here. Jacqui Kriz went to the conference as a delegate from the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, Victorian Branch.]

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