BY MATT PEACOCK - Book Review by Andy Alcock
ABC Books, 390pp A$35
In his brilliantly researched book, Killer Company, ABC journalist Matt Peacock exposes the criminal history of the Reid family and others involved in the management of the asbestos manufacturing company, James Hardie.
Peacock details how JH pursued policies very similar to the tobacco companies when they realised that smoking had serious health problems. JH managers tried to cover-up the dangers of asbestos, failed to warn employees and the public of the dangers, concealed the health problems being suffered by their employees and the users of their products, dumped wastes in a very negligent and dangerous way, pressured governments and health authorities not to act, behaved extremely harshly towards its victims when they sought compensation and when the number of claims substantially increased, it sneakily transferred its parent company overseas to Holland and left a foundation behind to provide compensation for victims that was underfunded.
The behaviour of JH and other asbestos companies has led to a situation where tens of thousands of Australians have died or are dying from asbestos-related diseases. They are asbestosis, a dusty lung disease; lung cancer and mesothelioma, a very cruel cancer of the middle lining of organs, but mostly affecting the lungs. The well-known anti JH campaigner , Bernie Banton, died from from mesothelioma after suffering from asbestosis.
Because JH had asbestos production and sales of its products overseas, this massive human tragedy will also affect people other than Australians.
Matt Peacock first investigated asbestos issues in 1977 when he received a media award for producing a series of programs for ABC Radio that looked into a number of areas where asbestos was causing problems - eg Wittenoom, Baryulgil, JH factories in various Australian states, Melbourne suburban rail cars etc.
"Killer Company" provides us with a detailed history of JH criminal behaviour and how it was exposed. It examines how working class heroes like Bernie Banton, the union movement, victims groups, and the legal firms Slater and Gordon and Turner Freeman struggled to expose the dangers of asbestos dust and to win compensation for the victims and their families. It also identifies some union leaders who went along with JH.
Owners of industry often blame unions and left wingers for promoting the concept of a class war in society. On reading Peacock's extraordinary book, ordinary workers can be forgiven for believing in a class war. "Killer Company" clearly shows that JH directors were criminally negligent and showed no humanity or compassion for their victims and no remorse for their crimes.
It is to be hoped that we learn the lessons from the asbestos tragedy. It is crucial that unions, environmental and consumer groups are on their guard to ensure that people are protected from the health problems from asbestos dust and other hazardous agents that exist in our workplaces.
The publication of this book comes 2 years after the defeat of the Howard government and its WorkChoices policy. This defeat was largely due to the very strong campaign organised by the ACTU against WorkChoices. It should be remembered that a side issue of this campaign was justice for asbestos victims. Bernie Banton figured prominently in this campaign while on his death bed, fighting for justice for fellow victims and forcing Tony Abbott to make the anti cancer drug, Alimta, freely available to sufferers of mesothelioma.
Many unionists would be aware that the Rudd government has retained much of WorkChoices in its Fair Work Act. Many do not seem to be aware that the government's review of the OH&S laws around the country could lead to a situation where these laws are very likely to be seriously watered down. To prevent any more tragedies arising from work hazards, it is to be hoped that the union leaders in Australia mount a similar campaign to the one that was conducted in lead-up to the 2007 federal elections to demand effective OH&S laws around the country.
After all, our OH&S rights at work are worth fighting for too!
From the middle 1970s to the early 1980s, I taught at Taperoo High School, a working class suburb which is part of Port Adelaide. A group of teachers decided that it was important to establish a general health course as this subject was not being presented in a cohesive manner to our students. It is now has the more impressive name Ocean View College even though it is on the edge of St Vincent's Gulf and not the Southern Ocean.
I approached the Education Department's health resouce centre for materials and we were presented with a health education manual and made an unofficial pilot school in a health education project. The Health faculty was originally managed in a collective way and all teachers involved discussed all topics of the course beforehand and shared the resources that members of the team developed.
One topic of the course was Environmental Health. When we came to present this topic, we all decided that we needed to consider the environment of Taperoo, which included the Hardie's asbestos plant at Largs North, chemical and acid production, fertiliser works, oil storage, cement factory etc. Students lived near these industrial sites and their parents worked in them.
I was given the task of preparing a booklet entitled "Environmental and Occupational Health"
We received a great deal of support from parents for including this topic and giving their kids information about the hazards that existed in the environment in which they lived and worked.
The ABC printed a book which contained the transcripts of all of the programs that Matt Peacock produced on asbestos. I used this book with my health classes.
The Aboriginal students, in particular, found the program on Baryulgil extremely interesting as the bulk of the workers at that mine were Aboriginal. At that time, Taperoo HS was reputed to have more Aboriginal students than any other school in South Australia. All the case studies presented by Peacock were horrifying, but the tragedy at Baryulgil was that the mine was near the school and the residential area of the town. Scores of those workers died between the ages of 40 -50 years of age and the NSW Health Commission did not bother to carry out post mortems.
In doing my research for the booklet, I visited the offices of the Waterside Workers' Federation and the Seamen's Union of Australia (now combined as the Maritime Union of Australia). One wharfie I met told me about the conditions under which they worked.who explainsed that after they emptied the holds of ships bringing chrysotile asbestos from South Africa, his job was to shovel the dust into bags. He told me that the air was so thick with asbestos dust that he could not see the workmate who was holding open the bag that he was filling.
Someone must have advised the health faculty of the Sturt College of Advanced Education (now part of Flinders University) as we were contacted by them to make a presentation to their education students in 1979 and to be involved in preparing an exhibition for the 1979 Australian and NZ Association for the Advancement of Science conference at the University of Adelaide.
Students prepared their own posters about particular occupational and environmental hazards and we listed many of the pollutants that were being produced by industries in the Taperoo and Port Adelaide areas. One Education Department manager was concerned about the project because he thought it might affect the school's work experience program. It turned out that some of our students had worked at the James Hardie plant. When questions were raised about this, we were told that they only worked in the office! I have heard of cases where office workers in asbestos mines and plants have suffered asbestos dust-related diseases.
Several years later, I became an organiser for the SA Institute of Teachers (now the Australian Education Union - SA Branch) and I was given a focus for OH&S, probably due to my experiences in teaching health at Taperoo and Port Pirie. I went on to become the Education Department's Coordinator for OH&S and subsequently worked for SAIT and the PSA/CPSU as an OH&S officer for a total of about 20 years. I also spent several years as a trainer of H&S Representatives and a United Trades & Labour Council/SA Unions delegate on the ACTU OH&S Committee.
I mention this because I think there is a need for the leaders of the union movement in Australia to take OH&S far more seriously than they presently do.
Each year in Australia, 8000 die from work-related injuries and disease. Of these deaths, about 450 - 500 are due to traumatic accidents; the rest are caused by disease. A huge percentage of this number are dying from exposure to asbestos dust.
This fact alone should mean that the ACTU campaign calling for effective safety laws in Australia should be as well resourced and promoted as the WorkChoices campaign leading up to the 2007 federal elections. If this does not happen, the Rudd government will seriously water down our OH&S laws.
OUR OH&S RIGHTS AT WORK ARE WORTH FIGHTING FOR TOO!
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