Review: Killer Company
By Matt Peacock, ABC Books, $35.00
In 1898 Britian’s Chief Inspector of Factories reported to Parliament about the “evil effects of asbestos dust”. The first deaths from asbestos were confirmed in 1906.
A century later the James Hardie company, who had made enormous profits from asbestos, were still fighting tooth and nail to evade responsibility for the deaths its products have caused and will cause in the future.
The company knew for decades about the deadly effects of asbestos but they suppressed this information and mounted a campaign of public relations spin while they plotted to escape liability—and would have succeeded but for the union and community campaign for justice for asbestos victims.
Matt Peacock, who has covered this issue as a reporter since 1977, has written a trenchant critique of James Hardie in his aptly-titled and meticulously-researched book Killer Company.
Australians became the highest per capita users of asbestos in the world, thanks largely to Hardie’s, with the highest rate of asbestos-related disease.
Hardie’s was aware of the lethal effects of asbestos for decades. In 1935 the Chief Inspector of Factories in WA identified two Hardie workers at the Riverdale factory who appeared to be suffering “in a marked degree from the effects of asbestos dust”.
Partly in response to this, Hardie’s moved its asbestos business into a subsidiary company, allowing it to claim the legal protection of the “corporate veil”, something it would often invoke in coming years.
The company was also aware of the issue in 1939 when it was first sued—unsuccessfully—for death caused by asbestos dust.
Mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos was first reported in South African miners and their families in 1957 and a case was reported in 1962 from the Witenoom mine in Western Australia.
In 1961, Peter Russell was employed as a safety engineer and fire officer at Camelia in Sydney’s West and continually warned Hardie executives of the hazards of asbestos until he resigned over the issue in 1970.
In 1966 John Reid, then a Hardie director and later to run the company for 23 years, had read an article sent to him by a colleague called “Urgent probe into ‘new’ killer dust disease” in Britain’s Sunday Times. Hardie’s personnel manager told him: “The article is not new—it is one of many reports on world studies which have been conducted since 1935 when the association between exposure to dust and carcinoma of the lung, mesothelioma of the pleura, tumour of the bladder and uterus and other fatal complaints, was first recognised. The nucleus is dust particles—fibre.”
Two years later Bernie Banton started to work at Hardie’s Camelia plant in Sydney. By 1973 an X-ray of his lungs showed “definite early signs” of asbestos disease—but Banton was never told. As he commented: “This company knew and proceeded to put profits in place of workplace reform.”
Peacock outlines the impact of the Hardie mine at the Aboriginal community of Baryulgil. When he returned 30 years after his first visit in 1977, he was told by Dr Ray Jones that the cancer rate was “substantially higher” than other nearby Aboriginal communities: “These people are getting cancers in their forties that normally you get in your sixties.”
Hardie’s was not the only Australian asbestos company. A little-known company in northern Tasmania, Goliath Portland Cement, poured out a range of asbestos products for over 40 years: asbestos sheeting, corrugated roofing, airport runway markers and pot plants.
Its Managing Director was Alex Walker, the man who had sent John Reid the Sunday Times article warning of the deadly danger of asbestos in 1966.
A former worker, Shane Free, told the ABC’s Background Briefing program that in the 1970s the company told workers to cut asbestos roofing sheets with angle grinders to speed up production: “And we began cutting the sheets, without masks originally. I’d come home at night and at the time I had black hair and plenty of it, and my hair and face and everything and my clothes would be full of asbestos dust.”
Killer Company traces the company’s efforts to distance itself from asbestos and the mounting wave of claims for compensation from asbestos victims.
By 1998 the James Hardie board had agreed to relocate headquarters to the Netherlands. This meant a split from its former asbestos subsidiaries and setting up the separate Medical Research and Compensation Foundation to fund claims from asbestos victims.
The growing union and community campaign was boosted when NSW Premier Bob Carr decided to hand negotiations with Hardie over funding and compensation to ACTU secretary Greg Combet. Sidelining the NSW manufacturing union (AMWU), Combet finally negotiated a deal that seemed to guarantee compensation for asbestos victims.
Peacock was rightly cautious of this at the time. He made the insightful prediction that the company could move to the US and claim that asbestos compensation would make it bankrupt.
Last year it was revealed that Hardie’s was not making adequate payments into its compensation fund and it may run out soon.
A consistent thread through Hardie’s tawdry history is its use of lawyers, advertising agencies and public relations consultants to cover its tracks.
Stephen Loosley, former Labor Senator and secretary of the NSW Labor Party, picked up $50,000 from Hardie’s for a three-month public relations consultancy when the pressure from the ACTU was growing.
There has only ever been one finding against the Hardie directors, related to a 2001 press release and
statement to the Stock Exchange, which said that the Medical Research and Compensation Foundation was fully funded and would provide certainty to asbestos vicims—both lies.
The pressure that was brought to bear, however, meant that even the Labor party and public relations firm Hawker Britton returned James Hardie donations to asbestos victims.
Killer Company deals with some issues that are also covered in Gideon Haigh’s Asbestos House, but Peacock presents a far sharper indictment of Hardie’s role and also deals more effectively with the role of the unions—generally, but not always, positive—in campaigning against Hardie.
In 1956 the NSW Secretary of the Miscellaneous Workers Union (MWU), Doug Howitt, inspected an asbestos factory in the Sydney suburb of Alexandria:
“It was awful. The asbestos was festooned like thick cobwebs throughout and the dust spilled onto the footpath and road. We call in the health inspectors and they closed it down.”
Howitt continued to campaign around asbestos and as a research officer in 1968 he had an angry confrontation with Hardie management after seeing a worker at the Camelia plant covered in asbestos. Ray Gietzelt, the union’s general secretary, promptly froze Howitt out of any dealings with the company.
Peacock concludes that “the union under Gietzelt’s leadership certainly appeared to be ‘soft’ with Hardie on asbestos”. When the union movement campaigned to ensure that Hardie provide adequate compensation for its asbestos victims the MWU was a notable absence.
Peacock reveals that the extent of the use of asbestos is far greater than had been realised. Millions of hessian bags used to transport asbestos—and leaking in the process—were recycled for other uses, many of them as felt undercarpets. It is not known how many carpets have the lethal underlay but many carpets installed in the 1970s would have been replaced ten to 15 years later, releasing the asbestos dust. This will not show up as mesothelioma for another 40 years—in the 2020s!
The hessian bags were also used by wheat farmers in WA, banana growers in Queensland and by fruit sellers at the Victoria markets.
Asbestos waste was used in the construction of driveways and thousands of tonnes of waste from Hardie’s Camelia site was dumped around the Parramatta area for years.
In a program on Radio Australia, Peacock warned that a third of all the countries in the world are currently expanding the use of asbestos. Although asbestos has been banned for use in construction by most countries, it is still being used in Papua New Guinea, despite protests from the PNG Medical Society.
Those in the Pacific and Papua New Guinea who suffer from asbestosis and other consequences of asbestos exposure are not included in the current compensation agreement with James Hardie.
An international campaign has been mounted against the Premier of Quebec, Jean Charest, over his decision to export Canadian asbestos to India. Scientists from 28 countries have called on Charest to reverse his decision.
Peacock’s meticulously researched book is a testament to his long involvement in this issue.
However, there is still a question of the extent to which the lessons of the campaign against Hardie have been learnt. The federal Labor government’s home insulation scheme, implemented without union involvement, has revealed an alarming lack of concern with occupational health and safety that has led to four tragic deaths of installers and a number of house fires.
Peacock’s book opens with a moving portrait of Bernie Banton in hospital so the last word should go to the man who came to personify the campaign for justice for asbestos victims.
A year before his death in November 2007 he spoke at a public meeting for Parramatta Your Rights at Work:
“Unions have been absolutely vital to this fight against James Hardie because the company didn’t give a hoot about their workers. Industrial relations meant you went to work, you got paid, and they sent you home with a disease that was going to kill you. Unfortunately, James Hardie never bothered to tell us that asbestos kills.”
By Phil Sandford