It is unacceptable for James Hardie to now try to offload responsibility for fully compensating its asbestos victims says ACTU President Sharan Burrow.

Asbestos is a patient killer.

It takes an average 37 years from the time of exposure to its deadly fibres before the onset of mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is a cancer that causes extreme pain and breathlessness as the tumour crushes the lung. There are no cures and it is inevitably fatal within about 12 months of diagnosis.

Australia has the highest per capita incidence of mesothelioma in the world. More than 500 Australians a year are contracting the disease.

For each diagnosed case of mesothelioma, research shows there are two additional cases of asbestos-related lung cancer and non-malignant asbestos-related disease.

Australia’s unions have been hit hard by the asbestos epidemic.

Many long-standing union members have lost their lives through their exposure in the workplace.

Miners of asbestos have been badly affected but also many other tradespeople and workers.

Waterside workers who loaded asbestos onto ships, mechanics that worked on asbestos-filled brake pads, electricians and technicians in power stations that used asbestos, as well as builders, carpenters, roofers and other tradespeople that used ‘fibro’ building products.

It was not until the beginning of this year that unions finally succeeded in achieving a government ban on asbestos in all Australian workplaces.

But we are concerned that many people are continuing to be exposed to asbestos products in all sorts of situations from demolition sites to rubbish tips and in the old factories or buildings they work in.

We are also worried about another wave of victims in the home renovation industry.

In workplaces that are strongly unionised we are often able to help ensure health and safety standards are up to scratch.

But it is very hard to do this in areas where there are high levels of casualisation and where union membership is low.

That is why unions are working closely with asbestos support groups to broaden our campaign for justice and for a safer community.

Our first step is to hold James Hardie accountable for its role in the asbestos epidemic.

James Hardie was Australia’s largest manufacturer of asbestos products. It made insulation products, fibro cement sheet, pipes and friction materials such as brake and clutch linings.

Until the mid 1980s the company had a dominant market position and in South Australia James Hardie was effectively the only commercial supplier of asbestos-containing fibro cement sheet.

There is evidence that James Hardie knew the dangers of asbestos from at least the 1930s but no warnings or directions were placed on fibro until 1978. No general warning regarding the dangers of asbestos has ever been given by the company to the community.

It is unacceptable for the company to now try to offload responsibility for fully compensating its asbestos victims.

As recently as last week James Hardie was caught distributing a misleading and deceptive letter to its customers that downplays its role in the manufacture of asbestos products and its liability for compensating victims.

A NSW Government Inquiry has heard there is a shortfall of up to $2 billion in the compensation fund set up by James Hardie before it conveniently moved its headquarters to the Netherlands.

With current compensation requirements running at around $70 million a year and a profit of up to $240 million predicted this year, James Hardie can well afford to fully compensate victims.

But instead of giving an open-ended guarantee that it will do so, James Hardie instead proposes that a statutory scheme be set up by each State and Territory government —effectively limiting the company’s liability by short-changing victims.

Unions and asbestos groups can find efficiencies in the existing compensation process but there is no need for a statutory scheme that would simply shift costs away from the company and onto the taxpayer.

We are also calling for the Federal Government to play a role.

The Government needs to reform corporation law so that companies can no longer use the ‘corporate veil’ to avoid their legal liabilities to employees and the community for compensation or workers’ entitlements.

It is also time for a national public awareness campaign on the dangers of asbestos.

The Government is wasting more than $120 million on election advertising.

Surely it would be better to help save lives by promoting awareness of the dangers of asbestos?