A $2 billion shortfall in the fund set up by James Hardie to compensate victims of its deadly asbestos products means thousands of Australians could be denied justice, unions said today.

At a meeting today of unions and asbestos victims support groups, ACTU Secretary
Greg Combet said:

Over the next fifteen years as many as 18,000 Australians are likely to have died from the deadly cancer caused by asbestos mesothelioma. The incidence of mesothelioma is not expected to peak until 2010.

It is a national tragedy that Australia has the highest rate of mesothelioma in the world and more than 500 Australians each year are now contracting the terminal disease.

Many more people are also likely to suffer other asbestos-related diseases such as lung cancer and asbestosis.

The Federal Government must take urgent action to ensure the assets of former asbestos producer James Hardie are available to compensate asbestos victims.

Three years ago James Hardie relocated its business to the Netherlands. The Netherlands is a country without a legal treaty with Australia that would allow asbestos victims to pursue their right to compensation.

James Hardie should not be allowed to escape its moral and legal responsibilities to the thousands of Australian victims of asbestos disease. Its proposal for a statutory scheme that would limit compensation to asbestos victims should be rejected.

Changes to Australias corporation laws are needed to prevent James Hardie and other companies from evading their obligations to pay employee entitlements or provide compensation.

The ACTU Executive today resolved to call on the Federal Government to:
Enter into a treaty with the Netherlands that would enable enforcement of Australian civil judgements;

Reach a special arrangement with the Netherlands to ensure the assets of the Netherlands-based James Hardie Industries NV are available to asbestos victims;

Amend Australian law, retrospectively in the case of James Hardie, to ensure holding companies are liable to the victims of their subsidiaries in the case of personal injury or death and that a corporate group can be treated as a single entity for the purpose of enforcing a judgement; and

Reform Australias corporations law so that the corporate veil can no longer be used by companies to avoid their legal liabilities to employees and the community for compensation or workers entitlements.

The ACTU has written to the Prime Minister to request cooperation in these efforts to provide full compensation to asbestos victims.