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‘Asbestos victims do not die by instalments’

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By the Working Life Team

Thursday, 27 November 2014

WITH estimates that more than 25,000 Australians will die from the asbestos disease mesothelioma over the next four decades, unions are ramping up demands that James Hardie commits to fully compensating victims by lump sum payments.

The ACTU has gained endorsement from affiliate unions to take legal action to block any move to have asbestos victims paid by instalments.

It follows a warning from James Hardie in September of a potential shortfall in the Asbestos Injuries Compensation Fund, which was established in 2006 as a special purpose fund for victims with claims against the former James Hardie group of companies.

READ: Dead from mesothelioma at 25

James Hardie is legally required to contribute up to 35% of its annual net operating cash flow to the AICF until 2045.

But despite paying out dividends of US$743.6 million ($871.3 million) over the past two years and making a net profit of US$99.5 million ($116.6 million) last year, James Hardie now says a blow-out in compensation claims means the fund is on track to run out of money.

AICF has indicated it will seek approval in the Supreme Court to vary the compensation payments from lump sums to instalments.

But the ACTU now says it has strong legal advice that there is nothing to stop James Hardie from making a one-off payment to top up the AICF.

Unions vote to block instalment payments

At the ACTU Executive yesterday, unions voted unanimously to take legal action to block any attempt by the AICF to have asbestos victims paid their compensation by instalments.

They also want the NSW and federal governments to be prepared to make a loan to the AICF to ensure victims are paid full and prompt compensation.

Unions have flagged a community campaign to put pressure on James Hardie and governments to do the right thing.

“James Hardie has projected profits between US $205-$235 million in 2014-15, pays little to no tax and its CEO earns $11 million a year,” said ACTU Secretary Dave Oliver.

“It’s outrageous that its management is seeking to avoid its moral obligation to fully compensate the victims of asbestos-related disease and cannot shirk that responsibility.”

The ACTU announced its action on the seventh anniversary of the death of the asbestos campaigner Bernie Banton, who died in 2007 from mesothelioma he contracted as a result of working for James Hardie in the 1970s.

And tomorrow is National Asbestos Awareness Day, remberance services are held to pay tribute to the thousands of Australians who have died from asbestos-related diseases.

The day also serves to remind all Australians that asbestos is not a thing of the past, but very much an ever present danger.

WATCH: are you playing renovation roulette?

According to the National Health and Medical Research Council, 600 mesothelioma cases are reported annually and this is expected to rise to more than 900 cases annually by the year 2020.

A major awareness campaign has been launched to warn home renovators of the deadly dangers of hidden asbestos that may be disturbed during building work.

“There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos fibres,” said Barry Robson, President of Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia.

“In the past, the first wave of people affected by asbestos-related diseases were those exposed to fibres in the mining and manufacturing process and their families. Then came the second wave which were people exposed to fibres from using products in the workplace.

“With one-in-three Australian homes containing asbestos in some form or another, the very real and present danger today is when people don’t know the risks or how to protect themselves or families and release fibres during home renovations and maintenance.”

Houses are potential death traps

From the end of World War II until 1954, 70,000 asbestos cement houses were built in NSW alone (52% of all houses built) with 25% of all new housing clad in asbestos cement until the 1960s.

Peter Dunphy, chair of the Asbestos Education Committee that conducts the national Asbestos Awareness campaign, said Australia had one of the highest rates of asbestos-related diseases in the world.

This is because Australia was among the highest consumers of asbestos products with more than 60% of all asbestos product manufacturing, and 90% of all consumption of asbestos fibre used in asbestos cement until a complete ban of asbestos came into force in Australia in 2003.

He said if a house was built or renovated before 1987, it was likely to contain asbestos.

“No one can tell if a product contains asbestos just by looking at it and it’s not only fibro homes that may contain asbestos,” he said.

Dead from mesothelioma at 25

Asbestos awareness-Banton

Karen Banton and Rod Smith from the Bernie Banton Foundation with Julie and Don Sager at an Asbestos Awareness Week event in Melbourne today. Photo: ACTU/Mark Phillips

ADAM Sager was a fit, healthy 25-year-old man looking forward to representing Australia in a Korean martial art.

Ten months later he was dead from mesothelioma that had been quietly lurking in his body for more than two decades.

Their son’s untimely death has turned Julie and Don Sager into campaigners to raise awareness about the dangers of asbestos in ordinary houses.

They believe that Adam probably breathed in asbestos fibres when they were sanding walls in their new house in Townsville in preparation for painting in 1983, when he was just 20 months old.

“He was only a tiny little fellow walking around following us when we were doing the work,” says Julie.

Don says hundreds of new homes were built in Townsville in the early-1980s with asbestos sheeting for internal walls. Asbestos was not banned from all construction and building materials in Australia until 1987.

Both Don and Julie have been scanned and have no signs of mesothelioma themselves. It is thought that Adam’s young and undeveloped lungs as a child made him more vulnerable.

Adam died in April 2007 and since then his parents have sought to make home renovators aware of the need to take precautions.

Last year, they met Bernie Banton’s widow, Karen, at the funeral of another asbestos victim, and have since linked up with the Bernie Banton Foundation.

“We don’t want it all to be focussed on Adam and people feeling sorry for us,” says Julie. “But we do want to raise awareness.”

– Mark Phillips

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