Wednesday, November 28, 2007

"They never told us that it would kill you,"

A story of working class courage

It is estimated that up to 56,000 Australians will be affected by asbestos-related illnesses by 2020 . Asbestos was mined in Western Australia until the 1960s and widely used in building products – until the dangers of exposure to its dust became clear. Australia has one of the world's highest rates of asbestos-related disease.

Some people submitted to their fate, but not Bernie Banton, who led a protracted international battle for proper compensation for himself and his fellow victims. Yesterday, the man who became the human face of a struggle for justice – a familiar figure who breathed with the help of an ever-present portable oxygen bottle connected via tubes to his nose – died of an asbestos-related cancer . He had fought James Hardie Industries, a multinational building products company and Australia's biggest asbestos manufacturer, earned him admiration from many. He battled to the very end. In 2001, the company bowed to pressure and set up a foundation to compensate victims of diseases caused by its products. But the sum it set aside – A$293m (£123m) – was laughable. When that fact was pointed out, the company refused to increase the fund. Then it moved its headquarters from Sydney to the Netherlands, saying this was for tax reasons. Critics accused of it of trying to avoid lawsuits.

Just last week, knowing he had only days to live, Bernie was still fighting for compensation for other sufferers from his hospital bed. "What a wonderful opportunity I've had to represent all those victims out there, and to be able to fight for them who were not well enough to do it," he told the assembled media.

The large plant where Bernie worked was one of Hardie's deadliest work environments. Of his 137 fellow employees, who included his two brothers, fewer than 10 are still alive.

John Howard's Health minister, Tony Abbott, was forced to apologise to Mr Banton last month after accusing him of staging a "stunt" when he handed in a 17,000-name petition to his office. Mr Abbott also suggested that Mr Banton's motives were "not pure". The petition requested a government subsidy for a new palliative drug for mesothelioma – the disease with which Mr Banton was diagnosed in August and which was ultimately to kill him.

No comments: