Killer Company. James Hardie Exposed, by Matt Peacock, ABC Books, 2009.
James Hardie lied. The company executives knew for decades the dangers of asbestos.
They knew from the 1930s onwards that asbestos caused cancer. But there was money to be made, huge, overwhelming profits. When there are such profits to be made, what’s a few dead workers to these executives?
Very few of the executives of James Hardie were prepared to set aside a greater return to shareholders by implementing effective safety measures in the workplace.
Trouble is, there is no way to safely handle asbestos. It should never have been developed commercially in the way it was.
Workers at the asbestos factories at Camellia were often covered in the stuff. They lived in it, breathed it, ate it for lunch.
While they worked there they developed asbestosis. Years later they died of mesothelioma, an aggressive lung cancer that only gives sufferers a short time between diagnosis and death.
There is no cure. Among all the emerging suffering from asbestosis and mesothelioma, the company executives’ plans were to keep marketing asbestos for profit, and adopt a so called harm minimisation strategy.
Matt Peacock does the corporate world, unions and law firms a great service in setting out in intricate detail how the executives of Hardies lived in a world of denial, or at least part denial, while they rolled out ineffective measure after ineffective measure to try to protect their workers from injury and death.
Bernie Banton, who became well-known as an activist who had worked in the factory at Camellia, is now dead. He died of mesothelioma in 2007 after living for years with asbestosis.
Bernie became the public face of the campaign for justice from the manufacturers and processors of asbestos at the urging of Matt Peacock, when Matt first met him for a radio interview.
When Bernie worked at the factory at Camellia, he became a delegate for the Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union. Bernie was critical of the autocratic leadership of Ray Gietzelt, and sympathetic to Frank Shanahan, who was planning a challenge to Gietzelt’s leadership.
What Bernie didn’t know was that Shanahan was backed by the National Civic Council. Shanahan lost the election against Gietzelt, and went on to develop mesothelioma. He died a painful death.
The Missos had a number of union officials who were appalled by safety standards at the Camellia factory. One official, Doug Howitt, related to Matt Peacock an account of his visit to the Camellia factory: “We went into the teasing room, where they used to empty big bags of asbestos into an oblong funnel. There was a bloke tipping it in. He had his head in it! He was covered in asbestos! I virtually accused Hardie’s of being murderers, I was so upset. Fancy letting a bloke work like that! I said get him an air line respirator, but they were adamant he would not wear it. I said get this man a respirator or sack him if he refuses. Perhaps I should not have said that, but I did my block. I was party to this murder. What could I do?”
When Howitt went back to the Missos Office to report these events to Gietzelt, he was told to mind his own business, and from that day Howitt was frozen out of any union dealings with the company.
Ray Gietzelt and Ray Palfreyman of Hardies were frequently in touch. They were jokingly referred to as the “two Rays”. Palreyman would report back to Gietzelt after frequent overseas trips to attend asebestos industry conferences.
On one occasion, Hardies sought Gietzelt’s help in silencing Frank Roberts, editor of the Australian Workers Union newspaper. When Gietzelt met Matt Peacock, he described the dangers from asbestos as “minimal, absolutely minimal risk”.
Gietzelt denied that many union members had died of asbestos exposure, “if it had been a lot, I would have heard about it”.
Gietzelt had the opportunity at the Opera to raise any concerns he may have had about asbestos with John Reid, the chairman of James Hardie for 23 years.
Asked by Matt Peaock whether Gietzelt ever discussed the issue with Reid, he said: “I wouldn’t have raised that with him no. It wouldn’t have been protocol for me because if I had raised that with him, as a member of the board (of the Opera House Trust), it would rather indicate that I’m sort of holding him responsible.”
Despite Gietzelt, a number of union officials were very disturbed about asbestos and its dangers, Doug Howitt (FMWU), Frank Shanahan (FMWU), Frank Roberts (AWU), Ray Hogan (FMWU, Victoria), Theo Meletis (FMWU, Victoria), Vic Fitzgerald (FEDFA), Stan Fleming (FEDFA), Tom Cook (AMWU), Alf Hinton (AMWU), Barry Robson (MUA), and more latterly, Paul Bastian (AMWU), Andrew Ferguson (CFMEU), Greg Combet (ACTU) and many, many other conscientious officials and members of unions whose members handled or were exposed, often unwittingly, to asbestos and its deadly dangers.
Peacock tells the whole awful story about Hardies, and the other companies that manufactured asbestos, Wunderlich, CSR, and others.
But Hardies went on to do what should have been an unthinkable corporate crime, they moved to the Netherlands, and left behind a company that had insufficient funds to meet the compensation claims that were inevitably going to come if over the next 20 to 50 years.
And the leading members of Hardie’s knew that the Australian-based company was underfunded. They were trying to cut and run from their legal responsibilities to fund compensation for the victims of asbestos.
This was when all hell broke loose, and the campaign went public with Bernie Banton as the public face of the victims, and Greg Combet, then ACTU secretary, as the negotiator on behalf of the unions.
Even Bob Carr, who was sceptical of the campaign at the beginning, seemed over time to not only be politically involved but personally affected by the plight of the victims and their terrible stories of suffering.
As a result of the public campaign, and the Banton-Combet negotiating team, a number of deals have been struck with Hardies, and a number of court decisions made Hardie’s commit to meeting their liabilities, but even today stories still appear in the media that alarm victims and their support groups, about the future viability of compensation funds.
This is a wonderful book. It tells the story of Hardie’s and asbestos as it is, warts and all. Those who did what they did and said what they said are reported faithfully.
No relevant party’s role is covered up. Peacock obviously did an enormous amount of research and he has written the book in an easily readable style.
Asbestos victims and their families have been given a voice through this book. Those who admirably fought to have asbestos victims recognised and compensated are credited.