ILO sounds the ‘death knell for asbestos’

DYING INDUSTRY Asbestos kills at least 300 people every day. It's time the industry was killed off, say unions and campaigners.

A statement from a United Nations body confirming its desire to see the end of asbestos use worldwide is the ‘death knell’ for a substance which claims one life every five minutes around the clock, the global union confederation ITUC has said.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) this week warned in an official position statement that industry lobbyists pushing asbestos around the world must not claim to have ILO support.

ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said the ILO statement provides welcome support for the global union campaign to see a ban on asbestos worldwide and a just transition to safer, better jobs for displaced asbestos workers. “ILO has confirmed that it wants to see the elimination of asbestos use worldwide, full stop,” she said. “Coming on the heels of calls for a global ban on asbestos use from major scientific, medical and occupational health groups, this sounds the death knell for the deadly fibre and a fatal blow for the asbestos pushers.”

The ILO statement comes at a time the asbestos industry is pressing hard for an expansion of chrysotile (white) asbestos production and sales. All forms of asbestos except for chrysotile are already prohibited worldwide.

Industry lobby group the Chrysotile Institute, which takes a lead in the global promotion of asbestos exports, routinely cites ILO documents and claims they are supportive of its case for continued asbestos use.

The Chrysotile Institute’s ‘Safe use manual’ claims it “builds on the principles of controlled-use embodied in ILO Convention 162, Safety in the Use of Asbestos.” The Institute also claims on its website to have organised training courses “in cooperation” with the ILO “intended to promote the controlled use of chrysotile.” And a March 2010 Chrysotile Institute news release headed ‘Partners in Favour of Chrysotile Fibre’ and criticising those calling for a global asbestos ban said its case was supported by “documents from the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization among others.”

Concerned at the industry’s repeated misuse of ILO’s name, the Geneva-based body issued the position statement which highlights the UN agency’s commitment to “promoting the elimination of the future use of all forms of asbestos and asbestos-containing materials.”

The ILO statement also underlines that “the ILO Convention on Safety in the Use of Asbestos, No. 162, should not be used to provide a justification for, or endorsement of, the continued use of asbestos.”

The issue has caused renewed controversy in recent months, as the Chrysotile Institute has been trying to secure government and private funds to dramatically expand asbestos production in Quebec, Canada. The last-ditch effort to revive Quebec’s asbestos industry this month received a cash lifeline while the deadly mining operation scrabbles to find private investors. The rapid approval by the Quebec government of a Can$3.5 million (US$3.4m) guaranteed line of credit, plus political support from Canada’s federal government, allowed the Jeffrey mine in Asbestos, Quebec to reopen for the month of September.

The new cash has given the mine – which has virtually exhausted its asbestos deposit, is under bankruptcy protection and which ceased operating in October 2009 – breathing space to find private investors. Without this it has been told a Can$58m (US$56m) loan guarantee from the Quebec government, which would underwrite the cost of opening a new asbestos mine, would not be forthcoming. If the mine goes ahead, it will export 200,000 tonnes of asbestos a year to developing countries for 25 years.

Sharan Burrow said the ILO position statement could have “life-saving consequences, in reinforcing the union case for a total asbestos ban.” At ITUC’s June 2010 global congress in Vancouver, delegates agreed to press for “a total world ban on the use and commercialisation of asbestos, in which regard Congress, meeting in Canada, makes a special appeal to the Canadian government to join a total world ban on asbestos.”

That did not mean consigning asbestos workers to the scrap heap, however. According to Sharan Burrow: “Bringing an end to asbestos use is crucial, but only one part of the equation. That’s why ITUC is pursuing a policy of just transition, replacing dirty, damaging and deadly jobs with safer alternatives. We don’t want to see asbestos workers jobless, we want to see them in good, union jobs that don’t kill them. Asbestos is a dying industry – we need to consign it to history and move instead to decent, green jobs where you work, not die, for a living.”

Fiona Murie, health and safety director of the global construction union federation BWI, whose members are in the asbestos exposures front line, warned that while the industry profited from asbestos use, workers paid with their lives. “The World Health Organisation’s latest estimate notes that asbestos already claims 107,000 lives a year,” she said, pointing to a July 2010 WHO factsheet. “Even that conservative estimate means every five minutes around the clock a person dies of asbestos related disease.”

The construction union health and safety expert welcomed the ILO statement. “This confirms what the industry has in reality known all along – ILO, alongside major respectable scientific and medical organisations the world over, opposes the ongoing use of a fibre that kills at least 300 people every day. The asbestos industry, aided and abetted by the governments of Canada and Quebec, must now cease and desist its callous and cynical subterfuge on asbestos and should accept no-one including the ILO wants its deadly product.”

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