The battle to ban the Devil’s Dust in our neighbours’ backyards

Nicholas McCallum

Asbestos killed one of his workmates and will take others. He fights to see it banned. 

Australia banned the use of asbestos in the building industry in the 1980s, but it was still being imported into the country until a total ban came into effect at the end of 2003.

Other than a few slip-ups (like some trains in NSW), for the past 15 years asbestos in Australia the “devil’s dust”, as those who worked with the toxic material came to know it, has been held tight within the walls and roofs of hundreds of thousands of homes across the land.

Yet asbestos mining and manufacturing continues unabated in many countries around the world, including our Southeast Asian neighbours Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand.

In these countries, what is often derided as the “rest of the world”, asbestos is big business and a big killer.

Asbestos powder left in an Indonesian workshop. Source: Subono/SERBUK

Subono is one worker fighting to eradicate asbestos from factories in Indonesia elsewhere after spending 14 years of his working life since 1999 breathing in the deadly dust.

“Poor working conditions and very limited health insurance made me furious, plus some friends at work died of lung disease,” said Subono. “But none were diagnosed with asbestosis”.

In countries like Indonesia, where labour laws are lax, companies get away with what they can when it comes to workers using dangerous and toxic materials. Profits are good and human life is cheap. Lies are a given.

“Even the company talks as if the asbestos is harmless,” he said.

Hazardous asbestos products piled up. General Secretary of the Indonesian Union SERBUK, Subono (inset).

“Until finally I threw asbestos dust in front of the management company and decided to stop working.

“Then I promised to do the fight to tell people that asbestos is very dangerous.”

Subono, General Secretary of the Indonesian Union SERBUK, has been fighting to educate fellow workers about the dangers of asbestos and the need for workers to cover up and lobbying governments to take action and enact laws to protect laws.

But his battle was too late for some of this his colleagues. Already one of the men he started working with 19 years ago has died from lung disease while three more received terminal diagnoses for the same thing.

Missing the devil in the detail

Part of the reason these men are dying is because doctors often misdiagnose mesothelioma – the fatal lung disease caused by asbestos exposure – as tuberculosis. But mostly, they died from criminal negligence in pursuit of profits.

Each year more than 40,000 people fall ill from asbestos-related respiratory disease, 2400 die from it. Compensation is near impossible to get. Of the 10 workers Subono worked with at the factory struck down by mesothelioma, only one received a payout.

Subono's workmates are dying after working with asbestos.

The ETU joins with SERBUK and APHEDA in the battle to ban asbestos worldwide.

“OH&S doctors diagnose the illness,” said Subono, “but the workers need help from the companies. But the company will keep running and running.”

Its population soaring past 220 million, Indonesian authorities see asbestos as a cheap and easy fix for a developing nation. The 17 companies that manufactured asbestos roofing materials in 2014 netted combined profits of $117 million.

Like the bosses’ profits, the toxic waste also piles up, often with little care shown for the workers. Protective closing is scarce and broken materials are stacked in uncovered heaps while the deadly dust piles on the floor.

“These workers are only exposed to deadly asbestos and they are not even aware of its dangers,” said Electrical Trades Union National Secretary Allen Hicks, adding the education and protection was key until total global bans were enacted.

Asbestos’ global reach

According APHEDA, during the 2016-17 financial year in Australia there were 1770 people registered themselves as having been exposed to asbestos, with four out five coming into contact with the toxic substance at work. But that's in a country where asbestos is banned. Elsewhere in the world, the risks are greater. 

Russia is the largest exported of asbestos, accounting for roughly 20 per cent of the world’s supply, according to the US-based Mesothelioma Center. High on the list are China, Brazil, Kazakhstan, India while Canada and the UK still measure among exporters.

When the United Nations tried to add chrysotile asbestos to the Rotterdam Convention Hazardous Substances Lists, seven countries voted against it: India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Cuba Zimbabwe and Russia.

In 2015 Indonesia imported 109,276 tonnes of asbestos to be manufactured in 27 factories, with 90 per cent of it hitting the construction industry and 10 per cent of homes across the archipelago.

Protesters in Indonesia call for asbestos bans.

Hicks said the ETU was in lock-step with Ban Asbestos Indonesia and threw the union’s full support behind APHEDA and the Building Workers International in the battle to end the trade and manufacture of the Devil’s Dust.

“Anything we can do to help and support our union brothers and sisters in this fight, we must,” Mr Hicks said.

Asbestos is currently only banned in 55 countries around the world, including most of Europe, Australia, Japan, South Korea – but not the US or New Zealand.

Earlier this year Vietnam announced it would ban asbestos from use in its construction sector from 2023, but 140 countries still have no plans for bans.

Last month serial asbestos dumper Dib Hanna become the first person in NSW to be sentenced to prison under strict anti-dumping laws.

The deadly dust is still lodged within countless homes in Australian, and you can sign a petition to calling for tougher protections against the illegal importation of the stuff here.

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