There’s a theme running through Matt Peacock’s book. It’s about a culture of denial, orchestrated by the board of James Hardie. Matt’s been involved in the fight against the deadly mineral, asbestos, for more than 30 years. My involvement isn’t quite that long, but there’s a relevant passage on page 41that particularly caught my attention.
“In Melbourne I met a union organiser for the train drivers at daybreak and together we secretly clambered over the Harris trains in Melbourne’s Jolimont rail yards…eventually [they] were buried in their entirety under sandpits at Clayton.”
That, as they say, is where I came in. With other delegates from the train drivers union and the Jolimont union shop committee, I was a leader of the campaign to monitor and eventually rid Australia of these death traps. The idea to bury them at Clayton was ours. How we got to that point is a microcosm of the world of lies, political manipulation and cynical disregard for workers’ health and safety that Peacock details in his book. And the culture of denial about the lethal nature of asbestos.
James Hardie and the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR) are the lead villains in the poisoning of generations of working class families, but they are not the only players. Politicians, tame cat union officials and government bureaucrats all played their part in the second greatest corporate crime of the 20th century (the greatest being the nicotine industry).
Up to the present day, lawyers for Hardie and CSR will argue in court that nobody knew of the dangers of asbestos until relatively recently. But I’ve seen the proof in documents from the early 1950s.
After the choice of suppliers for the Harris trains was finalised, the Chief Medical Officer for the Victorian government wrote to the Chief Commissioner of the Victorian Railways Board strongly recommending that asbestos not be used in the new trains as it had been linked to lung diseases. The reply from the Commissioner is a damning indictment of the Board’s attitude to worker and public safety. While acknowledging the concerns voiced by the health official, the reply states that it would cost “several hundreds of pounds” more to use an alternative and that therefore the Board would proceed as planned. The documents are in the State Archives as well as those of the former Australian Railways Union.
As Peacock argues throughout the book, the lie about ignorance of the perils of asbestos was debunked decades ago. But that lie is the core of the corporate culture of James Hardie. In three chapters, Peacock describes how the breathtaking attempt by Hardie to flee the country and its obligations to thousands of injured workers was really no surprise – it’s the sort of thing the company had been doing for decades. But the tale still leaves the reader with a crawling feeling of disgust.
Yet Peacock never descends into sensationalism. The whole sordid tale is depicted in the cool, detached language of the professional journalist. It’s not that he is a disinterested party. The first chapter is a moving tribute to Bernie Banton, the asbestos factory worker who became the public face of the campaign to bring the company to account. It’s just that the behaviour of generations of Hardie managers and directors needs no lurid language. Report the facts and they convict themselves!
Which leads me back to my own experience of asbestos deniers. The Harris trains were insulated with a mixture of crocidolite (blue) asbestos and glue. The glue was guaranteed for 20 years. By 1978, when Peacock took photos of damaged trains, two of which appear in the book, not only was vandalism a problem, but asbestos was breaking away from the roof and body skins of the carriages, because the glue had deteriorated. Drivers and Guards had to brush wads of blue fibres from their seats and controls each morning. Passengers, too, had to clean seats before using them.
The issue came to a head in early 1985, after a carriage was burnt at Sunshine, in Melbourne’s western suburbs. It was towed 12km through the suburbs, spilling asbestos all the way, then left standing on the concrete apron outside Jolimont workshops, in the centre of Melbourne! Only a threatened strike by maintenance and operations staff forced the government to make it safe.
Peacock says that the trains were sealed and removed from service in 1988. But, it didn’t quite happen that way. It was agreed that the trains would be injected with a sealant and then tested for airborne fibres. Mysteriously, there seemed to be no effect on the concentrations of fibres in the carriages, which were sometimes 50 to 100 times the urban background level. Clumps of asbestos continued to fall through ceiling vents. This puzzled everybody.
In June 1988, a train was impounded and its internal panels removed and, suitably kitted up, union, management and government officials inspected one of the cabs. It had not been sealed. Other trains were inspected at random – no sealant. That was the last straw. A fellow delegate and I issued separate cease work orders under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Somebody in management had decided that asbestos was not really dangerous, and quietly stole thousands of litres of sealant, some of which is reputed to adorn the roof decorations of a prominent Melbourne restaurant! The union working party had inspected many of the “safe” carriages and seen the sealant in place. But car after car was untreated. Had someone switched car identification numbers? While I can’t know for sure, I’ve often wondered.
With the trains rusting in yards all over the suburbs, there was argument about what to do. The union committee had researched the clay pits in Clayton, suggesting that the cars be wrapped for transport, and then sunk in them. After a year, management and government came back to us, finally agreeing to the only feasible safe method of disposal.
Yes, there were uncaring, obstinate, and possibly corrupt bureaucrats involved in the Harris train fiasco. But I blame James Hardie and CSR, because it was their wilful lies and spin doctoring that created the culture of doubt among the wider community.
There’s another point where Peacock’s experience intersects with mine. Seventeen years ago I stood in a field dominated by a fissured hill of crocidolite waste, the product of the labour of the Indigenous people of Baryulgil in northern New South Wales. (See “More Aboriginal Genocide: Miners Battle White Death at Baryulgil,” Freedom Socialist Bulletin, #8, Summer 1992/93.) I’d come across, face to face, with what genocide meant in practice. Indigenous people were forced to work for Hardie, and were given no protective equipment. To add insult to injury the bloody NSW government stole most of their wages under the guise of “protection.” The reason for these criminal acts is not hard to discover. It was not only that asbestos was “not dangerous,” it was that the “Blacks” were going to die out anyway as a result of government policy. The Bundjalung people were simply disposable – and Hardie proceeded to try to dispose of them. A 2007 study predicted that almost every family in the Baryulgil-Malabugilmah community would be hit with cancer deaths.
Just one more reason to read an excellent, well-researched and devastating dissection of a company that deliberately covered up the effects of its products and of the complicity of politicians who shared in the culture of denial. If you had any delusions of corporate responsibility in the boardrooms of Australia, they will be washed away, especially when you recall that James Hardie is still trying to run away. Using the excuse of the Global Financial Crisis, the company refused to contribute to the foundation set up to fund asbestos claims. It’s only afloat due to a bailout by the federal and NSW governments.
The “Killer Company” still believes it can get away with murder.
Peter Murray is the former Section Secretary of the Guard’s Section of the Australian Railways Union and also an Occupational Health and Safety Representative from 1985 to 1995.