Corporate Happy Endings, Human Heartbreak
It seems that asbestos corporations from around the world are rising from the ashes of their crimes to, once again, become the lauded creators of employment opportunities and generators of national income streams. Their manipulation of financial strategies and off-loading of asbestos liabilities have enabled companies like Eternit S.A. (Brazil), Cape (UK) and Saint-Gobain (France) to shrug off as minor inconveniences the damage done as a result of historic corporate policies. Whilst shareholders and executives bask in the glow of robust corporate balance sheets, asbestos victims and their families face years of ill-health and premature death.
Brazil: Eternit, S.A.
Eternit S.A., Brazils former asbestos giant, is still producing asbestos at the Cana Brava Mine, in Goiás State owned by its subsidiary SAMA Minerações Associadas S.A., despite a 2017 Supreme Court ruling banning the commercial exploitation of asbestos.1 For years, the company countered calls by asbestos victims and health and safety campaigners to ban asbestos by warning of massive job and financial losses to the national economy should the use of asbestos be outlawed. What transpired when the ban was implemented, however, was the complete opposite. Since Eternit committed to asbestos-free production in Brazil, its prospects have soared.
On September 26, 2023, Brazilian financial analyst Eduardo Voglino assessed the current prospects of Eternit as follows:
After facing challenges arising from the ban on asbestos in its products, Eternit underwent a remarkable recovery process. Since the setback that led to judicial recovery, the company has invested in new materials and strategies, including fiber cement and solar-powered tiles. Now, as it seeks expansion and consolidation, the company has seen its executive leadership change, with Paulo Andrade taking charge. Despite remaining in judicial recovery, Eternit claims to have paid off all debts with creditors
Despite the obstacles caused by the asbestos ban, Eternit managed to reinvent itself. The company stopped using asbestos in its tiles, replacing it with polypropylene. Although asbestos represents a third of the company's revenue, entirely focused on exports, Eternit remains profitable ...2
The human cost of Eternits commercial exploitation of asbestos in São Paulo was confirmed by researchers from the Instituto do Coração (InCor) [Heart Institute] who reported that of 143 workers identified with asbestos-related diseases (ARDs) at InCors asbestos outreach clinic between 2017-2019, 57% had worked for Eternit at its plant in Osasco, the largest asbestos-cement production facility in Latin America.3
According to the medical report, many of the patients with ARDs had:
worked in various capacities within the industry in which they were employed, mainly involved jobs directly linked to the production line of fiber cement material, maintenance and mechanics of the machinery involved in the manufacturing processes of these products, and functions related to the logistics of input and productivity of the line.
The death toll of workers from Eternits infamous Osasco factory as well as from other asbestos-cement plants owned by the company continues to escalate; more information is available on the website of the Brazilian Association of the Asbestos-Exposed (ABREA).4
UK: Cape Asbestos Co Ltd
The Cape Asbestos Company Ltd. (UK) was founded in 1893 with the objective of capitalizing on the opportunities offered by the mining and use of South African asbestos. Historically, Cape was one of the UKs biggest asbestos conglomerates and a global player in the asbestos sector, with mines and factories in South Africa and production facilities in Italy and throughout the UK. Given the extent of its operations at home and abroad and its prioritization of profits over safety, Cape was responsible for an unquantifiable number of deaths in all probability reaching hundreds of thousands in the 20th and 21st centuries and widespread environmental contamination caused by its manufacturing operations, fly-tipping of production debris and the incorporation of the companys asbestos-containing products within national infrastructures.5
As a result of a legal battle begun by the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK (the Forum) in 2017, 1,661 pages of corporate documents were made public which revealed that Cape:
Having studied the documentation preserved by their lawsuit, the Forum launched the Cape Must Pay Campaign, which called on the company to make a £10 million donation to medical research. As Forum spokesperson Nevyn Stevenson explained:
Cape profited from the sale of its asbestos products, despite knowing the dangers their products caused. Many died as a result. It is only right that they put right some of the wrong they have done.6
By the time this campaign got going, Cape had been acquired by the Altrad Group, a $2.9 billion construction and industrial services multinational whose owner Mohed Altrad was convicted in December 2022 by a French court of bribery, influence peddling and misuse of corporate assets.7 Altrad, which in 2023 was a major sponsor of the New Zealand and French Rugby teams, refuses to comply with the Forums request.8
Cape Must Pay demonstration by the Forum and its supporters at the Labor Party Conference in Liverpool, October, 2023. Picture courtesy of the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK.
France: Saint-Gobain S.A.
The French multinational Saint-Gobain (SG) has been around, in one form or another, since the 17th century. In fact, the company made the glass for the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. In more recent years, SG has branched out into the manufacture of construction material and other products. In 2022, the conglomerate employed 170,000+ people in 76 countries and had total assets of 55.38bn (~US$59bn). In a message to SG shareholders issued earlier this year by Benoit Bazin, the companys Chief Executive Officer, he said:
Saint-Gobain achieved a remarkable financial and non-financial performance in 2022 The figures speak for themselves: sales up 16% from 2021 to 51.2 billion, a sharp increase in operating income to 5.3 billion, and a record margin of 10.4% ... In 2023, Saint-Gobain is structured to face a volatile business environment where uncertainty has virtually become the norm. Saint-Gobains priority is to continue to demonstrate its resilience by consolidating its high operating performance level.9
SGs historic use of asbestos continues to decimate workers and communities around the world. As the conglomerates profits soar, so does its determination to avoid facing up to its liabilities. In the US, asbestos claims by SG victims remain frozen due to the use of legal stratagems which allowed the company to off-load the asbestos liabilities of its subsidiary CertainTeed into a shell company DBMP, LLC which was put into bankruptcy. Calling this action a fraudulent transfer of assets, victims legal representatives petitioned the court to dismiss the case. As of now, this has not happened. Tens of thousands of US victims of SG remain in a state of limbo.
Brazilian and French victims of SG have also been cast adrift, with groups in both countries fighting to access medical care and compensation. Members of the Brazilian Association of the Asbestos-Exposed (ABREA) some of whom had worked for SG at Brazils first asbestos-cement manufacturing facility10 convened on July 29, 2023, to receive updates from ABREA officials, and legal and medical advisors. During the meeting, attendees voiced concerns about multiple issues including: the lack of timely access to medical care, the time taken for personal injury and class action asbestos cases to be resolved, and the hazard posed by the presence of asbestos remaining within the built environment.11
ABREA meeting at São Caetano do Sul City, São Paulo State, Brazil. July 29, 2023. Photograph by Danúbia Rocha (Enlarge image).
Almost two months later, SG victims in Pernambuco State (members of the Associação Pernambucana dos Expostos ao Amianto [Pernambuco Association of the Asbestos-Exposed, a sister organization of ABREA]) seconded the views of their colleagues in São Caetano do Sul when they issued the Recife Charter at the end of an ABREA meeting in the city of Recife, the State capital. The declaration demanded that workers who had been exposed to asbestos by their employer be provided with the free medical care mandated by Brazilian Law 9,055/1995. Asbestos-injured employees and their family members said that the Brasilit/Saint-Gobain company in Pernambuco was not fulfilling this legal obligation, as a result of which the victims were unable to access medical care.12
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, on October 3, 2023 an industrial tribunal recognized asbestos anxiety claims submitted by 37 former SG workers. A total of 144 such claims against SG have been accepted for people formerly employed at the companys glass factories in Thourotte, northern France. According to Jean-Claude Patron, a former SG employee and the head of the SG Asbestos Collective: The justice system, for once, listened to our arguments. SG had argued that as the limitation period for the submission of claims had expired, the claims were barred; the Court disagreed.
The situations described above are mere snapshots of a few crimes committed by well-known global corporations. Of course, there were many more companies involved in the mining, processing and use of asbestos during the industry free-for-all that lasted for more than 100 years. Asbestos profiteers have, literally, gotten away with murder. Decisions they took to prioritize profits at all costs had lethal consequences, as they knew they would. Around the world, asbestos victims groups, workers collectives, trade unions and legal experts remain united in their determination to hold these guilty companies to account.
October 31, 2023
1 Eternit is able to continue asbestos mining having received a state-ordered exemption of the Supreme Courts ruling to do so; the unconstitutionality of the Goiás law is currently being considered by the Supreme Court.
2 Voglino, E. Turnaround da Eternit (ETER3): Vale a Pena? [Eternit Turnaround (ETER3): Is It Worth It?]. September 26, 2023.
3 Kazan-Allen, L. Pioneering Medical Treatment Program in Brazil. February 10, 2020.
5 The unregulated and widespread use of asbestos by Cape and others has given the UK the world's highest incidence of mesothelioma, the signature cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Capes disregard of workers safety at its asbestos mines was at the heart of a landmark case brought by South African workers in the UK.
Kazan-Allen, L. House of Lords' Victory for Human Rights. August 15, 2000.
6 Kazan-Allen, L. Britains Summer of Asbestos Dissent. July 20, 2023.
7 Forum Press Release. Asbestos victims call on French & New Zealand rugby teams to end sportswashing sponsorship deals with Altrad. September 2023.
Peterson-Whithorn, C. Who Is Mohed Altrad, The Billionaire Scaffolding King Found Guilty Of Rugby Bribery? December 13, 2022.
8 Kazan-Allen, L. Multinational Campaign Denounces Sportswashing. September 12, 2023.
9 Saint-Gobain. Notice of Meeting 2023: Combined ordinary and extraordinary general meeting.
10 SGs factory in São Caetano do Sul, the first asbestos plant in Brazil, was built in 1937 and employed generations of workers who were routinely exposed to asbestos. Operations ceased when the plant was shut in 1990.
11 Like asbestos companies in other jurisdictions, Saint-Gobain has wielded multiple stratagems for frustrating asbestos claims, including a defense based on the expiration of the statute of limitations even though asbestos-related diseases are acknowledged to have latency periods of up to 50 years.
Kazan-Allen, L. Saturday in São Caetano do Sul. August 8, 2023.