International Workers Memorial Day 2023
In scores of countries around the world, April 28, 2023 was commemorated as International Workers Memorial Day (IWMD). Trade unions, labor federations as well as groups representing victims of workplace illnesses and accidents took action to highlight the price paid by ordinary people for the continued existence of unsafe working practices and use of hazardous substances such as asbestos.1
On April 28, the European Trades Union Congress (ETUC) in collaboration with the European Federation of Building and Woodworkers General (EFBWW) issued a press release calling on EU leaders to give workers the highest possible level of protection from asbestos. Up to 7 million EU workers are exposed to asbestos and it is believed that toxic exposures will increase as a consequence of the wave of building renovations which are part of the EU Green Deal.2 Giving a human face to the statistics, the press release included testimonies from asbestos victims and/or bereaved family members from Belgium, Slovenia and Spain which recounted the stark consequences of asbestos exposures:
The Building and Wood Workers International (BWI) a Global Union Federation composed of 351 trade unions representing 12 million members in 117 countries this year made the right to an asbestos-free workplace a priority on IWMD:
Asbestos is still a killer all over the world. The annual asbestos-related death rate is already at 85,000 people in the European Union alone, a number that can be compared to another disastrous figure of 26,000 people who died in traffic accidents in 2022. It is undisputed that action is required. Otherwise, we will be confronted with an additional pandemic of asbestos-related diseases. 3
In Jakarta, Indonesia, BWI partnering groups joined with trade unionists and representatives of NGOs and legal aid organizations at a public rally to mark IWMD. Large amounts of asbestos have been used in Indonesia the worlds fourth most populous country since the 1950s and the use of asbestos and asbestos-containing products remains legal. It is virtually impossible for workers with asbestos-related diseases to get medical diagnoses or compensation for their injuries. According to activist Pupun Supendi from the Local Initiative for Occupational Health and Safety Networks (LION) the organizers of the event:
The victims of asbestos-related diseases in Indonesia are not only clear evidence that asbestos is dangerous and threatens health, but also illustrate how difficult it is to seek justice for victims of occupational diseases in Indonesia.4
Pupun Supendi from LION speaking at the IWMD demonstration in Jakarta, Indonesia.
The headline of the press release issued on IWMD by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) said it all: Asbestos is the biggest cause of work-related deaths in Britain.5 The text of the release highlighted the lack of awareness of the carcinogenic material buried within the countrys infrastructure and deplored government complacency over the hazardous situation including the presence of asbestos in schools we know more than 90 per cent of schools contain asbestos hospitals, factories, fire and police stations, workplaces, blocs of flats, etc. So, if asbestos is so dangerous, why are we still living with it? the TUC asked. The explanation went like this:
The governments argument is this: asbestos is safe to leave in place, so long as it is not disturbed. It poses minimal risk, if any at all, unless the fibres are released into the air. Trade unions reject that argument. We know that if asbestos is in a building, it will eventually become disturbed. There can be few cupboards, boilers, panels and pipes that have had no work done on them since the 1970s, when asbestos use was at its peak. There is therefore considerable doubt that most of the asbestos that is to be found in buildings is going to lie undisturbed for the next 40 years (a timeframe for removal the UK government recently rejected).
The only safe, sustainable way forward is to set out a place for phased removal of asbestos, to protect workers now and in future generations. Whats more, we need to upgrade many buildings anyway, especially if we are serious about improving insulation, ventilation and meeting net zero targets Only by removing asbestos from all public buildings can we avoid future risk of exposure and stop the thousands of early and entirely preventable deaths from this dreadful, fatal illness.
In Italy, IWMD is an annual calendar event for asbestos victims groups which have proclaimed the day to be World Asbestos Victims Day.6 More than thirty years after asbestos use was banned in Italy, the reality remains grim:
With the silent deadly emergency still ravishing the population, campaigners are calling for the government to set up an inter-ministerial taskforce to address legal, regulatory and social security issues.
In Sicily, the environmental damage done by asbestos was highlighted on April 28 by municipal councillor Mimmo Gianturco, vice president of the Environment Council Commission, who called on Mayor Mascaro to wake up and make asbestos contamination a political priority. The asbestos problem is, he said increasingly topical, especially due to the absence of incisive measures for safety and reclamation. Furthermore, in the city of Lamezia Terme there is still a lot to do as we are among the most exposed areas with an estimate of over 88 hectares of material containing asbestos.7
Nearly 1,200 kilometers north of Lamezia Terme, in the town of Casale Monferrato the day was marked with a series of events beginning with a ceremony at the Town Hall during which the winners of the new Eternot8 awards were announced:
Asbestos victims campaigner and bereaved wife, mother, sister, aunt and cousin of asbestos victims from Casale Monferrato Romana Blasotti Pavesi at the opening of the EterNOT Park in 2016.
In the afternoon, a wreath was laid during a ceremony on the former site of the notorious Eternit asbestos-cement factory in Casale Monferrato; the park, built on the rehabilitated site, is called EterNOT and is a public space for remembrance of all those whose lives were lost to asbestos.10
Another ceremony to remember the asbestos dead was held on April 28 in the town of Paray-le-Monial, a commune in the Saone-et-Loire department in Burgundy-Franche-Comté, France. Before laying a wreath, the President of the local asbestos victims group Jean-François Borde deplored the Governments failure to take into accounts the needs of asbestos victims in the new regressive retirement law.11
IWMD is a valuable conduit for exposing the human toll of corporate cost-cutting, government incompetence and failures of international agencies to protect vulnerable populations. The IWMD slogan remember the dead, fight for the living could not be more apt.
May 10, 2023
1 BWI. BWI Statement on the 2023 International Workers Memorial Day. April 28, 2023.
2 ETUC and EFBWW. IWMD: Asbestos victims urge EU to stop workplace cancer scandal. April 28, 2023.
3 BWI. IWMD23: Construction workers must be protected from asbestos. April 28, 2023.
4 LION. Press Release: International Workers Memorial Day. April 28, 2023.
Not available online.
5 TUC. Asbestos is the biggest cause of work-related deaths in Britain. April 28, 2023.
6 Pizzimenti, C. Italia 2023, si muore ancora di amianto [Italy 2023, people still die of asbestos]. April 28, 2023.
7 Individuare risorse da investire su politiche ambientali per lobiettivo amianto zero sul territorio comunale [Identifying resources to invest in environmental policies for the zero asbestos goal in the municipal area]. April 28, 2023.
8 Kazan-Allen, L. EterNOT not Eternit! September 19, 2016.
9 Aula Permanente Interattiva e Multimediale sul Tema Amianto. [Permanent Interactive and Multimedia Classroom on the Theme of Asbestos].
10 Giornata mondiale Vittime amianto 2023 [World Asbestos Victims Day 2023]. April 28, 2023.
Giornata Vittime Amianto, conferiti i Premi Eternot [Asbestos Victims Day, awarded the Eternot Awards].
11 Le Comité amiante prévenir et réparer célèbre la journée pour la sécurité et la santé au travail [The Asbestos Prevention and Repair Committee celebrates the day for safety and health at work]. April 28, 2023.