West Australias Campaign for Asbestos Justice 2018
A United Nations report issued in September 2018 was categorical about the right that every worker has to dignity, to be treated ethically, with respect and without being subjected to conditions of work that are dehumanizing or degrading. In this 62-page text, Baskut Tuncak UN Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes highlighted the appalling global consequences of occupational exposures to hazardous substances stating that:
It is estimated that one worker dies every 15 seconds from toxic exposures at work, while over 2,780,000 workers globally die from unsafe or unhealthy conditions of work each year. Occupational diseases account for 2.4 million (over 86 per cent) of total premature deaths.1
The personal tragedies represented by the statistics cited above were well known to the people who gathered on August 18, 2018 to unveil a plaque paying tribute to the victims of the Wittenoom asbestos mine, an infamous West Australian workplace which fulfilled the dire prophecy of Dr Eric Saint who predicted it would produce the richest and most lethal crop of cases of asbestosis in the worlds literature.2 Prior to the 1966 shut-down of the Pilbara mine, 20,000 people including 4,000 children worked and lived in the town of Wittenoom. Families such as that of sister and brother Bronwen Duke and Shane Jones were decimated by occupational and environmental asbestos exposures: 13 members of the family, including their grandparents, father, mother and brother died of asbestosis or mesothelioma in the last 40 years.3
From left: Melita Markey, Chief Operating Officer of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia, Bronwen Duke and Shane Jones. Photo: courtesy of the ADSA.
Lyniece Bolitho and her five siblings lost their father (aged 41), both grandfathers and several uncles as a result of Wittenoom exposures; Ms. Bolitho has pleural plaques, a manifestation of toxic exposure received during childhood.4
During the ceremony accompanying the unveiling of the Wittenoom plaque an event convened jointly by the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA) and Unions WA in Perths Solidarity Park opposite Parliament House ADSA officials, union representatives, politicians, and family members pledged that the asbestos dead shall never be forgotten and that the fight for equitable compensation and civil justice will continue. Professor Bill Musk and Kate Doust, a Member of the Western Australian Legislative Council (the upper house of the WA Parliament), indicted political institutions which had supressed the rights of WAs asbestos victims, with Doust expressing frustration at the continued stalemate regarding the Asbestos Compensation Bill 2013 intended to secure legal rights for WA claimants in line with those available in other states. The wording on the plaque unveiled by Kate Doust, Bronwen Duke and Shane Jones on the wall of remembrance was categorical:
While the devastation of the lives of Wittenoom workers and their families continues unabated, WE VOW never to forget and keep fighting for justice and to save lives.
Rest in Peace dear friends.
The Wittenoom Plaque on the Wall of Remembrance in Solidarity Park. Photo: courtesy of the ADSA.
As the floral tributes by the memorial plaque began to fade, the finishing touches were being put in place for the ADSAs annual Walk for Medical Research and Asbestos Awareness with participants setting off on Sunday September 9, 2018 for Hyden a wheatbelt town 330 kilometres from Perth the starting point of the 2018 walk. Over the following five days the walkers have passed through the towns of Kondinin, Kulin, Wickepin, Narrogin, Williams, Quindanning, Harvey, Yarloop, Waroona, Pinjarra and Serpentine and will finish up in Perth at Parliament House on Friday, September 14.5
ADSA Pirates raid Wave Rock, Hyden. Photo: courtesy of the ADSA.
Donations to the walk will fund the ADSA PhD Mesothelioma Scholarship which was awarded in 2017 to Dr. Melvin Wee Loong Chin, a research expert based at Perths National Centre for Asbestos-Related Diseases, an institution at the cutting edge of mesothelioma research. The presence of the memorial plaque in the park facing Parliament House stands as both a tribute to the fallen and a denunciation of the politicians who have failed them. As the walkers wind their way from Wellington Street train station to Parliament House tomorrow this juxtaposition will be hard to ignore.
September 13, 2018
1 Report of the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes presented to the Human Rights Council 39th session September 1028, 2018.
2 Kazan-Allen L. The Doctors and the Dollars. June, 2007.
3 The Wittenoom family photo which lays bare horror of asbestos-related disease. August 18, 2018.
4 A memorial honours the many people who died because of Wittenoom's asbestos history. August 18, 2018.