Asbestos Reverberations in Australia
There is no question about the serious repercussions of asbestos use in Australia, a country which ranks amongst the worst affected by asbestos-related disease. Added to the known at-risk groups is a new category of workers: diplomats. Although asbestos contamination of Australian embassies is widespread, years of cutbacks in the budget of the Overseas Property Office has impacted on the resources needed to address the problems arising from the presence of deteriorating asbestos products. In an article published on May 11, 2009, reporter Daniel Flitton described remedial work at diplomatic posts in Bangkok, Singapore and the Netherlands which followed the unwelcome discoveries disclosed in a government paper published earlier this year; government sources estimate the cost of the work needed in the Singapore and Bangkok embassies at $2 million. Asbestos contamination has also been identified in the High Commissioner's residence in Kuala Lumpur and the Australian chancellery in Phnom Penh, Cambodia; an asbestos-free premises is under construction in the Cambodian capital. In the coming months, asbestos audits will be carried out at scores of Australia's other foreign missions. Flitton predicted that the scale of the asbestos problem in Australia's diplomatic network is expected to grow as the department checks its overseas properties, valued at $1.6 billion.1
If the slipshod working practices at one Queensland school are characteristic of the low standards of safety set for asbestos removal work at public buildings, then diplomats and embassy staff should make every effort to ascertain that the asbestos removal programs scheduled for their workplaces comply with industry and government guidelines. Work undertaken at Caningeraba State School exposed schoolchildren and staff to asbestos contained in bag racks removed from the premises by Qbuild, an agency of the Queensland Government.2 Simon Smith, a concerned parent with 20 years experience in the asbestos removal industry, was alarmed by what he saw when he dropped his daughter off at school on June 3. Four workers were lugging heavy racks, some of which were broken, off of the school veranda:
There were no warning tapes, no barriers, no sign, the actual workers were not wearing overalls and respirators there were no hazardous dust vacuum, nothing.
Although Mr. Smith was told by the school authorities that no asbestos was present in the material removed, testing of a sample he obtained revealed the presence of chrysotile asbestos. A government review has been promised by Public Works Minister Robert Schwarten.
Australia's biggest producer of asbestos building products was James Hardie, a company which has become infamous for its attempts to avoid asbestos-related liabilities. The fund it set up to pay asbestos claims prior to its 2001 relocation to the Netherlands is now running dry and could be out of money by August next year, according to an article published on May 21, 2009.3 The increase in the number of claims combined with the fall in global interest rates and a serious underfunding of the Asbestos Injury Compensation Fund have lead experts to predict a $60 million deficit by March 2011. Instead of addressing this problem, James Hardie is, once again, looking for an escape route. News began circulating in June of a possible corporate relocation to Ireland:
The Irish Independent newspaper reported yesterday (June 15, 2009) that in the past few weeks Hardie had registered a number of company names at the Companies Office in Dublin, including James Hardie Holdings and James Hardie International Finance.4
While there had been speculation that James Hardie might move from the Netherlands to the U.S., the epicentre of its operations, the move to Ireland, which has a 12.5% corporate tax rate, came out of left field.5 Reacting to the news of the latest Hardie ploy to distance itself from its creditors, Journalist Elizabeth Knight of the Sydney Morning Herald remarked:
It beggars belief that after 20 or more years of attempting to skirt its obligations to various tax authorities and asbestos victims, James Hardie Industries would even consider moving its corporate domicile to another country to minimise its tax obligations
But there is something in the DNA of this company. The past 20 years have seen several changes in management and boards. But still it looks for shortcuts to make money.
June 18, 2009
1 Flitton D. Asbestos Threat to Australian Embassies. May 11, 2009.
2 Townsend M. Gold Coast school asbestos bungle. June 5, 2009.
3 Grigg A., Hutton J. Asbestos fund running dry. May 21, 2009.
4 Main A. After the Netherlands, Hardie's tipped for Irish domicile. June 16, 2009.
5 Knight E. Looking for the joke in logic of James Hardie moving to Ireland. June 17, 2009.