Post-Asbestos Brazil A City Cast Adrift
This article has been written in response to a very sad, if not unexpected report published last month (June 2019) describing the operation of Eternits SAMA chrysotile mine in Brazil and the appalling price paid by its workers due to asbestos exposure (see: The Mine that Kills, by Christian Franz Tragni).
A good number of years ago now, I was part of an international trade union delegation looking at Brazils asbestos industry and visited the SAMA chrysotile (white) asbestos mine in Minaçu.
The International Trade Union Delegation which visited Minaçu. Photo courtesy of Mick Holder.
I met with the workers and union reps at the mine who were incredibly hospitable and very, very friendly, even though they knew I and others in the delegation wanted an end to this global killer industry and were a potential threat to their jobs.
SAMA mine workers with members of the International Trade Union Delegation in Minaçu. Photo courtesy of Mick Holder.
We had a very frank and open discussion during which the workers said they fully understood the likely risks to their health but this was a risk they were willing to take given how difficult it was to survive in Brazil where I think the statistic at the time was that 60% of Brazilians were socially excluded. Minaçu is a remote company town, but the workers had family homes, a school, very good medical facilities, access to new technology and a very reasonable standard of living they felt they were unlikely to achieve elsewhere. They said the company had taken practical steps to prevent workers exposure to asbestos dust by engineering protections rather than just issuing PPE and whilst they accepted there was still a very real risk they saw it as reduced to a level they were willing to gamble with given the benefits they saw as real gains.
SAMA mine. Photo courtesy of Mick Holder.
I gave details of the global anti-asbestos campaign and said that whilst I absolutely understood everything they said, exporting death around the world as well as using it at home was not acceptable. However, I also said that shutting the industry down and dumping the workers and their families into poverty was also not acceptable. Apart from the immorality of doing that, Eternit and the Brazilian government had made enough money out of the industry to ensure a just transition from working in a killer industry to being employed in a safer and healthier one with no loss of social benefit. It is fair to say that at the end of our visit we all understood our positions very well but there was no friction or hostility between us.
News from Brazil that what everyone thought was likely to happen has finally happened has made me very sad. At the end of May, 2019, Eternit, the parent company of the SAMA mine, announced that due to the forced shutdown of mining operations, all 400 SAMA employees had been fired. 2 Then, last week, the feature The Mine that Kills detailed the tragic price paid by workers, with one former employee reporting that 7 family members his wife, father, brother, three uncles and a cousin had died from asbestos-related diseases; they had all worked at the mine. My thoughts are with those people at the mine who treated me and our fellow delegates so very well. I am also increasingly convinced that a just transition policy needs to be at the front of a global trade union campaign to move away from killer, polluting industries and work towards a safer and healthier life for all. This is becoming ever more urgent in light of the climate crisis, plastic pollution, deforestation, species extinction and other pressing environmental issues.
July 3, 2019
2 Eternit demite 400 funcionários e hiberna mineradora de Amianto [Eternit dismisses 400 employees and mothballs asbestos mine]. May 31, 2019.