Campaigners are stepping up pressure on the government to reintroduce the right to compensation for victims of asbestos exposure after it was revealed that some senior civil servants dismissed resulting diseases as being as harmful “as freckles”.
Prolonged exposure to asbestos causes scarring of the lungs known as pleural plaques.
Fred Hewitt, a 73 year old former ship building worker, has lived with pleural plaques for four years and has the constant fear of developing the lung cancer mesothelioma as a result.
“I worry very much about that and it is constantly in my mind,” Fred told Socialist Worker. He is calling on Gordon Brown to bring in new legislation to overturn a House of Lords ruling that denies victims the right to compensation.
The decision removed a right that had existed for 20 years until insurance companies lobbied successfully to end the pay-outs last year.
“It is an injustice to all of us and an absolute disgrace,” says Fred.
In almost every case the condition is caused by workers being exposed to asbestos due to negligence of their employers.
Asbestos related disease is the biggest cause of work related death in this country.
More than 2,000 people will die from mesothelioma this year and tens of thousands will die over the next decade. It is estimated that the House of Lords ruling will save insurance companies £1.4 billion.
Socialist Worker has seen a letter from Jack Straw’s Ministry of Justice to a trade unionist which states that allowing plural plaques sufferers to get compensation “could have damaging effects on business and the economy”.
As a further indication of the government’s attitude to the plight of the victims, Thompsons trade union solicitors were told by senior civil servants, “What are you worried about? It’s no more than freckles.”
A lobby of parliament over the issue, organised by the GMB, Unite and UCATT unions, was set to take place on Tuesday as Socialist Worker went to press.
Dennis White, who has just retired after 47 years working at Falmouth docks said, “In the early days I was exposed to asbestos before they really knew what the problem was.
“I was diagnosed as having pleural plaques a couple of years ago and had a claim in.
“To know people you worked alongside have received their compensation, and to be told that you cannot have any is so unfair. My condition has not affected me yet, but it lies dormant. Having compensation would be a big relief to all my family.”
Kevin Mason, officer for the South West GMB, said, “You cannot put financial restrictions on people’s health and safety.
“This is devastating to those affected. We are not going to stop campaigning on this. We will use all the power we possibly can.”