IT WAS only as the death toll mounted that the former textile workers in Bradford began to suspect what was happening.
But even as 63 of them met last weekend they were having to battle against a wall of silence and legalistic buck passing.
“We think at least ten people who worked at Associated Weavers have died of asbestosis,” says Terry Britton, a TGWU union branch secretary.
“The exact figure could be higher. Hundreds of former workers at the now closed carpet factory could be at risk from exposure to the killer dust.
“It was used to lag pipes not just at Associated, but in mills across the city. No one knows just how many workers have been affected.
“The scandal is that the authorities do not seem to care.”
Fred Benson is the latest victim of the callous pursuit of profit which led to bosses ignoring the dangers of asbestos across industry.
He died recently at the age of 62 only eight months after being diagnosed with the lung disease mesothelioma, which is caused by exposure to asbestos fibres.
Alan Pritchard of the Bradford coroner’s office said after Mr Benson’s inquest, “There is a slow but noticeable rise in the number of cases we are dealing with. I’ve dealt with several cases of asbestosis over the past ten years from Associated Weavers.”
Terry Britton says, “We’ve seen the odd news item over the years about someone dying of the disease.
“But no one has been pulling the figures together or detailing what’s been going on. The powers that be have left people to suffer alone in the hope that the scandal would remain hidden.
“We’re determined to end that, fight for compensation, and make sure those responsible are held to account.”
In the weeks before he died Fred Benson compiled a report covering his 42 years at Associated Weavers, where he inhaled asbestos fibres.
It cites an incident on 3 August 1969 where the roof was destroyed in a fire, spreading asbestos throughout the factory.
John Durkin was the TGWU convenor at the factory at the time. He recalls, “It was during the plant’s summer shutdown week. The manager got a load of people who lived nearby to clear up after the fire.
“The workers had no idea that asbestos was dangerous and, in any case, it looked just like the dust on the looms.
“I believe the asbestos dust remained on the looms when the workforce returned after holiday week.”
Fred Benson’s widow, Rita, and his two daughters are now fighting for legal compensation, with the backing of the TGWU.
Rita Benson says, “We aren’t claiming compensation for the money. We’re doing it for Fred because he was a fighter.
“He had no pension. He worked very hard all his life. He was so loyal to that company, and for what?
“The industry knew all about the dangers of asbestos, and they just hid it.”
Associated Weavers went through various different takeovers and name changes before, as Carpets International, it went bust three years ago.
The company’s insurers have also gone into liquidation.
That means the Bensons and other affected families have to claim against a general fund set up by the insurance industry.
Two insurance giants, Norwich Union and Zurich Insurance, were due in court this week to try and win a ruling to limit compensation claims.
They are joined in their legal action by Patricia Hewitt’s Department of Trade and Industry, which also sees claims over the criminal use of asbestos as a threat to business.
It’s another instance of the obscenely close relationship between the New Labour government here and George Bush’s White House.
For Bush is now set to sign an order freezing legal actions over asbestosis in the US.
It will set up a general fund which will force those seeking compensation to fight each other for limited cash while all liabilities are lifted from big business and the insurance companies.
Asbestos is still in use in the developed world. In industrialising countries such as China, where multinationals seek expansion, its use is reaching the levels of the 1960s here.
“The only way we will ever get justice over this international scandal is by organising ourselves,” says Terry Britton.
Terry and the Bradford campaigners are keen to hear from others, especially former textile workers, who are fighting the same battle—e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org