BY THE end of the decade there will be 10,000 asbestos-related deaths each year in this country. That is twice the number killed on the roads. These people are almost exclusively working class men and women who were exposed to lethal asbestos dust at work.
Asbestos victims and their families have recently suffered serious legal setbacks. All have a common thread running through them. This is the attempt to absolve major industrial corporations and their insurance companies from paying compensation to asbestos victims and bereaved relatives. Insurance companies stand to save tens of millions of pounds at the expense of dying men and widows.
Early in 2001, Chester Street Insurance Holdings claimed it could not meet the rising number of claims from asbestos victims suing former employers who were insured by them. Chester's parent company had sold its profitable asset Iron Trades Insurance to QBE, an Australian company, so ensuring it had no profits to pay out to successful asbestos claimants.
Chester Street was such a scandal that even Tory MP Nicholas Winterton stated in a House of Commons debate that it was 'fraudulent, dishonest and disgraceful'. Only after a vigorous campaign by trade unionists and asbestos support groups was a scheme set up to pay out at least 90 percent of compensation amounts due. This high profile campaign was supported by the TUC and STUC, and included a protest march of 1,000 people in Clydebank and significant solidarity action by Australian trade unionists.
This saw thousands of building workers and others downing tools to march through Melbourne, rallying at the offices of QBE to demand that they settle their UK claims. The prospect of thousands of former T & N workers suffering from asbestos-related diseases receiving compensation are, however, extremely bleak.
On 1 October last year Federal Mogul, the firm's parent company, obtained a court administration order under the Insolvency Act because it wanted to address financial difficulties caused by asbestos claims. At the same time this company issued a self congratulatory press release announcing that it had been awarded four new annual contracts worth more than £13.9 million.
Margaret Lilly, whose husband worked at an asbestos factory in Clydebank in the 1960s, has been forced to abandon her compensation claim. This is a disgusting and direct consequence of the Federal Mogul administration order. Not only did she lose her husband Owen last year - Mrs Lilly herself also has an asbestos-related condition caused by asbestos dust brought home on his work clothes.
Asbestos sufferers and their families, like Margaret and her daughter, are confused as to how a company generating super-profits can sidestep its responsibilities with the approval of the High Court. In total, Federal Mogul and its subsidiaries face over 365,000 asbestos claims. But a ruling by the Court of Appeal on the case of Mr Arthur Fairchild, a UCATT member, will make it nearly impossible for people to claim compensation. The court stated that, as one asbestos fibre can cause the deadly cancer mesothelioma, and as Mr Fairchild had worked for more than one employer who exposed him to asbestos, the company which caused his death could not be identified.
Applying this warped logic, on 11 December Lord Justice Brooke, Lord Justice Latham and Lord Justice Kay dismissed his widow's appeal. The result is that there will be no compensation for asbestos cancer victims if the victim was exposed to asbestos fibres by more than one employer, which was the norm for most construction and shipyard workers.
This ruling means that employers can openly admit that they have exposed workers to the risk of painful and early deaths, and avoid paying one penny piece of compensation. The TUC, STUC and many of the major unions have been prominent in the campaigns around Chester Street and other issues affecting asbestos victims. Justice for asbestos sufferers and in particular the Fairchild decision should be raised in every trade union branch and at every conference. An asbestos seminar will take place in Clydebank Town Hall on Friday 18 January from 10am to 12 noon with a view to discussing these issues.
Speakers include Bill Speirs (general secretary of the STUC), Frank Maguire (Solicitor Advocate), occupational health expert Professor Andrew Watterson, and a panel of MSPs. All trade unionists, asbestos campaigners and families affected are encouraged to attend.