‘We’re not going away’: In building evidence of workplace cancer clusters, workers want change to the system meant to protect them James Connolly urges change for those who have suffered from cancer in such places as Tyneside zinc workshops Read more
In the latest round of public consultations on options for a preventative fund for asbestos-related cancers, workplace safety groups – some powerful unions – are fighting back against the government. Not just because of their position on asbestos but, more importantly, because they are no longer prepared to sacrifice healthy, happy, and productive workers over “business and consumer demands” to ensure they get regulatory reform.
In the document published by Hargreaves Hale on Wednesday, the former firefighters’ union HMA, the Society of Chartered Surveyors (Scotiabank), the Polyecology Association (PA), the Menzies administration workers’ union and the PCS health and safety staff organisation refer to the government’s failure to act on asbestos and other diseases as “staggering”. “Can we afford not to make this a priority?” PA general secretary Steven Partridge asked in an interview with the BBC. The booklet also includes the dire warnings of cancer survivor Derek Smith, who was found to have died of mesothelioma after working for 11 years at Hillside Newhouse – the site where the House of Commons in London was constructed.
Shortly after the deaths of the late Tony Wilson and David Bowie, this pressure took on a new urgency, as the “British asbestos” (as it was known until industrial closures) disaster – with its tidal wave of victims – was being followed by a government expected to prove it could save the failing economy. There was already evidence of a toxic legacy: workers in the southern US had been forced to accept relatively minor settlements instead of compensation for cancer for years, and in 1979, 3,000 workers lost their lives while 250,000 were injured.
Read through H&H’s new bill and you’ll find that the one of the biggest horrors to get discussed is the £3bn (under the government’s “best-case scenario”) fund to be set up in the UK. While this seems most richly deserved, there is a threat that even these astronomical sums will go to the offshore companies that set up the factories that produced the poison that has now washed up like a petrochemical hazard on the shores of Britain, when making an estimated 99.6% of it in China.
I think I know something about this. Before I switched from journalism to being an opinion columnist, I worked for 11 years as a court reporter in Melbourne – the toxic reek of smokestacks and dust come to the judiciary in this trial, and workers’ lives were finished with lung cancer, contracting mesothelioma or heart disease. In 1990, my father died of mesothelioma when I was 15, leaving five siblings – and, probably thanks to my carcinoma, some of them are now unwell.
Activists, unions and lawyers battle for justice at HS2 site Read more
After my father’s illness, my mother, whom I love dearly, was forced to spend over a decade with him, and was suddenly unconscious when we last saw her. Everyone I’ve met since (with whom I’ve worked and spoken) has dealt with his illness – it’s already a stigma in a society that still allows toxic smokestacks to cover up chronic inequality and show its indifference to working-class families in places that don’t do anything to prevent these diseases.
So now, a small militant group of activists is fighting for justice: and they’re not going away.
• Sally Nicholls is the author of a forthcoming book about the class struggle and recession in Britain called Indignation: Hard as Glass and Time for Great Outcomes