||Issue No. 248||26 November 2004|
Interview: The Reich Stuff
Economics: Crime and Punishment
Environment: Beyond The Wedge
International: The End Of The Lucky Country
Safety: Tests Fail Tests
Politics: Labo(u)r Day
Human Rights: Arabian Lights
History: Labour's Titan
Review: Foxy Fiasco
Poetry: Then I Saw The Light
The Locker Room
Pee Pole Shame
Latham Is A Scapegoat
Helicar Fingers Victims ... Again
It announced, this week, that it would reward disgraced former CEO, Peter Macdonald, with a $77,000 a month consultancy.
A special commission of inquiry found evidence Macdonald had broken trade practices and corporations laws during James Hardie's three-year campaign to rid itself of liabilities to asbestos disease sufferers.
In the wake of those findings, James Hardie softened Macdonald's resignation with a $10 million severance package.
Unions NSW secretary, John Robertson, labelled this week's announcement by company chair, Meredith Helicar, "appalling and insulting".
"Only James Hardie could do this in Asbestos Awareness Week," Robertson said. "Everything they do reflects how far out of touch their directors are with the expectations of the Australian community."
Macdonald and chief financial officer, Peter Shafron, were key architects of a scheme that saw James Hardie relocate to the Netherlands..
To facilitate its 2001 corporate restructure, the company told the NSW Supreme Court it would leave partly-paid shares worth more than a billion dollars in Australia for the benefit of creditors.
That arrangement was cancelled at a secret meeting of directors, leaving thousands of asbestos disease sufferers without access to compensation.
As a consultant, Macdonald will make in a months the average amount sufferers are awarded in compensation for their lifetimes.
Whether or not victims of Hardies' products ever see that compensation is now subject to negotiations between the company and the ACTU.
Secretary Greg Combet said, last week, negotiations were "heading for crisis" unless the company removed "unfair and unreasonable conditions" and immediately bailed out MRCF, the foundation it created to compensate victims.
MRCF directors are considering liquidation because James Hardie is playing hardball over promised funding. The foundation needs an immediate injection of $85 million to meet existing claims but says James Hardie directors are making that conditional on receiving indemnities against legal action.
The Hardie situation was exposed, and brought to a head by a relentless union campaign, spearheaded by the AMWU's NSW branch.
Secretary, Paul Bastian, said no amount of Helicar spin-doctoring could alter the fact that James Hardie had set out to "rob" victims and their families.
He pointed that at the time of the restructure, Macdonald had given assurances the company would "fully fund" victims but that when MRCF's $2 billion shortfall had been made public, the California-based CEO had denied "legal or moral" responsibility.
Bastian said there was only one option open to the company. It must deliver on its original promise by putting sufficient money into MRCF, and it must do it now.
"Australians have to ask themselves, how low can a company go?" Bastian said. "Is it possible to sink any lower than Meredith Helicar's James Hardie?
"I don't think so."
AMWU Spreads Pinkies
Meanwhile, NSW is on the brink of becoming the first state to institute a "pink slip" that would alert householders to the presence of asbestos.
Following the lead of councils, including Holdroyd and Ashfield, the state ALP caucus has adopted a policy that means dwellings will have to be subjected to asbestos audits before being sold. It is expected to become law next year.
The plan was devised by the AMWU to try and stop home owners and renovators being added to the thousands of Australians contracting asbestos-related lung diseases every year.
It requires vendors to undertake asbestos audits and have properties containing the killer fibres added to a register that would alert buyers, and future occupiers, to the whereabouts and condition of the product.
MP Paul Lynch estimates the audits could be done for as little as $150 by qualified assessors.
More than half the homes built in Sydney since the 1940s are believed to contain asbestos products. Entire suburbs, especially in the west, sprung up when asbestos was a standard construction product.
Asbestos is understood to be safe while it remains intact but becomes a health risk when it breaks or starts to crumble. Medical experts say that inhaling one asbestos fibre can lead to asbestosis or incurable mesothelioma in later life.
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