The Guardian 30 March, 2005

No Hardie payouts
for Indigenous workers

Janice Hamilton

Two hundred mainly indigenous residents of the northern NSW town of Baryulgil — including former boxing champion Tony Mundine — are facing the prospect of not receiving any compensation from corporate giant James Hardie Industries Ltd.

The community is seeking $50 million in compensation. Their legal team have referred to a federal parliamentary report that found that James Hardie employed the Aborigines under appallingly dangerous conditions where asbestos dust was much worse than at any of their other operations. In fact, most of Baryugil’s residents worked at the mine or were exposed in some shape or form to asbestos tailings.

The Chief Medical Officer of the NSW Dust Diseases Control Board found, after conducting a special screening program, that many of the Baryulgil community showed signs of having asbestos related illnesses. Many have died or been seriously affected by asbestos related illness which can take more than 30 years to become known.

In December last year, James Hardie struck a provisional deal with the NSW government, the ACTU and asbestos disease groups to provide compensation for future Australian victims — $1.5 billion over 40 years — except for those affected by the operations of one of its subsidiaries, Asbestos Mines Pty Ltd, now called Marlew Mines and possibly facing liquidation.

Hardie refuses to accept any legal or moral responsibility for the consequences of the asbestos mine it owned in Baryulgil from 1944 to 1976 arguing that, while for 32 years it was the joint or sole owner of the mine, it did not have operational control and therefore is exempt from paying compensation.

According to Australian law, parent companies are not responsible for the liabilities of subsidiaries if they are operated independently.

James Hardie used the same argument for nearly four years to avoid paying thousands of other future victims until it was forced to make the commitment last December.

Community leaders have warned that if the deal, which is close to finalisation, were signed without their community’s right to achieve compensation, it would be a sell-out by the Carr government and the union movement.

“It would show that Aboriginal people don’t matter”, said Gloria Strachan from the Balgarr Ngaru Aboriginal Medical Service.

Back to index page