Challenging the Global Market in Asbestos Products: An Example of International Action
Even countries that have banned asbestos and have the production of goods under strong social and institutional control have difficulty in regulating the trading of asbestos-containing products. The social mechanisms required are not the same!
While production worldwide is ever more tightly controlled and monitored, particularly by labour movements, traders remain free to pursue profits and have even stronger mechanisms for protecting their interests.
A very interesting case reported by IBAS (International Ban Asbestos Secretariat), a UK-based NGO, illustrates the working of these mechanisms.
An enterprise in Birmingham (UK) producing autoparts, was importing 6 types of asbestos gaskets from Argentina despite the fact that the law banning asbestos in the UK was already in effect (enacted November, 1999). The irregularity came to light as a result of information received by Laurie Kazan-Allen (IBAS) from Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez of the Health Ministry in Argentina. Through contacts in the occupational health community, Laurie was able to set wheels in motion that resulted in an inspection of the Birmingham plant by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). This inspection confirmed the presence of illegally imported asbestos gaskets.
The British company, URO Automotive, claimed that they didn’t know the gaskets were made from asbestos but revealed they had obtained them from J & L International Marketing, Inc., an American trading company based in Florida, USA, that had sourced the products in Brazil. They were able to provide both the address of the trading company and that of the Brazilian supplier.
Acting on this information I, in my capacity as a factory inspector from the São Paulo region, inspected the premises of the Brazilian company, Inter Union Comercio Internacional Ltda. (Premium Quality), which was located in an industrial suburb of São Paulo. The company turned out to be an intermediary trading company that had bought the gaskets from a small producer. This producer did not have a trademark respected in the international autopart market whereas the intermediary company had excellent trade credentials: such as certification by the ISO (International Standard Organization) and QS (Quality System). The intermediary company merely repacked the products under their own label which was 'trusted' by the American company. The company was fined for selling asbestos products and not being registered at the Brazilian Labour Ministry, as demanded by the law, for not informing the final user that the products contained asbestos and of its risks, for not labeling the product and for not including instructions for use.
In its defense, the representative of the Brazilian company said that in Brazil these products were still legal until 25 May, 2002 (giving me a copy of the law I helped to write); that the importer in the UK didn’t mention restrictions against asbestos and he (the exporter) was not obliged to learn international laws. As for not complying with the national regulation to label the products and inform the final user about asbestos risks, he said that he was only an exporter, his clients couldn’t read Portuguese, and he was not submitting Brazilians to any health risks.
I asked him for the name of the supplier/producer of the asbestos gaskets; it was Vital Indústria de Auto Peças Ltda in Taboão da Serra. I inspected that company. It is unnecessary to express in words how poor the conditions of work were for the workers. As is shown in the following photos, the workers were exposed to asbestos without any kind of protection. Not even a decent mask was offered to reduce dust inhalation.
With the support of the workers' Trade Union, I shut down the factory. They would only be allowed to reopen if the use of asbestos was discontinued and after extensive modification of production procedures.
We discovered that this same company was also producing parts for a number of large automobile and autoparts multinational corporations, especially the German company Filtros Mann Ltda.; as asbestos is prohibited in Germany, this constituted a serious breach of regulations.
This is a typical example how the global market acts unfairly with few controls while production is ever more tightly regulated, especially in industrialized countries.
Finally, we would like to promote a campaign we have been supporting together with so many other social activists all over the world: the establishment of an international organization dedicated to hearing and judging the crimes committed by corporations against the interests and the rights of citizens – the WCO (World Citizens Organization), based on the tribunals of Nuremberg and the Hague – to be set up as a permanent institution, not merely to be activated in times of conflict. This organization would protect the interests of the people in the same way as the WTO protects the interests of the global market; with full powers to censure and punish countries, governments and corporations. In regard to that, we would like to quote Mahatma Gandhi's definition of the 7 deadly sins: "Wealth with no work, Pleasure with no consciousness, Knowledge without character. Science without humanity, Devotion without sacrifice, Politicians without principle and Commerce with no ethics or morals (the stress on this last, ours).
June 20, 2002