May 2021: Asbestos Crimes and Punishment
On May 17, 2021, the Japanese Supreme Court issued a unified ruling in four class action lawsuits brought on behalf of construction workers injured by occupational asbestos exposures.1 The Court upheld earlier verdicts which had recognized the Governments negligence in failing to take timely action on the asbestos hazard; the liability of building products manufacturers was also confirmed. Talks are ongoing over plans to issue lump- sum payments, believed to be JP¥13 million+ (US $119,000+), to each claimant.2 It has been reported that the Government is in discussions with stakeholders over plans to establish a national fund to compensate other asbestos-injured workers who were not part of the class actions.
Demonstration in Tokyo May 17, 2021.
The factual findings as well as complexity and breadth of the Supreme Court ruling set a precedent not only in Japan but around the world. The years of research, consultations, legal motions and court proceedings that it took to achieve this victory were testament to the determination of the trade unions, asbestos victims groups and their legal teams, and should be seen as a warning to all those who continue to profit from the deadly asbestos trade.
Since 2006, when asbestos use in building materials was banned in Japan, 1,200 workers and bereaved families have filed 33 lawsuits for asbestos damages.3 There is every reason to believe that the asbestos injured in other countries will, in the end, also use legal processes to extract compensation from those responsible for their illnesses. While hostile legal climates in asbestos producing and using countries might act as a deterrent to such litigation at this time, laws can be changed. As we have seen in Japan, just because something seems impossible does not mean that it is not achievable.
Kazakhstan is currently the worlds third largest asbestos producer.4 Data included in a May 13 article revealed that nearly all the asbestos mined and processed in Kazakhstan by Kostanay Minerals JSC, the countrys sole asbestos fiber producer, was being exported; in other words, whilst 220,000 tonnes (t) of asbestos were exported annually, only 7,000-8,000t were used at home. To date, millions of tonnes of asbestos have been mined and processed in Kazakhstan.
Although there is no information available about the number of people who have been injured and/or killed by these operations, it is reasonable to assume that as asbestos mining has proved lethal to workforces at Canadian, Brazilian, Italian and South African mines, the same will be true in Kazakhstan. Just because there is no legal remedy for the Kazakh miners or their families to claim compensation in 2021, does not mean they will be unable to do so in 2031; with millions of tonnes of Kazakh asbestos fiber shipped all over the world, the possibility of foreign governments or citizens bringing claims against the Kazakh Government or Kostanay Minerals is almost certainly something that will be considered.
On May 6, 2021, Australias Federal Government announced that it was contributing $8 million to the Asbestos Disease Assistance Scheme to compensate people who had been injured by non-occupational exposure to asbestos-containing insulation sold under the brand name Mr Fluffy used in domestic properties in Canberra, the countrys capital.5 This announcement was made just hours before the death of veterinary scientist James Wallner, who in 2020 aged 53, had been diagnosed with the signature asbestos cancer, mesothelioma. The high-profile campaign Mr. Wallner ran shone a light on the inequitable plight of Mr. Fluffy victims. Who says that a Kazakh campaigner may not one day be able to achieve the same result? The fact that asbestos industrialists see themselves as wealth-producers and resource managers is no guarantee that an independent judiciary might not, in years to come, hold them to account for the deadly consequences of their actions.
May 17, 2021
2 Japan's top court holds state liable for asbestos diseases in workers. May 17, 2021.
3 建設石綿被害、賠償認める理由は? 最高裁が17日判決 [What is the reason for awarding compensation to construction workers for asbestos injuries? Supreme Court ruling on the 17th]. May 14, 2021.
4 Житикаринское градообразующее предприятие на волне ковидного кризиса показало рост по всем показателям [In the wake of the Covid crisis, the Zhitikara city-forming [asbestos] enterprise showed growth in all respects]. May 13, 2021.
5 Midena, K. Federal government announces $8m assistance scheme for Mr Fluffy asbestos victims, ACT government set to match it. May 6, 2021.