Belgian Asbestos Fund
Legislation adopted by the Belgian Government at the end of 2006, outlined plans for an Asbestos Compensation Fund (ACF) to be set up in 2007; the ACF will be incorporated within the Fund for Occupational Diseases and will become operational as of April 1, 2007. The passage of this bill is a recognition of the gross injustice experienced by asbestos victims in Belgium who, until now, have been disadvantaged by a hostile social welfare and legal system which only permitted a handful of asbestos sufferers to obtain compensation.1
While the Act announced basic revisions in government policy, specific details, such as levels of compensation, administrative procedures etc. remain unknown; ACF procedures will be specified in future ministerial decrees.2 The new fund will accept claims from individuals with asbestosis and mesothelioma contracted from occupational and environmental exposures; claims for cancer of the lungs or larynx are barred. The State will provide the sum of 10 million euros ($13m), with an equal, or higher, contribution expected from employers (the size of their contribution will be specified by Royal decree), and a contribution from the Social Security Scheme for Self-employed Workers.
By accepting compensation from the Fund, asbestos victims will give up the legal right to sue their former employer if that employer is a contributor to the Fund for Occupational Diseases. According to Salvator Nay, a spokesperson for ABEVA, the Belgian Asbestos Victims Group, this clause constitutes a huge extension of the concept of employers' civil immunity. In a previous motion for an asbestos fund presented to the Belgian Government in 2006 by MP Muriel Gerkens and approved by ABEVA, there was a simple solution: if, after receiving compensation from the Fund, a claimant wins in court, the Fund is entitled to be reimbursed. Unfortunately, this commonsense approach which would preserve victims' legal rights did not find its way into the new law.
Although, the fact that the Belgian Government is finally facing up to the country's asbestos tragedy is good news, until all the details of the scheme are known, it is not possible to make an informed judgment of the merit of the new scheme.
March 8, 2007
1 Previously, compensation for asbestos injuries could only be obtained by wage-earning workers, so the self-employed, family members and environmental victims were all excluded.
2 These decrees are expected in March 2007.