Huge Victory for Indian Workers
For more than 60 years, a British company Turner & Newall Ltd. (T&N) operated asbestos factories in India. The company processed asbestos and sold a range of products including asbestos-cement building materials as well as asbestos-containing textiles, jointings, brake linings, friction materials and millboards from sites in Kymore (Madhya Pradesh), Mulund, Sewri and Ghatkopar (Mumbai), Garden Reach (Calcutta) and Podanur (Tamil Nadu). Conditions were appalling and employees were routinely exposed to massive levels of cancer-causing asbestos fibre. When workers got sick or died, they were quickly replaced by others; no fuss, no mess and what's more no compensation. Traditionally, the company denied any responsibility or liability for occupational illnesses. Finally in 1994, T&N sold off its remaining assets in India; it walked away from the human tragedies and environmental contamination it left behind.
Earlier this month, 97 Indian citizens injured by exposure to asbestos overcame decades of tradition when they secured compensation for injuries sustained at the hands of T&N. The successful asbestos claimants were paid by a British Trust set up when T&N went into administration. Speaking about this development, Ravindra Ganpat Mohite, a trade union leader from former T&N company Hindustan Ferodo and an asbestosis sufferer himself, said:
The receipt of this money marks an important step in workers' rights in India. To our knowledge, this is the first time that Indian workers have obtained compensation for occupational disease sustained at the hands of a foreign employer. Negotiating the bureaucratic process, identifying injured workers, accumulating evidence of employment and obtaining medical diagnoses has been a massive logistical effort. I would like to pay tribute to all those involved in this process including health and safety campaigners in India and the UK, trade unionists, doctors and legal professionals. The receipt of this compensation is an acknowledgment of the wrong which has been done to the workforce and as such is a warning to current employers that they will be held to account for the harm they do to their employees.
Ninety-five of the successful claimants had contracted asbestosis as a result of their employment at the Hindustan Ferodo factory in Mumbai; the other two claimants had received secondary exposure to T&N asbestos such as that which takes place when a wife washes her husband's contaminated work clothes. Hindustan Ferodo was an enormous industrial operation employing up to 1,200 workers at a time on its asbestos production lines. It is believed that the total of the Indian claims currently being paid out is £420,000+ (Indian Rupees 30,458,881/ U.S.$ 670,086 ). Another 50+ claims from the same workforce are currently working their way through the system.
Madhumita Dutta, from the Chennai-based non-governmental organization Corporate Accountability Desk, a long time advocate for banning asbestos, commented on the successful outcome of this process:
For a hundred years, foreign corporations have been able to do whatever they liked in India and not incur any penalties. The consequences of their short-term profit-driven actions have been borne by workers and local people. While the amounts paid by the T&N trust are modest, nevertheless an important principle has been established.
November 22, 2010