India Rejects Asbestos Premier
A trade delegation led by Premier Jean Charest of Quebec, the sole Canadian Province which produces asbestos, has gone spectacularly wrong. Instead of the positive media spin and photo opportunities which usually characterize this type of commercial initiative, Charest's visit to India will be remembered for the outrage over Quebec's hypocritical stance on asbestos, a substance too deadly to use at home but safe enough to ship to developing countries. India is the world's biggest importer of asbestos and Quebec's best customer, accounting for nearly 43% of all its asbestos exports in 2008.1
An event in Mumbai on February 1, 2010 was timed to coincide with Charest's visit to inaugurate Quebec's new office in Mumbai, the economic heart of India.2 Campaigners and trade unionists from Mumbai concerned about the aggressive asbestos policy of Premier Charest's Government asked for a meeting; this request was ignored. In their letter, they highlighted the existence in Quebec of a double standard on asbestos; a de facto ban ensures that more than 95% of all the asbestos mined in the province is exported to developing countries. Quebec's export of asbestos, they wrote brings dishonour to the international reputation of Quebec.3
The presence of 30 asbestos victims from Hindustan Composites, a Mumbai asbestos manufacturer, at the well-attended Mumbai press conference on February 1 graphically illustrated the consequences of Quebec's pro-asbestos policy.4 Sanjay Singhvi, Secretary-General of the Trade Union Centre of India, estimated that 20% of Indian workers are routinely exposed to asbestos. Experts on India's asbestos reality detailed the consequences of asbestos consumption in the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra. Addressing the media, Indian activist Gopal Krishna said: It will be remembered as an act of barbarism in the history of industrial development where asbestos was knowingly allowed to be used, and where workers were knowingly subjected to it.5
The last stop on Charest's Indian itinerary was New Delhi, where the Premier was scheduled to attend the plenary meeting of the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit. Charest, who sees himself as a leader in the fight against climate change, was once again wrong-footed by protestors who pointed out the hypocrisy of promoting sustainable development while, at the same time, supporting an industry which pollutes the environment and kills human beings. Trade Unionist Anup Srivastava is in no doubt about the impossibility of reconciling a green agenda with the use of asbestos: Asbestos is not green, he told journalists in New Delhi.6
Events in the capital on February 5 publicized demands by trade unionists and human rights activists for a reversal of Quebec's policy. During a demonstration in front of the headquarters of the Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), where Charest was due to meet prominent businessmen, 150 Building and Woodworkers International (BWI) members and representatives of the Occupational and Environmental Health Network, Ban Asbestos Network of India and New Trade Union Initiative made their opinion known with placards stating: Asbestos? No Thanks!!, Quebec Stop Sending Asbestos, and Appeal to Quebec Government. Stop Asbestos Trade.7
According to a report on the BWI website about the day's events:
the Quebec delegation was forced to pay heed to the (FICCI) protest, and a representative met the unions in the presence of police officers. A letter addressed to Premier Charest, and jointly endorsed by numerous organizations, was handed over.
In the afternoon, the demonstrators moved indoors to mount a press conference which attracted members of the print and visual media. Speakers from the blue-green coalition organizing the day's events urged Premier Charest and India's Prime Minister to stand up to the powerful asbestos lobbies in Quebec and India and tell the truth about chrysotile asbestos.8 Asbestos victims spoke of their incurable and debilitating diseases and detailed the soul-destroying and ultimately futile attempt to obtain the medical treatment they needed and compensation to which they should be entitled.
The day's activities culminated with an evening session during which the activists met members of the Quebec media. The campaigners pointed out that while asbestos use in Quebec had virtually disappeared and the government was ripping it out of public buildings, Quebec asbestos exports to India a country with few enforceable health and safety regulations were substantial. The duplicitous behavior by the provincial authorities was a slur on the good name of Canada, a country widely respected for its human rights record.
Attempting to wash his hands of the asbestos file, the following day an exasperated Charest told journalists he was powerless to prevent the export of asbestos to India.9 Passing the asbestos buck to the Indian authorities, he said:
We have taken our responsibilities, we've put in place standards and have promoted them. There's a limit to what we can do It was up to the Indian government to put these standards in place.10
Charest's disingenuous comments came just a day after the Quebec media reported that his Government was considering a proposal to invest $58 million in the completion of development work at the Jeffrey Mine;11 work on the underground asbestos mine was 90% finished when the company went bankrupt in 2001. Since then, attempts to find the funds needed to complete the work have been unsuccessful.
Even the departure of Charest and the Quebec trade delegation from India did not kill press interest in the story. One week on, news of the Mumbai and New Delhi events is still circulating in newspaper articles, radio broadcasts and television interviews throughout the English and French-speaking Canadian media. Journalist Jeffrey Simpson, writing in the Globe and Mail, was scathing in his condemnation of Canada's export of asbestos saying it lies somewhere between a national shame and a national scandal.12
In the fullness of time, Charest's 2010 trip to India may be seen as something of a watershed; far from furthering Quebec's interests in India it became a focal point for the pent-up anger of civil society frustrated at the dumping of toxic material in developing countries. The unintended consequences of this particular trip could well be the death of Canada's struggling asbestos industry.
February 13, 2010
1 Mittelstaedt M. Controversy brews over asbestos deaths in Mexico. February 12, 2010.
2 A press release issued by the Quebec Government on February 6, 2010 explained that the Quebec office in Mumbai will ensure a permanent presence in (sic) Quebec in Indian Territory. 'The presence of Quebec in India is the concrete manifestation of our intention to forge closer ties with this economic giant and support companies and institutions who want Quebec to establish or increase their presence in this market.'
3 Letter to Premier Charest, February 1, 2010.
4 The Mumbai press conference was organized by the Occupational Health and Safety Association, Ahmedabad, the Occupational Health & Safety Centre, Mumbai and the Trade Union Centre of India.
5 CBC News. Indian workers rebuke Quebec over asbestos. February 1, 2010.
6 Canadian premier denounced over asbestos export to India. February 6, 2010.
7 BWI Unions tell Quebec Premier Mr. Charest: Asbestos? No Thanks!! February 5, 2010.
8 Press Release. Indian and Canadian Governments Betray Workers by opposing a BAN ON ASBESTOS. February 5, 2010.
9 Robillard A. Charest pilloried over asbestos exports at Delhi summit. February 6, 2010.
10 Canadian premier denounced over asbestos export to India. February 6, 2010.
11 Mine souterraine à Asbestos - Une aide de 58 millions de dollars demandée. February 4, 2010. http://www.radio-canada.ca/regions/estrie/2010/02/04/001-mine-asbestos-aide-quebec.shtml
12 Simpson J. Playing a dirty game: exporting asbestos. February 4, 2010.