Stephan Schmidheiny: Saint or Sinner?
From an article which appeared in Forbes Magazine on October 5, 2009 The Bill Gates of Switzerland,1 it would appear that Stephan Schmidheiny is a truly great man, a philanthropist and a visionary whose life is dedicated to promoting causes such as sustainable development, wealth creation and human dignity. Other Schmidheiny priorities, according to his website, include: liberty, democracy, equality and social responsibility. Wow, I bet this guy can walk on water too.2
And yet the wealth which underpins Schmidheiny's philanthropy comes from the commercial exploitation of deadly asbestos. In Eternit factories owned by the Swiss billionaire's family and at workplaces where Eternit asbestos products were used, hazardous occupational exposures were a daily occurrence, as a consequence of which many workers contracted fatal diseases. People like Don Lee Henderson got mesothelioma having worked with Eternit asbestos materials in California. According to Mr. Henderson's attorney, Oakland-based Steven Kazan, when a unanimous jury found for the claimant, the Eternit subsidiary which supplied these products was put into bankruptcy to avoid paying the $2.5 million judgment.3 In Brazil, men who worked alongside Schmidheiny at the Eternit asbestos-cement factory in Osasco have also died; a personal appeal made to his former workmate by João Francisco Grabenweger was never answered.
ABREA, the Brazilian Association which represents the asbestos-exposed, expressed the feelings of many former Eternit workers in a letter to Forbes which remains unacknowledged and unpublished. ABREA's President Eliezer João de Souza pointed out that if the Journalist Tatiana Serafin had asked them, ABREA members:
could have told Serafin their opinion of Schmidheiny's philanthropy. They could have told her how he and his family's company exposed them to an acknowledged carcinogen and then upped sticks and left town. The fact that people who worked at the factory are dying does not seem to affect the members of the family which owned Eternit at the time these workers were exposed to asbestos. Indeed when questioned about Eternit's attitude to Osasco's dying workers at a medical workshop on asbestos cancer in Switzerland in 2004, a long-standing Eternit representative replied that the injured should look to their government as the company had no obligation to them.4
In light of Schmidheiny's upcoming trial in Turin for his alleged role in exposing thousands of Italians to Eternit asbestos,5 the appearance of the glowing commentary in Forbes would seem quite fortuitous: a coincidence or part of the well-honed Schmidheiny public relations machine?
Taking a democratic and pro-active stance on the controversy created by the Forbes piece on Schmidheiny, ABREA has decided to hold a public debate on November 14, 2009 on the subject: Stephan Schmidheiny: Saint or Sinner? As ABREA President de Souza said in his letter to Ms. Serafin, a place will be reserved for her in the front row.
October 26, 2009
1 Serafin T. The Bill Gates Of Switzerland. Forbes Magazine. October 5, 2009. http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2009/1005/creative-giving-philanthrophy-bill-gates-of-switzerland.html