A good-looking, soccer-loving charmer, my good friend Tony Medina worked tirelessly for two decades to safeguard workers against the hazards involved in the removal of asbestos – an area he himself had worked in before becoming a union official.
A life affirming man who inspired others to do good, he died eight years ago of mesothelioma at 43, leaving a wife, children, extended family and friends behind.
I’ve been thinking of him a lot lately, because of the discovery of asbestos on two construction sites in Brisbane and Perth. The lethal product that has been proven to cause cancer was uncovered, not by Yuanda, the company that imported and supplied the product to construction sites, not by the government in which we trust to control what comes through our borders, not by the employer on whose job it was used, but by the union delegate on the job. Though 13 years have passed since the ban on use and importation of asbestos in Australia came into effect, the product is finding its way into the country and onto our workplaces, leaving workers potentially exposed to it without their knowledge.
The shocking discovery by the delegate on that site set alarm bells off throughout the union nationally and we swung into action. In Perth, our officials faced an uphill battle getting onto the Children’s Hospital site where the same company, Yuanda, had also supplied products. Once there, we quickly established that asbestos was contained in roof panels being used on that site. In fact, Yuanda has supplied products to nearly 70 jobs throughout Australia in the last 10 years.
More frightening is that these imports don’t appear to be an isolated case. The Asbestos Eradication Agency has reported that there are a number of products being imported that contain asbestos, including polystyrene sandwich panels, fibre reinforced cement boards, boilers, a shed and electrical switch boards.
How many thousands of people have been exposed? How has this happened?
The CFMEU has been calling for action from the Federal Government on the importation of building materials and they have sat on their hands. The illegal importation of unsafe and poisonous building products has been raised in Parliament, was the subject of a Senate inquiry, and made the front page of a national newspaper several times over the past year without any appropriate response from the government.
People’s lives are at stake. The importation of unsafe and poisonous building materials poses a risk not only to workers, but to the community. We all know about the wives and children of workers who were exposed to asbestos because their clothes were washed in the same washing machine. We all know about companies like James Hardie, who in their quest for profits, hid vital information about the dangers of asbestos from their own workers. Prominent court cases, documentaries, films and dramatic plays have dealt with the legacy of asbestos and the ruination it wrought on whole communities like Witenoom.
All of us should be demanding that the Federal Government tell us their plan to improve the system that is supposed to protect us from lethal products. All of us have a right to know what action the government intends to take against Yuanda and other companies that break the law by importing banned products and fail in their legal obligations to provide documentation about what is brought into Australia.
And anyone who has ever questioned the role that our union plays in the workplace and in the wider community need look no further than this case. If not for the trained site delegate and safety representative on the Brisbane site who unearthed the asbestos in the course of his duties, we would all still be in the dark.
There have been decades of struggle by unions and the community, years of work by dedicated people to put an end to the use of asbestos and the pain and suffering it has inflicted on so many. We have a long, sorry history of asbestos exposure in this country, of criminal behaviour by heads of industry, the repercussions of which are still being felt, generations on.
We will not go back to the position where we started 30 or 40 years ago, because those people who die the long and painful deaths are not just statistics to us. They are people like Tony Medina, a friend of mine cut down in the prime of his life, no longer with us because in his quest to earn a living for himself and his family, his life was put in danger by the corporate indifference that prioritises profits over and above all else.
It’s that corporate indifference that I and those who work alongside me are driven to challenge for the sake of the health and well-being of all those who work in our industry.
For us, asbestos is not academic. It’s personal.