Union members put human rights and lives above asbestos jobs

Children protesting in the streets of Indian villages and outrage voiced by physicians and human rights activists have not stopped Canada from shipping deadly asbestos to developing countries. But one of Quebec’s most powerful unions says it will no longer support the province’s embarrassing and lethal trade.

In a overwhelming voice vote this morning. (March 11, 2011)  representatives of the 300,000-member Confederation of National Trade Unions voted against the planned expansion of Canada’s last asbestos mine in the town of Asbestos, Quebec, Michelle Filteau, the union’s communication director told me.

“This is a truly historic moment that breaks the grip that the asbestos industry has held for so long over the Quebec trade union movement,” said Kathleen Ruff, a leading Canadian human rights advocate. “The CNTU is showing courage, integrity and, above all, solidarity in taking this public stand in support of the lives of workers in India and other countries where the cancer-causing fibers were being sold.”

Yesterday, at the beginning of the Confederation’s annual meeting, the organization’s president Claudette Carbonneau told the gathering: “Quebec, like many advanced industrial societies, has been shaken by the use of a resource which sows death. If health and safety conditions do not prevent these deadly illnesses in Quebec, it is difficult to pretend that there can be safe use of asbestos in developing countries.”

Carbonneau said it was vital to take the action now as the Quebec government is deciding “whether to finance a revival of the bankrupt Quebec asbestos industry.”

At the heart of the current controversy is the Mine Jeffrey, the world’s largest asbestos mine and the last of several exhausted asbestos pits clustered in Quebec’s Eastern Township area. For more than a century this region has produced almost 90 percent of the world’s commercial asbestos.

But Baljit Chadha, a Montreal-based entrepreneur who is leading Balcorp Ltd, a consortium of foreign investors that wants to purchase the mine, says that if he can buy Jeffrey he can supply much of the world’s asbestos market for at least 25 years.

Chadha,  who has been exporting the Canadian asbestos to developing nations for years, says that would-be investors–from Canada, Europe, Brazil and India–have asked the Quebec government for a $57 million loan guarantee. It would be used to complete construction of the underground mine here, which they say will bring new life to this moribund asbestos-producing region, 95 miles east of Montreal.

Since the my stories on this controversy  ran in February, there have been demonstrations at several Indian villages and town where factories are being built to turn the Canadian asbestos into concrete pipes, roofing and other building supplies.

One of the most effective protests against factory construction involved school-age children carrying signs saying they were scared about the health of their parents and themselves.

–Andrew Schneider


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