The James Hardie compensation case provides an accurate commentary on the moral vacuum in which many multi-national corporations operate.
In its simplicity, the history goes like this -
James Hardie has been mining, manufacturing and distributing asbestos and its products since before it was listed on the Australian stock exchange in 1951.
Asbestosis is a chronic inflammatory and fibrotic medical condition which affects the lungs. Sufferers experience severe shortness of breath. They often develop malignancies including lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma, (also called malignant mesothelioma) is a form of cancer that develops from the protective lining that covers many of the body's internal organs, the mesothelium.
Malignant mesothelioma is always fatal. It destroys quality of life, as the sufferer becomes increasingly short of breath until a point is reached where normal activity is impossible. There is no cure.
The total number of claims made against James Hardie for asbestos-related diseases is estimated to be more than 12,500, of which 8103 will be claimed after 2006.
Individuals continue to be diagnosed, and these diagnoses are expected to peak in 2010 or 2011 at 250 per year.
Hardie had been reluctantly providing compensation for victims since the 1980s. The multiplication of cases from the 1980s onwards forced the acknowledgement that it had known asbestos to be dangerous. However, it wasn't until 1978 that the company began putting warning labels on its products explaining that inhalation of the dust could result in cancer. They stopped manufacturing asbestos products in March 1987.
Think about it. Hardie continued to make and sell a product which killed people slowly. They did this for at least twenty years in the full knowledge that it was dangerous. Tens of thousands of people have been affected.
Now that is a tragedy - but Hardie compounded it by issuing a press statement in February 2001 claiming that a compensation fund that they had set up was fully funded, giving victims hope.
Subsequently, Hardie moved its operations offshore (to the Netherlands) to avoid the possibility of Australian civil action targeting its corporate assets for compensation.
ASIC took them to the NSW Supreme Court on the strength of this false statement, but due to incompetence on the part of the ASIC legal team, an appeal against the previous verdict - that the executives involved knowingly made these false statements - was overturned.
So what's the moral of the story? Essentially, that if your corporation is big enough and wealthy enough, you can get away with murder. You can also move your assets offshore so that they are safe from legitimate compensatory action on the part of victims.
We have tabloid junk-peddlers like Bolt frothing at the mouth about the tragic death of asylum seekers at Christmas island, but nary a post about 12,500 Australians killed by a multi-national.
The only time he's posted about James Hardie was in an attempt to discredit Labor because one of its advisers did some contract work for Hardie - kind of three levels removed - but the direct connection between Hardie and the asbestos deaths have been ignored by right wing commentators.But then, commerce is sacred. Human life? Well, it depends…..