Is Hardie Planning to Skip Out on Aussie Asbestos Victims?

What W.R. Grace did to Libby, Montana, James Hardie Industries did to workers all over Australia. The government of New South Wales secured a deal with Hardie to pay out some $4 billion (AUD) in compensation for asbestos in that state over the next four decades. Now, secret documents have surfaced indicating that James Hardie Industries plan to pull out of Australia and New Zealand altogether and relocate to the United States. Where does this leave Australia’s asbestos victims? Representatives for Hardie say there are no plans to scrap the asbestos compensation deal. However, the corporation is looking into “options” regarding their “liabilities”–and asbestos compensation is the largest one they have.

And because the asbestos-producing subsidiaries were spun off when the corporation moved its headquarters to the Netherlands in 2001, Hardie maintains that it is not legally liable for asbestos compensation. Little wonder, then, that union leaders and asbestos victims’ advocacy groups are demanding assurances from Hardie that they won’t renege on any asbestos illness compensation deals. According to union leader Sharan Burrows, Hardie’s plan involves liquidation of its parent company in the Netherlands, transferring its assets to the U.S. and either selling off its Australian factories or re-incorporating them as “independent local companies.”

Burrows said, ” These issues raise serious concerns and the ACTU can guarantee it will stand up for asbestos victims… we seek an assurance from James Hardie that in the move to the US there will be no adverse impact on the asbestos compensation and also that the jobs of Hardie’s workers in Australia will be preserved.” NSW Premier Morris Iemma, however, says the asbestos compensation fund, at the least, is safe. “The structure of the fund takes into account any potential future movement into other countries or changes in Hardie’s corporate structure,” he said. Karen Banton, widow of the late Bernie Banton who fought for asbestos victims even as he was dying from mesothelioma, is still somewhat skeptical: “I have always said you can never trust James Hardie.”