The leader of a worker health and safety group in India has labeled the asbestos importation policies of Quebec Premier Jean Charest as racist and dismissive of Indians as lower-class citizens. Mohit Gupta, chairman of the Occupation and Environmental Health Network of India, sent a letter to Mr. Charest requesting that Quebec stop its practice of exporting asbestos to India. Canada is one of the few industrialized nations that has not banned the mining and manufacture of asbestos.
Although most Canadian companies do not use the asbestos that they mine, they export several thousand tons annually to developing countries such as India, Indonesia and Bangladesh. These countries often use asbestos-laced materials in construction and shipbuilding, despite the health risks involved in handling the dangerous substance. Government agencies in these countries often lack either the will or the resources to enforce the same worker safety measures regarding asbestos that are in place in most developed countries.
Mr. Gupta’s letter claimed that Quebec’s stance on exporting asbestos to these countries amounted to economic racism. He told Premier Charest that he and the Canadian asbestos industry should work toward “putting a stop to this deadly trade”. He also accused the Quebec asbestos industry of a propaganda campaign of “irresponsible, false information that asbestos can be safely used.” He categorized the asbestos trade in India as “a crime against humanity”.
The outcry comes in response to Premier Charest’s visit to India in February, where he visited with government officials and business leaders. One of the purposes of his visit was to reinforce ties between Quebec’s asbestos industry and India’s business community. Several groups in India, Indonesia and the Philippines organized protests on 28 April, known as Workers Memorial Day, to speak out against the use of asbestos.
Premier Charest and his associates in the asbestos industry denied the charges of racism. They also said that, if workers and supervisors employ the proper precautions, asbestos is safe to handle. The last two remaining asbestos mines in the country, both in Quebec, employ about four hundred mineworkers, supervisors and office staff.
Alain Boucher, director of the local credit union, said that cities such as Asbestos and Thetford Mines depend heavily on the mines to support their economy. He said that the area, about two hours east of Montreal, has seen the loss of more than a thousand jobs over the last five years due to mine closures and reduced output.
A local group recently announced that they had raised nearly $2 million to expand one of the mines that had been closed. Mr. Boucher said that the planned expansion of the Jeffrey Mine would create numerous new jobs. The leaders behind the new mining efforts are also awaiting word on their request for a $50 million loan from the Quebec provincial government.
Scientists have established a positive link between asbestos exposure and the incidence of respiratory disorders. The most serious form of asbestos-related lung disease is mesothelioma, a type of cancer that targets the soft tissue that surrounds and protects the lungs. Patients with mesothelioma seldom live more than a year after their diagnosis.
Sources: Winniped Free Press, CBC, Trades Union Congress website