OPINION: James Hardie's shame laid bare in Asbestos House

January 28, 2014 at 3:13 PM

Asbestos House has been on my to-read list because I think there are things in Australian history we should all know about. One is the way corporations have shaped our nation, like the miner BHP, the airliner Qantas, the banks, and the big manufacturers like GMH, Unilever and Pacific Brands - and James Hardie.

Probably more than any other region, we know the love-hate relationships communities and workers have with manufacturers: the well-paid jobs and the camaraderie of a blue-collar workplace; the bitter fights over pay and conditions; the damage to local environments; and too often an unconscionable disregard for workers' health and lives.

This last immorality is the thing that James Hardie companies should be remembered for.

The James Hardie story belongs in the national curriculum so that managers of the future might adopt better ethical standards.

Last week I strolled down Sydney's York Street on a breezy summer's day. I wanted to see the building, Asbestos House, after which Mr Haigh's book is named, and from which the James Hardie companies managed a building products empire.

The Sydney Morning Herald records the building's construction in its edition of February 27, 1929. It says there are 11 storeys, in the American style. It says the bottom floors are constructed from the cleanest grey granite from Marulan, rising from which are a steel frame, concrete floors and a brick exterior curtain. The article then says the building is lined throughout with "Fibrolite", making the building as fireproof as possible.

Fibrolite, of course, was a James Hardie product. Most know it as "fibro".

James Hardie was in the fibro business for more than 100 years, running mines in northern NSW and the Pilbara, and factories across Australia's major cities and in New Zealand.

At its factory at Camellia near Rosehill racecourse in Sydney's west, unprotected workers unloaded asbestos railed in from James Hardie mines. They mixed a slurry of asbestos and cement and rolled out fibro sheets and dispatched them for builders to cut, and fit them as cheap cladding for affordable suburban houses.

Asbestos products are now banned in Australia. Asbestos is a killer. Its microscopic dust produces lung inflammation and scarring, lung cancer, and the dreadful disease mesothelioma.

Haigh's book tells how James Hardie management was aware for decades of the link between these diseases and asbestos mining and the manufacture and use of asbestos products. But Hardie failed to act to properly protect its workers and the community at large.

Asbestos House is no longer owned by a James Hardie company. It is now called Ikon House. But its streetfront contains a gushy description of the role of James Hardie in the building's construction.

Inside the building's foyer are glass cabinets with richly filled timelines of the company and its key custodian, the Reid family, all the way from Andrew in the 1890s to John B. Reid, AO, a hundred years later.

But the word "asbestos" is not written on these walls - the reputations of the rich and the powerful are too often cleansed.

Fortunately, truth survives in the meticulous detail of books like Asbestos House.

The book has two main themes. First, it records how time and again the dangers of handling asbestos were revealed to James Hardie managers, but nothing much was done, sometimes because of ignorance and stupidity, but also because of capitalist greed. Then the book records the exasperating measures that James Hardie pursued to avoid paying just compensation to asbestos victims.

The book refers often to prominent James Hardie employee Bernie Banton, a mesothelioma sufferer, now deceased. Bernie was a member of the ACTU-led team in negotiations for proper compensation.

Said Banton at one meeting to the James Hardie representatives: "Let's just cut the crap. I'm not going to sit here and listen to this. This is absolutely unadulterated crap. The only reason Hardie's is a successful company is the thousands of lives they put at risk when they knew it was a dangerous product. They knew what was going on and did nothing about it. So don't you tell me what a great company Hardie's is. You're a lot of grubs. I don't know how you can look at yourselves in the mirror. How dare you! This is a despicable company with no morals whatsoever."

Now, that would be a good addition to the plaque outside Ikon House. And an exciting quotation in a school history book.

Phil O’Neill is a professorial research fellow at the University of Western Sydney.

By Phil O'Neil
The Herald