MAC: Mines and Communities

Fighting For Asbestos Justice In Brazil - An Interview With Fernanda Giannasi

Published by MAC on 2003-04-15
Source: Multinational Monitor ()

Fighting for Asbestos Justice in Brazil - An Interview with Fernanda Giannasi

Multinational Monitor Washington DC

April 2003

Fernanda Giannasi is inspector for the Brazilian Ministry of Labor, and a leader both in the Brazilian and international movements to ban asbestos. A civil engineer by training, she has been a labor inspector since 1983, and has been active in organizing asbestos victims groups. Giannasi has campaigned against double standards by foreign auto manufacturing corporations using asbestos in Brazil in ways they do not in Europe and North America, and against the remaining European multinational corporation in the asbestos mining and manufacturing sector in Brazil, the French firm Saint-Gobain. Saint-Gobain has left the asbestos business in France, and under pressure from Giannasi and others, is, years later, on the verge of selling its asbestos mining interests in Brazil. Saint-Gobain responded to pressure from Giannasi by filing a criminal defamation suit against her. Unions and public health advocates worldwide launched an international solidarity campaign on her behalf; a Brazilian criminal court dismissed the charges against her in December 2002.

In the poorest areas, almost all homes have asbestos-cement tanks and corrugated sheets in the roofs. It is still the cheapest option for poor people, especially living in favelas (shantytowns).

Multinational Monitor: How prevalent is the use of asbestos in Brazil and Latin America?

Fernanda Giannasi: Asbestos is still used in Brazil and Latin America, though Argentina and Chile and some states in Brazil have passed laws to ban asbestos.

In Brazil, around 60 percent of houses are covered by asbestos-cement corrugated sheets/tiles and currently around 50 percent of these buildings have asbestos-cement tanks to store water for human consumption. In the early 1990s, 90 percent of homes had these tanks. In the poorest areas, the percentages are higher, with almost all homes having asbestos-cement tanks and corrugated sheets in the roofs. It is still the cheapest option for poor people, especially living in favelas (shantytowns).

MM: What is the disease toll from this use of asbestos? Who are the victims?

Giannasi: There are no official statistics nor a national register of asbestos-related diseases. But since I started to organize victims from Eternit and Brasilit companies, both owned by the French multinational Saint-Gobain, the companies have already paid very small amounts of compensation to 2,000 victims.

More than 500 ex-workers refused to accept the miserable compensation offered by companies, and are resisting in the courts, eight years after their attorneys first filed lawsuits. Some of them have already died.

The tip of this iceberg so far is the 2,500 asbestos victims. They are mainly ex-workers at the factories who received occupational exposures, although we do already have cases of contamination of the wives and children of asbestos workers and of residents of areas bordering asbestos mines and asbestos plants.

But these indirect or environmental exposure cases are still few in number because we have many difficulties finding these people. There is as yet no epidemiological follow up in Brazil of ordinary people who have lived near asbestos facilities.

The other problem is the lack of unbiased information available to the public and the unavailability to the general population of specialized medical care services for diagnosis of asbestos-related diseases.

According to the International Labor Organization, in developing countries less than 10 percent of low-income workers have access to such medical care services.

In my opinion, Brazil’s asbestos-related disease peak will occur between 2005 and 2015, because the boom period for production and utilization of asbestos products was in the 1970s, during the so-called “Economic Miracle” of the military dictatorship.

MM: What kind of healthcare and compensation, if any, do the victims receive?

Giannasi: In Brazil, the compensation offered by the companies is roughly $1,500, $3,000 or $4,500, depending on the seriousness of the case. This is ridiculously low, but some victims accept it because of their desperate need for money, the need to address their disability and their distrust of the judicial system.

Along with this “compensation,” the companies also offer a medical care service which they own. That helps guarantee the invisibility of asbestos-related disease and to prevent official recognition of the disease toll, so that the companies can maintain their public image and avoid liabilities.

The companies had profits when the workers were healthy, and now they are trying to continue earning profits when they are sick.

MM: What are the asbestos multinationals in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America?

Giannasi: The biggest asbestos company operating in Brazil is the French multinational group Saint-Gobain that owns a mine (the mine-owning subsidiary was formerly known as SAMA ­ S.A. Mineração de Amianto; nowadays it is called Eternit S.A.), controls the distribution of the raw material and also the asbestos-cement subsidiaries Eternit (formerly a Swiss branch of Eternit), Brasilit, Eterbras (a joint-venture between Eternit and Brasilit), Wagner and Precon Goiás.

In Latin America, Eternit is present in several countries, including Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Uruguay, through the subsidiary called Etex of the Belgium branch of Eternit. While the Belgium group Etex is gradually replacing asbestos with polyvinyl alcohol and cellulose fibers, Eternit linked to the French group Saint-Gobain continues to run the asbestos mine and two asbestos-cement plants in Brazil.

There is also an Austrian multinational group, Richard Klinger Company, that produces asbestos paper used for gaskets, ring gaskets, and for industrial and automotive uses. Its operations in Brazil and Argentina still use asbestos.

MM: What has happened when the multinationals have pulled out? Have domestic firms taken their place?

Giannasi: As they pull out, yes, the domestic firms will take their place. Legally, the domestic firms will be responsible for the liabilities of the former multinational subsidiaries. However, they cannot afford to pay, given the scale of financial resources needed. They probably will end up offering very small compensation to victims.

I am afraid of an idea that the current asbestos mining workers should create a cooperative to control the mining activities when Saint-Gobain will announce officially that it is selling Eternit’s shares. This “autogestion” (management by the firm’s workers) has frequently been practiced in Brazil, especially for companies in bankruptcy as a means to pay part of their debts to their employees.

In the asbestos mining case, I am totally against this kind of business managed by the workers, especially because they will not be able to afford any environmental or occupational controls. It would be a disaster for our movement politically, because it will be almost impossible to fight against “workers” in charge of a small business.

My feeling is that they are in hurry to sell the company to domestic owners. This will be announced officially at the end of April, according to information I’ve received from a French journalist.

MM: You were sued by an asbestos manufacturer, Saint-Gobain, for criminal defamation.Why did they sue you?

Giannasi: They sued me through their subsidiary Eternit, which is the “poisonous” part of their business, at a criminal court. As I mentioned before, Saint-Gobain is planning to sell its holding in Eternit so that they can present themselves as a responsible corporation.

They sued me because I referred to them as the “Mafia of Asbestos” in an e-mail I spread denouncing their attempts to blackmail former workers into accepting a ridiculous extrajudicial agreement. They told the workers that if they didn’t accept the terms of the agreement, and renounce further civil actions, the company would use its prestige and economic power to frustrate/dismiss all the lawsuits filed in the court.

In my e-mail, I denounced them also for their practice of coopting civil servants: labor inspectors working like advisers for them in Brazil and France, and public university researchers doing research to “prove” that Brazilian asbestos is not harmful to health. These researchers also evaluated workers for the extrajudicial agreement to see if they had the “right” to receive approximately $1,500, $3,000 or $4,500 in compensation. They classified the workers’ incapacity and disabilities to determine payment.

MM: How was the case resolved?

Giannasi: The case was dismissed thanks to a major international mobilization and pressure through thousands of letters, faxes and e-mails sent to the judge in the case from all the parts of the world, from many different NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], from other governments (including the British House of Commons, and the Italian and French Embassies), and unions, as well as extensive media coverage.

It was almost unimaginable that the judge would resist all of this pressure.

Finally, he rejected the accusation that I defamed the company’s honor. He based his decision on principles of freedom of speech and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and stated that the companies didn’t suffer any damages.

MM: Brazil is an asbestos producer. Does it export asbestos?

Giannasi: Brazil is the world’s fourth largest asbestos producer. It exports 35 percent of its annual production ­ around 200,000 tons ­ to more than 25 countries, including India, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, United Arab Emirates, Nigeria, Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador.

MM: What are regulations concerning use of asbestos in Brazil?

Giannasi: Brazil was one of the first countries to ratify International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 162 regarding “safety in the use of asbestos.” It ratified this convention in 1990. In 1991, the Labor Ministry approved the regulation to include implementation of the ILO Asbestos Convention as part of our duties at the Labor Inspection Department.

When we tried to pass a law to ban asbestos in 1993, the federal government pushed by the corporations approved Law 9055/95 and Decree 2350/97 to guarantee the “controlled use of chrysotile” (white asbestos, often misleadingly claimed to be safe). These rules remain on the books.

MM: Can you describe the campaign to get asbestos banned in Sao Paulo?

Giannasi: Our victims and the ban asbestos network have worked since 1995 to give visibility to the problem of asbestos-related diseases. We started campaigning for medical examination in asbestos-exposed people. We started a strong campaign producing pamphlets and booklets for the public, to increase awareness of asbestos risks. At the same time, we started campaigning in local, regional and the national legislatures, asking the Workers Party (PT) deputies ­ mostly sympathetic former unionists ­ to present bills at the municipal and state level, and to push for public hearings in the council of cities and states. In these public hearings, we were able to talk to thousands of people.

We have now approved 17 laws banning asbestos at the municipal and state levels and had more than 40 such laws debated in different parts of the country.

MM: How does the domestic production of asbestos affect efforts to regulate it in Brazil?

Giannasi: The state where mining operations are located (Goiás) lobbies against the ban of asbestos. Everyone from ultra leftists to the ultra right-wing parties from the state joins together to defend asbestos at the National Congress. Asbestos is the second major revenue source for the State of Goiás. The governor of Goiás, a young, ambitious and prestigious politician, uses his image to defend asbestos and the economic interests of his state.

MM: What are regulations on use of asbestos in Latin America? Are these regulations effective?

Giannasi: Chile (Regulation 656/2001) and Argentina (Resolution 823/2001) have already passed laws to ban asbestos. In other countries like Peru, a strong debate to pass similar laws, pushed by the victims association, is under way. In Nicaragua, the victims are just starting to organize themselves.

To me, the most serious problem in Latin America is the social invisibility of asbestos-related diseases and the lack of support to asbestos victims groups by the unions and politicians. The unions are worried about unemployment and the politicians are quiet because of their political and financial interests.

In general, the majority of Latin American countries have ratified ILO Convention 162 on asbestos.

But, in general, the implementation laws are not applied or enforced. The legal instruments are weak, state inspections are poor and there is little transparency in enforcement.

The weak state of social movements to ban asbestos (outside of Brazil, Chile, Peru, Nicaragua) exacerbates the problem, as does the lack of media coverage and unbiased information on asbestos accessible to the general population.

The invisibility of asbestos-related diseases in Latin America gives the false impression (used as propaganda by the industry) that our chrysotile (white asbestos) is not dangerous and that our “controlled use” is safe and responsible, different from the way it was long used in Europe and the United States. This may sound like a joke, but these arguments are repeatedly used by industry lobbyists.

MM: How have multinational and domestic companies lobbied on the issue?

Giannasi: They have intimidated campaigners and threatened us with lawsuits. They have tried to portray us as radicals, fanatics, environmental fundamentalists.

They have used their economic power to influence politicians not to approve asbestos bans, to encourage judges not to award fair compensation to victims, and to work the media to present ambiguous information, showing the “two sides” of the asbestos controversy.

Very importantly, they have blackmailed workers and unionists to choose to work with asbestos or face unemployment.

They provide lots of guided tours at the mine and asbestos-cement plants (asbestours), to attract journalists, politicians and policy makers, students and others to show how organized and clean are their plants.

They started in 1997 to offer barbecue parties for the victims in Brazil and their families, began providing Christmas baskets, and re-opened in Osasco the former employees’ club for social activities.

MM: Who are the major users of asbestos in Brazil and Latin America? Have you asked them to stop using asbestos?

Giannasi: The asbestos-cement industries are the major users. They have given different answers to our requests that they stop using asbestos. Brasilit says they stopped using asbestos in their plants in January 2003. Eternit says that market demand determines their production and if and when they will stop using asbestos. Both are part of the Saint-Gobain Group.

Eterbras, their joint venture, confirmed that they stopped using asbestos for Brasilit’s products but they are still producing for the other partner, Eternit. In the same plant you have the two lines: one with asbestos and one asbestos free, depending on which trademark they are going to print on the products.

MM: What do you think are the prospects for a global ban on use of asbestos?

Giannasi: In general, the multinationals are going to stop using asbestos in the next couple years because of global market demands and the shareholders’ concerns about future liabilities.

Meanwhile, the producer countries in the developing world, like Brazil, Zimbabwe and India, are going to take national control of the asbestos interests, transferring these interests to small companies ­ which in general are free from any social and legal controls. They are going to produce for the national market without suffering in the international global market or feeling social pressure.

Of course, there will still be attention devoted to the issue, but it will not be like it is now, with an international effort and campaign pushing the companies daily to replace asbestos.

To deal with these changing circumstances, we need even more to empower the grassroots and the asbestos victims associations to continue pushing for the ban of asbestos immediately, as well as ongoing support from the international community and campaigners.

We need a strong alliance to keep the ban asbestos movement alive and not allow new “national” companies to be created to use the old technology.

We have to denounce these developments in international tribunals for human rights and other similar fora, demanding the ban of asbestos and also fair compensation for all the victims in the world.

MM: What are the major forces blocking such a ban?

Giannasi: In my country, these are the politicians from the mining state (they lost power in the last election), small Brazilian companies and the mine workers union.

On the other hand, because of the results of the last election in Brazil where the Workers Party took the presidency and became one of the strongest political forces in my country, one of the more supportive parliamentarians, João Paulo Cunha, became president of the High Federal Chamber of the Deputies.

João Paulo Cunha is from Osasco, the city where Eternit had its biggest asbestos-cement plant for 54 years. In the past, he has defended and supported all the bills to ban asbestos in the whole country.

I am strongly convinced that another world is possible without asbestos. Whether we achieve that depends only on our commitment and pressure joining all the social and political forces to outlaw asbestos ­ the industrial killer of the twentieth century.

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