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Issue #1597      June 12, 2013

NBN asbestos bungle

THE CURSE OF PRIVATISATION

Labor needed the NBN asbestos bungle like a hole in the head. Bags of asbestos left near a primary school in Victoria, a family home in NSW evacuated after botched work in another telecommunications pit, a contractor in Tasmania is issued “improvement notices” over its failures by federal health and safety agency, Comcare. Political opponents were quick to pounce and label this another “pink batts” debacle but, again, none of the major players were prepared to draw the necessary conclusion – that privatisation has been a curse and the people of Australia are continuing to pay a high price.

The $37.4 billion National Broadband Network was already in the news. The fibre optic cable roll-out is way behind schedule and will fall short of its June 30 target by 44 percent. Work has stopped in the wake of the asbestos scare. Tensions over the leadership of NBN Co have been dragged through the business pages of the major dailies. But it is the presence of asbestos in five to eight million of Telstra’s communications pits that has shaken the project to the core.

Privatised telco Telstra had been given $11 billion in taxpayers’ money to repair or replace the asbestos in the pits in preparation for the NBN. The government insists the relevant undertakings were not met. Sub-contractors were unleashed on the project with inadequate training and the usual “turn a quick buck” attitude to even the most hazardous work. Comcare reports of asbestos incidents at the pits have gone through the roof since January. An emergency meeting of Telstra, NBN Co, the federal workplace regulator and the national Office of Asbestos Safety was called last week and sweeping changes were promised.

Telstra will deploy a 200-strong taskforce to oversee asbestos remediation work. Its mandatory training and guidelines will be reviewed and updated. Any work deemed unsatisfactory will be taken over by Telstra itself. The commitments are to be welcomed but a lot of workers and large numbers of people in the community have already been exposed to unnecessary risk.

Telstra will not create a fund for the likely victims of the exposure along the lines of the one established by James Hardie. The Asbestos Diseases Foundation had called for $500 million to be set aside for victims but has accepted government-backed assurances from the telco that it will not “walk away” from victims. Claims will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Unions’ role vital

The Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU) also backed the demand for a fund. It has been critical of NBN Co for failing to ensure safe work for its members. It has called for all pit and pipe work on the NBN to stop in light of the problems. CEPU WA branch president John O’Donnell wants better pay and conditions for workers on the project and for the Commonwealth to provide $100 million for the upskilling of Telstra’s NBN workforce. The union raised concerns that contractors in Tasmania were set to work after completing only online training courses.

The role of unions in Australia’s ongoing asbestos problems drew unusual praise last week. Oppositon workplace relations spokesman, Eric Abetz, told the Senate:

“I commend the Australian trade union movement, which has taken a very proactive role in relation to dealing with the issues of the hazards of asbestos, and it would be fair to say that without their active campaigning things might not have progressed as far as they currently have.”

That is undoubtedly true but it begs the question as to where the people of Australia would be in dealing with asbestos and other hazards if Senator Abetz and his colleagues had succeeded in driving unions out of the workplace and effectively shutting them down. For our own safety, unions must be strengthened and defended.

It is sobering to consider the figures. Despite the awareness of the hazards of asbestos, over 820,000 Australian homes were built with some asbestos products in the years up until 1985. Government and corporate buildings also harbour material containing the deadly fibre. About 100 of the people who die of asbestos related diseases in the country every year are women who washed workers’ overalls – workers like those at the Wittenoon asbestos mine in WA. Over the next 40 years, the National Health and Medical Research Council anticipates 25,000 Australians will die of the asbestos-related disease mesothelioma.

Virtually all this suffering is the consequence of corporate callousness and greed. The NBN asbestos scare is just one more reminder of the price we pay for leaving public assets and resources in wealthy private hands.  

Next article – Editorial – Crumbs for the low paid

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