The Guardian August 4, 2004


James Hardie Industries "misled Supreme Court"

James Hardie Industries is continuing its push for a statutory 
scheme that would limit compensation to asbestos victims. 
Thousands of Australians who are victims of James Hardie asbestos 
will be denied justice unless the company is forced by law to 
properly fund their compensation.

A NSW government inquiry into the cash-strapped trust which the 
company left behind when it skipped the country and set up its 
headquarters in the Netherlands three years ago, has been told 
Hardie chief executive Peter McDonald misled the Australian Stock 
Exchange.

The trust has at best a $2 billion shortfall. Hardie claimed in 
2001 that the trust was "a fully-funded foundation which provided 
certainty for both claimants and shareholders".

Australia does not have a legal treaty with the Netherlands that 
would allow asbestos victims to pursue their rightful 
compensation.

The inquiry has been told the company also misled the NSW Supreme 
Court over the trust, called the Medical Research and 
Compensation Foundation.

The submissions by the prosecuting counsel said that Hardie 
"treated the plight of James Hardie asbestos victims with 
disdain" and that the company was "not merely unwilling to use 
funds to alleviate their plight" but that it "embarked upon a 
course of doing all it could to ensure" claims by victims "would 
go unsatisfied".

The Australian Council of Trade Unions has demanded that the 
Howard Government take urgent action to ensure Hardie assets are 
available to compensate victims. "James Hardie should not be 
allowed to escape its moral and legal responsibilities to 
thousands of Australian victims of asbestos disease", said the 
peak union body's Secretary, Greg Combet.

The ACTU wants changes to Australia's corporate laws to prevent 
companies evading their obligations, not only for compensation 
but for workers' entitlements as well.

The ACTU has called on the Federal Government to:

* Enter into a treaty with the Netherlands that would enable 
enforcement of Australian civil judgements

* Reach a special arrangement with the Netherlands to ensure the 
assets of the Netherlands-based James Hardie Industries are 
available to asbestos victims

* Amend Australian law, retrospectively in the case of James 
Hardie, to ensure holding companies are liable to the victims of 
their subsidiaries in the case of personal injury or death and 
that a corporate group can be treated as a single entity for the 
purpose of enforcing a judgment.

* Reform Australia's corporations law so that the "corporate 
veil" can no longer be used by companies to avoid their legal 
liabilities to employees and the community for compensation or 
workers' entitlements.

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