On 8 September the ABC's 7:30 revealed yet another heartbreaking story of just another person who has contracted an asbestos-related disease.
The disease is referred to as Mesotheliom, which is caused by exposure to white asbestos (chrysotile asbestos). It's generally contracted by people that have worked at, or lived near, James Hardie white asbestos mining sites across Australia.
The victim in the report was Ffloyd Laurie: a Bunjalung man from the Aboriginal community of Baryulgil, located just outside Grafton, New South Wales. Baryulgil is my home town.
Like the rest of the Baryulgil community, including my mother, uncles, nan and pop, Ffloyd worked and lived with no idea of the consequences and health risks caused by that asbestos. Those consequences have proven to be fatal already for my pop and many others from Baryulgil and elsewhere across Australia. Now Ffloyd has been diagnosed with the terminal illness.
While James Hardie operated a mine in Baryulgil, asbestos was a way of life in the town. My pop's (Ken Gordon) family were so poor when he was growing up that he was forced to leave school at the age of eight to work in the mine with his father so that he could bring extra income to support his family.
He recalled that he 'worked in the worst area, the bagging room, where emplyees shovelled pure asbestos dust/fibres into Hessian bags on a daily basis' and stated that 'dust levels were so extreme it was impossible to see the man next to you holding the bag open'.
My mother and her family went to school but the asbestos was never far away. Baryulgil Primary School was located across the road from a mine site and the school itself was not only built with the toxic substance, but was also used as a dumping ground for it.
The report showed a picture of the children diving into what looks like a pile of snow, but what is in fact asbestos. One of those children is my mother, Michelle Larkin. Other pictures show Ffloyde and the other Aboriginal children that attended Baryulgil Primary School playing in and around the asbestos — sometimes as small children, they would even eat it, having no idea how dangerous it was.
"My childhood consisted of frequently bunching into my nan and pop's car and travelling to strange locations for Dust Disease Board meetings attended by other affected elderly people, and a heap of strange lawyers."
My generation was luckier. By the time I went to school the asbestos had been removed thanks to the 1984 House of Representatives Inquiry. However as a child growing up with my pop slowly dying from asbestosis, it was still quite prevalent in my life years later. My childhood consisted of frequently bunching into my nan and pop's car and travelling to strange locations for Dust Disease Board meetings attended by other affected elderly people, and a heap of strange lawyers. At the time I had no idea what they meant and what was going on, except that every time my nan and pop would be left feeling frustrated and upset.
To the community at Baryulgil, it seems as though the primary focus of James Hardie was to not only to gain maximum profits through exploiting their financial vulnerabilities but to use our 'race' for labour to bear the risks of working with asbestos because we were expected to die prematurely, or die out altogether. In the ABC report, Matt Peacock states that 'James Hardie has always argued it did Aboriginal people a favour here at Baryulgil by giving them jobs. And that their life expectancy was so short they wouldn't live long enough to get any asbestos diseases.'
It is a shocking realisation that part of the business strategy from a multinational company has inadvertently contributed to extinguishing part of an entire 'race' through an introduced terminal environmental disease, based on its racist life expectancy assumptions.
Peacock's statement is of course devastating to the community. Not only does it hark back to ignorant and racist attitudes which took advantage of Aboriginal lives, but it raises questions separate from compensatory arguments which have been the primary focus of this case. It seems to me that Baryulgil workers' aboriginality was part of the company's strategy to avoid liability for harm caused by its toxic operations. My mother and my nan have both told me that James Hardie's actions felt like an act of genocide towards our community because of the lies they were told, and how it is now taking the lives from our family and friends from Baryulgil.
As a lawyer I now understand why my family felt the way they did, and the legal and race issues surrounding the case. This disease is not only taking my family's lives, but those of others from the same Aboriginal community where I grew up.
The innocent Aboriginal children — my aunties and uncles and cousins, my community — that attended Baryulgil Primary School now face the tragedy of coming to terms with potentially being diagnosed with mesothelioma. Given that most of them are now parents and grandparents, they are at a stage of life where this news is particularly traumatic.
While others live not yet knowing their fate, Ffloyd Laurie plans to live out the rest of his days to the fullest and hopefully take his wife for a honeymoon, something that he was unable to do previously because of his financial circumstances. The Baryulgil community is tight knit, and it seeks to support Ffloyde's last wish by raising funds to make this happen.
As for my family, my mum simply states she will deal with this 'one funeral at a time'.
Dani Larkin is a Bunjalung woman who grew up on the Aboriginal community Baryulgil. She is an admitted lawyer and has practiced in a variety of areas of law. Dani is studying her PhD in law at Bond University with her thesis topic on 'The Law and Policy of Indigenous Cultural Identity and Political Participation: A Comparative Analysis between Australia, Canada and New Zealand'.
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14 September 2016
What courage our aboriginal community show in face of such exploitation, James hardie should hand over their profits in trust for all the workers they exploited even to extent of employing an 8 yr old boy. Surely illegal at any time. What is wrong with Australian government letting James Hardie move to Ireland and minimize the retribution they deserved. and will have a Karma they can't see at the moment.
14 September 2016
The exploitation of indigenous Australians for commercial gain may go back two centuries, but this case is still among the worst. By the time this mine was in operation, James Hardie knew asbestos killed people. Their choice to use almost entirely indigenous labour under the assumption that no one would notice these workers dying young is particularly appalling. With Ffloyd's diagnosis, it is now clear yet-another generation from Baryulgil has been sacrificed so James Hardie could turn a profit. What an unforgivable legacy.
Thank you Dani for your personal reflections. It's great to see Baryulgil continuing to produce its other notable product -- articulate indigenous advocates. Keep up the good fight.
14 September 2016
This tragic story illustrates the short-comings of promoting as an unrestricted ideal, "jobs and economic growth"
The evil focus of James Hardie in this regard took time to take its toll. Concentrating alone on "jobs and economic growth", can take longer to increase the pernicious divide between the rich and the poor, but the backlash may be just as catastrophic.
14 September 2016
A very interesting perspective on a very nasty disease, Dani. Parallels between tobacco smoking and inhalation of asbestos fibre are also very enlightening. Both had been known for over 100 years to cause lung disease causing shortness of breath and recurrent bouts of lung infection. It was not, however, until the 1970s that tobacco smoking was shown to cause lung cancer and that asbestos inhalation was shown to cause the cancer, mesothelioma. The vast difference between the two was that mesothelioma affected 30/ million of those exposed to asbestos compared with lung cancer that affected 1000/million of those exposed to tobacco. Since this information became available, both asbestos and tobacco inhalation have been appropriately addressed by responsible health authorities.
"Genocide" is not an appropriate term to describe the intent of the pioneer asbestos miners, just as it is not an appropriate term to describe the deaths of people who choose to smoke. Your people are not victims of genocide but of a disease unknown at the time in its effects. If genocide was an intent in the use of Aboriginal labour, it would have been far more effective to give all the workers a daily bonus of cigarettes - as was a practice on the large Nth Territory cattle stations, not as a genocidal tool but as a deduction from a reasonable monetary wage.
14 September 2016
Thank you so much for that clear indictment of Hardie brothers. As a descendant of Scots I am so ashamed of the treatment you first people have been given over many years. May God bless your fight for justice and recognition.
15 September 2016
I lost my Dad to Mesothelioma last December. My heart goes out to Ffloyd and his family. We must all continue to hold those responsible to account.
16 September 2016
Hi, just putting you onto a drug called Keytuda.. a close relative of mine with Meso is on it in it's 2nd trial and doing ok , so far.
It's on the pbs for Melanoma but not (yet) for mesotholemia.
this is the change.org petition to have it put onto the pbs.
16 September 2016
I hope something good will come out of this for Floyd and his family, I know one of his sisters, and the family has been in my thoughts a lot since the report. Hopefully Floyd can take his wife and family on this well deserved holiday soon.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock
24 March 2017
This is a very moving account by Dani Larkin about the tragedy of asbestos dust exposure to human beings at Baryulgil NSW. Wittenoom in WA was another asbestos mining town whose miners and community suffered greatly. The situation was made worse at Baryugil because of the racist attitudes of the mine management and health and government officials that refused to deal responsibly with the issue at this Aboriginal community.
Dani is correct when she points out that HM Factories Inspectorate made a public warning about the dangers of asbestos dust in 1898 - largely due to the work of British nurse, suffragette and factory inspector,,Lucy Deane Streatfeild.
Apologists for the asbestos industry do not want the public to be aware of these facts because it highlights their gross irresponsibility. However, the ancient Egyptians and Romans also knew that workers exposed to asbestos dust died awful deaths.
Many executives of James Hardie and other companies tried to cover up the health problems about this "killer dust" their employees were working with. This is a crime against humanity whose victims have been denied justice.
We need industrial manslaughter legislation to prevent recurrences of such crimes and to bring justice to the victims.