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Wednesday, 24 July 2013 00:00

A limited win for workers

Workers' lives have always been cheap in capitalist Britain.

It took decades of campaigning before injury victims could sue for compensation with any confidence of victory at the end of the 19th century. Judicial rulings frequently sought to minimise the liability and costs for negligent employers.

More than a century passed before many thousands of pneumoconiosis sufferers could claim compensation for their debilitating condition, by which time the coalowners had received generous compensation for their clapped-out mines following nationalisation of the industry in 1945.

The state then picked up the bill for assisting the victims of the dreaded dust.

While the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act marked a major step forward for legal and trade union rights in Britain, we still have a long way to go to match higher standards in countries such as Canada, Sweden and Australia.

The passage of the Mesothelioma Bill through the House of Lords signifies a step forward, although once again workers' safety and quality of life comes a poor second to considerations of corporate profit.

More than 4,000 people die every year in Britain as a direct result of asbestos-related diseases, more than half from cancerous mesothelioma. That number is expected to rise over coming decades.

Long gestation periods of between 10 and 60 years, together with poor record keeping by many employers, have made it difficult to launch or win legal cases.

The Law Lords have also waded in to limit the scope of civil action.

The new Act of Parliament will be a breakthrough of sorts. It is a victory for the trade unions in another aspect of their vital work which goes largely unreported in the hostile monopoly media.

But the failure to assist all victims of mesothelioma diagnosed before July 2012 inflicts a discriminatory injustice on thousands of retired workers.

Furthermore, paying those who qualify only 70 per cent of the standard rate awarded to victims of similar work-related diseases adds insult to the injury.

The motive for such restrictions is predictably squalid, namely to limit the pay-outs to be made by Britain's greedy, corrupt and highly lucrative insurance industry.

These are the same City spivs who recently sold worthless or unnecessary private pension and loan insurance plans to 10 million people, robbing them of more than £21 billion.

They should not be allowed to wriggle through the legal loopholes when it comes to mesothelioma liability.

And to ensure that all those who deserve compensation in the future actually receive it and in good time, we need a more rigorous epidemiological surveillance system. Britain lags behind the provisions in Australia, France and Italy to test and identify mesothelioma in potential sufferers.

This whole affair also raises another question. When will we see those responsible for the widespread and negligent use of asbestos in Britain's construction industry in the dock for their crimes?

These directors at the head of Britain's major construction companies paid no heed to early warnings about the dangers.

They fought health and safety measures every step of the way. They spared no effort or expense to keep active trade unionists out of the industry.

They currently fund a ruling Tory Party which is ruthlessly curbing the ability of the Health and Safety Executive to go after rogue employers.

Cutting the HSE budget by one-third is the true measure of the value placed on workers' lives by this government and its corporate paymasters.

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