Thursday, March 04, 2004

Asbestos Companies Gag, Threaten Workplace Health Activist

Join the Campaign to Help Fernanda Giannasi

In the United States, fighting for workers’ health and safety can be a frustrating experience. In Brazil, it can bring criminal prosecution and death threats.

Brazilian safety inspector Fernanda Giannasi, known around the world for her struggle to protect Brazilian asbestos workers, is facing trial for offending the honor of a former Brazilian government minister and death threats for fighting to protect Brazilian asbestos workers. A worldwide campaign is being organized to assist her.

Fernanda Giannasi has been a Labor Inspector in Sao Paulo State for more than 20 years. She is a founding member of ABREA, the Association of Asbestos-Exposed Workers in Brazil, a member of the prestigious Collegium Ramazzini and received the International Award from the Occupational Safety and Health Section of the American Public Health Association in 1999.

Her crime: helping asbestos workers protect themselves, get information, get medical checks and learn about the deaths of their co-workers from asbestos-related disease. For this, she has earned the wrath of the multinational asbestos industry.

When Giannasi came across her first cases of asbestos poisoning, the workers were reluctant to take on their employers. 'They were scared to death of losing their jobs. It wasn't until a number of companies had shut down that they came to us. All of them were very ill. Nobody had ever told them that asbestos was dangerous. If it was brought up at all, they were told "it was safe because it's white."' She rolls her eyes and raises her fists: 'Can you believe it!' Today, wherever she goes Giannasi imposes strict security measures, including industrial masks, exhaust and climate control installations and launderettes, to prevent the workers from carrying the asbestos particles home with them. If necessary she personally shuts down an operation. She resolutely points at a picture: 'I closed that factory.'
But just cleaning up the workplaces wasn't good enough. She tried to pass a national law to ban asbestos in Brazil. When that effort failed,
She changed tactics and began fighting for local bans in the cities and states instead. At the moment there are 70 bills for a ban on Brazilian asbestos being discussed. As for Giannasi, someone is always fighting her in court somewhere. When she finally managed to get the hazardous mineral banned in four states, one of the companies complained it was being discriminated against, since asbestos is legal in the rest of Brazil. It would have to fire 400 employees. The judge allowed the appeal, and Giannasi had to start all over again. 'The industry always manages to find some other loophole. Their crimes are either ignored or trivialized.
For this work, Giannasi became a familiar face on TV, in magazines and at public meetings. But she also made powerful enemies. In 1998, she was sued for defamation by Eternit S.A., a leading Brazilian asbestos manufacturer, for articles she wrote about the fate of Brazilian asbestos workers and her public condemnation of hundreds of “highly questionable” extra-judicial agreements with former asbestos employees. The charges were dismissed the next year and the company chose not to appeal.

Despite this attack, Giannasi refused to be intimidated. She continued to travel to asbestos mining communities throughout Brazil and has publicized the plight of the asbestos workers and their communities.

Asbestos is a big – and deadly -- business in Brazil.
Brazil is now the fifth largest producer in the world. But unlike Canada, for example, which exports 98% of its asbestos, 70% of Brazilian asbestos is used on the national market. Of those 70 - 90% goes to the building industry. Over half the production is controlled by two companies, Saint Gobain (French) and Eternit (Swiss), both of whom would face charges if they were to take their Brazilian operations home.

Fernanda Giannasi: 'The big boom was in the 70s, when there was large-scale construction of cheap housing made from un-isolated asbestos. It's insane, especially if you realize that the material is unsuitable for Brazil's hot and humid climate. It's even worse in the North, where there's a lot of poverty. The fibres begin to disintegrate after five years. Moreover, until a few years ago at least 90% of all houses had asbestos rooftop water tanks, and 60% of all houses are still fitted with asbestos tiles. Asbestos is also widely used in the car industry, for roofing and isolation purposes, for pots and pans, even for children's toys!'
Under pressure from the asbestos industr, Giannasi was informed by her employer last November that she was no longer no longer authorized to carry out inspections or mobilize workers and was being restricted to the Brasilia office. According to Hazards Magazine
The latest charges say Giannasi insulted an ex-Labour minister who supported a "yellow" trade union created by asbestos multinational Saint Gobain. In 1985, the company union illegally replaced an independent union which had organized a strike at the company's biggest factory.
The trial has been postponed until Fall because the presiding judge has been jailed on corruption charges.

This action came not-so-coincidentally a few weeks after the breakdown of negotiations between ABREA and Brazil's major asbestos companies over how to provide compensation and medical care for 2,500 affected asbestos workers. The discussion had been going on for three years and Giannasi had played a major role She characterized the final offer made by the companies as "derisory and insulting."

Declining demand due to rising public awareness of the hazards of asbestos has hit the Brazilian asbestos industry hard. Yet the industry blames Giannasi and ABREA for the dramatic decline in the fortunes of the Brazilian asbestos industry.

Giannasi has also received death threats which are to be taken seriously in Brazil.
The use of physical violence is not unusual. It is widely believed that the execution-style murder of Labor Inspectors Nelson Jose da Silva, Eratostenes de Almeida Gonsalves and Joao Batista Soares Lage on January 28, 2004 was related to a raid on a soybean plantation which was, it is alleged, using illegal slave labor. According to Reuters, “Labor Ministry inspectors travel around Brazil’s interior, usually accompanied by armed federal police officers.” The lack of protection which enabled the assassins to attack the inspectors on a public highway illustrates how cut-backs are compromising both the physical safety of Labor Inspectors and their ability to protect Brazil’s workers.
Jim Mowatt, National Secretary of the British Asbestos Workers Union has written to Brazilian President Luiz Inacio LULA da Silva:
We are profoundly disturbed to learn of the predicament confront Labour Inspector, Fernanda Giannasi. From reports we have received from all around the World, it would appear that there have been serious attempts in Brazil to silence Ms Giannasi. We understand that criminal charges have been taken out against Ms Giannasi and that she has had her Inspector's right to inspect workplaces withdrawn.
An international campaign is being organized to help Giannasi. You can help by writing to the Brazilian president Luiz Inacio LULA da Silva and to the Labour and Justice ministries asking them to assist Giannasi.

Check out the Hazards site for addresses and sample letters.