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Québec labour movement and chrysotile

- It is unacceptable for workers to lose their lives while earning a living.

The Centrale des syndicates démocratiques (CSD), the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) and the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ) are the three major union organizations in Québec. They represent the majority of workers and employees in the province, including chrysotile miners.

The Québec labour movement permanently works to better protect worker’s health and safety. Doing so, it follows these principles:

  • Adapting the work environment and practices to the essential needs of workers, not the opposite;
  • Giving absolute priority to practices that prevent occupational accidents and diseases;
  • Practicing prevention by addressing the root causes of work hazards.


Clear messages from labour movement

Hazardous methods of use and work must be banned, and account must be taken of the context in which toxic substances are used?

Given that no study has proven or even suggested that high-density, non-friable chrysotile products are hazardous for the public;

And given that the “new” cases of asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma have been caused by working conditions and practices that date back 20 to 40 years and have long since been discarded;

And given the need to take in hand the problem of buildings and structures affected by asbestos flocking in the past;

Le Québec labour movement consider that the banning of asbestos, without taking into account the context in which it is used, is an unacceptable approach that does nothing to protect public health and in no way solves the problems of the past.


Replacement products must be subjected to the same regulatory framework and conditions as asbestos, unless they are proved to be safe for people’s health and the environment?

The Québec labour movement holds that banning all forms of use of chrysotile, without regard to the context in which it is used, in favour of relatively unregulated substitute substances would be a dangerous and irresponsible move that files in the face of all the evidence. The safety of the replacement products for health and the environment is far from proven. Such a move would be dangerous because it could lead to a false sense of security among workers and members of the public who come into contact with these substances every day. As if simply replacing chrysotile would be an automatic guarantee of safety. Such a move would be irresponsible because it saddles everyone, developing countries in particular, with supplementary costs resulting from the replacement of chrysotile cement with other substances, without any identifiable advantages for health or the environment.

The principle of cradle-to-grave responsibility must be applied to asbestos chrysotile?

Today, the principle that corporations have cradle-to-grave responsibility for the products they market is widely accepted in industrial and regulatory products, throughout the product’s life cycle.

The labour movement in Québec believes that the same principle must govern the production and export of chrysotile. This means that producers must undertake to ensure safe handling and manufacturing conditions for chrysotile-based products, both in companies that process the mineral and in the countries that import it.


Little fibre of history

In their document entitled “The Québec labour movement and the asbestos issue”, labour organizations wrote the following concerning asbestos:

Asbestos is a natural substance found in close to two-thirds of the earth’s crust. This means that there are not many areas of the planet that are free of it. According to a study done by the European Community Commission on the presence of asbestos fibres in the air, emissions from natural sources are probably higher that emissions from industrial sources.

Depending on the area, each person probably breathes in between 10 000 and 15 000 asbestos fibres per day and drinks water containing between 200 000 to 2 000 000 fibres per litre, regardless of any industrial activity. In the part of Québec where chrysotile is mined, the level is 170 million fibres per litre of drinking water.


Two major strikes

The most striking episodes in the history of the labour movement in Québec are precisely those related to the struggles over working conditions in the Région de L’Amiante, as illustrated in the 1949 strike. This unprecedented strike was a major turning point for the labour movement, worker’s well-being and the democratization of Québec society as a whole.

The other major strike in chrysotile history was the 1975 one. Following an eight-month strike by 3 000 miners and the hearings of a commission of inquiry into working conditions in chrysotile mines, new regulations for this industry came into force.

These regulations still set the rules for the way the mineral can be used today, prohibiting any form of asbestos flocking. Subsequently, other regulations were introduced to govern the removal of flocked asbestos from buildings and ban any use of amphibole asbestos for good.

Awareness of the need to control exposure to chrysotile in the workplace was furthered at the international level. The followings demonstrate the efforts of the labour movement to correct the mistakes of the past:

  • The establishment of systems for the transfer of information and monitoring technology to user countries;
  • The adoption of principles and signing of responsible-use contracts.

Note also the adoption of Convention 162 by the International Labour Organization in 1986. This convention concerns the safe use of asbestos, of chrysotile.

So, since the 1975 strike, the chrysotile industry has devoted more than 90 % of its production to dense, non-friable products such as chrysotile cement and asphalt coatings. These are products in which the fibres are immobilized in durable cement or synthetic binding materials.

The introduction of effective dust-removal and containment equipment had a real impact in changing the conditions of fibre exposure in chrysotile mines and mining regions. The concentration of fibres in Québec mines went from an average level of 16 fibres per millilitres of air in 1973 to 1 fibre per millilitre in 1990, and finally to an average of 0,4 fibre per millilitre of air in 1995.

Improving the conditions under which chrysotile is produced and used is an objective which the labour movement has been pursuing for a very long time, in several ways:

  • Through better organization and training of workers;
  • On-going campaigns to raise public awareness of working conditions in the mines;
  • Sustained lobbying to influence government’s regulatory behaviour in occupational health and safety matters towards placing more emphasis on prevention;
  • International cooperation with a view to getting common standards adopted.


Labour movement conclusions

Chrysotile can now be mined and processed under conditions that are not at all hazardous for workers. The same is true for high-density and non-friable chrysotile products, which do not involve any hazards to the public or the environment.

But the same cannot be said of the replacement products: little is known about them and their use could prove to be costly, without any health or environmental benefits in return.

This is why the Québec labour movement is opposed to a total blanket ban on chrysotile.

In a country that has been a producer for decades, the workers represented by the Quebec labour movement have learned to mine and handled chrysotile safely. They are ready to share their experience with comrades in other countries.

Reading between the lines, one understands that France and United Kingdom, notably, gave birth to a controversy concerning only fibres and methods that were formerly used in the past and which are, today, prohibited or discarded.

See also...

International Program on Chemical Safety
Quebec government policy
Rotterdam convention
Photo-reportage - Control in the manufacture and use of chrysotile cement
ILO Convention 162
ILO Recommendation 172