Senator Bob Ruers calls for international action for asbestos victims

1 October 2001

Senator Bob Ruers calls for international action for asbestos victims

SP Senator Bob Ruers, who has supported Dutch victims of asbestos for years (and with great successes) took part in a South American conference on asbestos in Buenos Aires, October 2001. Here you can read his speech at the conference.

The Asbestos Experience in the European Union
Speech by SP Senator Bob Ruers
Latin-American Asbestos Meeting
Buenos Aires, Argentina
1 October 2001


Before starting my lecture, I would like to congratulate all of you on achieving a ban on the use of asbestos in Argentina. I sincerely hope other countries in Latin-American will follow your example, so that we can soon be witness to an asbestos-free Latin-America!

As Laurie informed you, the road which led to a ban on asbestos in Europe was long and winding. Fortunately, it now looks as if the use of asbestos will soon be banned in all member states of the European Union. But the battle isn’t over yet. As Laurie said, epidemiologists predict that there will be 500.000 asbestos deaths in Western Europe over the next thirty years. We need to make sure that all of these victims will receive full and proper damages for their injuries. That will take a lot of effort and endurance and in my opinion the only way we can reach this goal is by creating a strong and solid organisation to aid victims, both nationally and internationally, in their struggle for compensation. Without such an organisation, I am afraid many victims will be deprived of their rightful compensation.


In the Netherlands large scale use of asbestos started after the Second World War. It was widely used on ship yards and in the asbestos cement industry. As a consequence of this widespread use, we now have approximately 350 deaths of mesothelioma a year and this number is increasing. Scientific research has revealed that we will reach a peak number in the year 2015; by then, the mortality rate for mesothelioma is expected to be as high as 550. Similar rates are predicted for asbestos related lung cancer.
During the 1960s, the awareness of the dangers of the use of asbestos started to surface in the Netherlands. Still, it would take 25 more years before the use of asbestos was completely banned in our country. This was mainly due to the power of the asbestos industry and the meekness of our government. It was the Dutch Socialist Party that in the 1980s first started to make out a case for the ban of asbestos. When this had been reached in 1993, the Socialist Party set out to organise the victims of asbestos exposure. In 1995 the Asbestos Committee was established. It soon became clear that this Committee, consisting mainly of the widows of factory workers who had died of asbestos related diseases, filled a large need. Within a couple of months, more than a hundred asbestos victims reported to the Committee. Also there was a lot of attention in the media. Fairly soon the Dutch Asbestos Committee became the voice of the Dutch asbestos victims.
The Asbestos Committee still exists; it’s work is not yet done. The aims of the Committee are:
- shortening the so called "legal agony of mesothelioma victims"
- obtaining recognition and compensation for the victims
- achieving a compensation fund for all asbestos victims in the Netherlands.
To achieve these goals, the Committee has started consultations with employer’s organisations, insurance companies, the government and trade unions. At the same time, the Committee supported legal proceedings against employers on a large scale, mostly successfully.

I am very proud to say that, owing to the efforts of the Asbestos Committee, the legal position of mesothelioma victims has improved tremendously in our country. Most victims are now able to obtain a swift compensation for their injuries. At the same time, I must conclude that we still have a lot of work to do for the victims of asbestosis and asbestosis related lung cancer. Their legal position still leaves a lot to be desired. Furthermore, employers and insurance companies do their best to bring down everything the asbestos Committee has so carefully built up during the past years. I am therefore convinced it will be many, many years before we can safely do without the Asbestos Committee in the Netherlands. Another reason that strengthens me in my belief that the national Committees such as the Dutch Asbestos Committee are of utmost importance, is that we need these national Committees to support and strengthen an international organisation like IBAS to fight the use of asbestos worldwide. The asbestos industry is an international industry; if we want to fight this industry properly, we cannot need to do this on an international level. It is time for us to join forces and cooperate.


A good example of a multinational asbestos company is the Eternit Group, consisting of two joint international companies: Eternit Switzerland and Eternit Belgium, also known as the ETEX Group. Since the 1920s, the company has been one of the world’s leading asbestod companies.
In the Netherlands, the Eternit Group has a subsidiary company simply called Eternit. It is an asbestos cement factory that was established in the 1930s. The company processed blue asbestos until the beginning of the 1980s; white asbestos was used even longer, until the beginning of the 1990s. Since it was established, the Eternit factory has caused hundreds of asbestos victims in the Netherlands. There are three types of asbestos victims:

- people who worked in the Eternit factory;
- members of workers’ families who were exposed to asbestos fibres brought home on overalls;
- people who lived near the factory. For years, the factory dumped its asbestos-containing waste in the cheapest way possible: they simply put the waste at the disposal of anyone who wanted to pave a road or a farm yard in the vicinity of the factory. So right now, there are miles of road paved with asbestos, exposing the local people to asbestos dust each time they use these roads.

With the support of the Dutch Socialist Party, twelve years ago the first victim brought a claim for damages against Eternit. This was quite sensational at that time, because until then no one of the small community in which the Eternit factory was established had dared to point so much as a finger in the direction of the Eternit factory. Most inhabitants were simply too dependent on the company for their income and well-being. The trial became a success, and many more cases followed, almost all of them successful. Right now, Eternit hardly ever refuses to compensate the victims of asbestos exposure, with the exception of people who were exposed through asbestos roads or asbestos on farm yards. There are a couple of cases pending in which we claimed damages for victims of environmental exposure to asbestos. We expect to be successful in these claims also.


As I said, Eternit is one of the world largest asbestos companies with subsidiaries in more than 35 countries, some of which still use asbestos in their production processes. Within the European Union, Eternit no longer uses asbestos. But outside the European Union, asbestos is still widely used. During the past 25 years, the use of asbestos has even increased in most countries outside the European Union, Canada and the United States. In these countries, Eternit is also showing a different attitude towards the victims of asbestos exposure. Liability is vehemently denied and the victims have to fight their rightful compensation every inch of the way.
This is what I would call "applying a double standard". There is no other expression for it. Why should the victims of Eternit in the Netherlands be entitled to compensation for their damages, when the same victims are denied compensation in Latin-America or in Asia?
The Dutch Asbestos Committee and the Dutch Socialist Party feel that every victim of Eternit, wherever he or she lives, is entitled to damages. To obtain this worldwide justice for asbestos victims, international solidarity amongst asbestos victims and victims’ groups is needed.

United we stand, divided we fall.

This is why the Dutch Socialist Party has taken the initiative to create international solidarity amongst the victims of Eternit. We have called this the Global Strategy for Eternit’s Asbestos Victims. We are convinced that international cooperation will lead to mutual benefits, and a strengthening of the position of the asbestos victims in the different countries. I would therefore like to urge the representatives of all Latin-American victim organisations that have had dealing with Eternit or its subsidiaries to join us in our strive for international cooperation. Together with IBAS, the Dutch Socialist Party is gladly prepared to use its resources and manpower to realise this goal. I hope you will respond positively to my appeal. That would do me a lot of good. In any case, I would gladly like to discuss this proposal with any of you during the next couple of days. And I would also like to make use of the opportunity to share information with you about Eternit and its subsidiaries and the Dutch asbestos experience.
Thank you very much.

Bob Ruers

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