Legacy of work-related illnesses: The man who lived to see justice done

Bernie Banton, a former factory worker crippled by asbestosis, has died days after winning a 23-year fight for compensation. Kathy Marks pays tribute to the man whose battle with big business inspired a whole country
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The Independent Online

The snowmen. That was how Bernie Banton and his colleagues were known. At the end of each shift at an Australian factory, they would emerge coated with asbestos powder, their eyes the only thing visible through the white dust.

Asbestos was mined in Western Australia until the 1960s and widely used in building products – until the dangers of exposure to its dust became clear. That was too late for Mr Banton and thousands of miners and factory workers, who are still reaping a deadly legacy. Australia has one of the world's highest rates of asbestos-related disease.

Some people submitted to their fate, but not Mr Banton, who led a protracted international battle for proper compensation for himself and his fellow victims. Yesterday, the man who became the human face of a struggle for justice – a familiar figure who breathed with the help of an ever-present portable oxygen bottle connected via tubes to his nose – died of an asbestos-related cancer.

The dignity and determination with which he had fought James Hardie Industries, a multinational building products company and Australia's biggest asbestos manufacturer, earned him admiration from many. Next week, the government of New South Wales will honour him with a state funeral in Sydney. Mr Banton, 61, who for years suffered from the lung disease, asbestosis, was a human counterpoint to the squabbling and dirty tricks of the recent election campaign.

John Howard's Health minister, Tony Abbott, was forced to apologise to Mr Banton last month after accusing him of staging a "stunt" when he handed in a 17,000-name petition to his office. Mr Abbott also suggested that Mr Banton's motives were "not pure". The petition requested a government subsidy for a new palliative drug for mesothelioma – the disease with which Mr Banton was diagnosed in August and which was ultimately to kill him.

He battled to the very end. Just last week, knowing he had only days to live, Mr Banton was still fighting for compensation for other sufferers from his hospital bed. "What a wonderful opportunity I've had to represent all those victims out there, and to be able to fight for them who were not well enough to do it," he told the assembled media.

And it was Mr Banton whom the country's Prime Minister-elect, Kevin Rudd, singled out for special mention in his victory speech on Saturday night after his Labor Party ousted Mr Howard's conservative government. "When so many were prepared to cast you to one side, Bernie Banton, you have been a beacon and clarion call for what is decent and necessary in life, and I salute you," Mr Rudd said. Mr Banton's adversary was one of the world's biggest companies: James Hardie, manufacturer of industrial building materials and asbestos-related products.

In 2001, the company bowed to pressure and set up a foundation to compensate victims of diseases caused by its products. But the sum it set aside – A$293m (£123m) – was laughable. When that fact was pointed out, the company refused to increase the fund. Then it moved its headquarters from Sydney to the Netherlands, saying this was for tax reasons. Critics accused of it of trying to avoid lawsuits.

Mr Banton, a former machine operator, had already received A$800,000 (£338,000) compensation for his asbestosis in 2000. But he and his fellow campaigners were determined to force James Hardie to increase its compensation fund. It is estimated that up to 56,000 Australians will be affected by asbestos-related illnesses by 2020, with a large proportion caused by James Hardie products.

Thanks to Mr Banton's six-year campaign, combined with pressure from politicians and regulatory bodies, the company agreed last December to a package worth up to A$4.5bn (£1.9bn) over 40 years. The deal was approved by shareholders in February. Greg Combet, the leader of the Australian trade union movement, said: "Bernie has been there every day [of the campaign] and has lent to this entire process a decency and humanity that was sorely needed."

Mr Banton, who was born in Sydney, trained as a painter and decorator. His first full-time job was at a factory owned by a James Hardie subsidiary in Camellia, in the city's western suburbs, where he worked from 1968 to 1974 as a lathe operator. He worked a night shift, making moulds of cement, silica and asbestos. He made asbestos pipe sections and shaped blocks of asbestos for power stations.

"They never told us that it would kill you," he once said.

James Hardie used asbestos as a fire retardant in wallboard and other building materials until it was banned in 1984. The mineral contains tiny fibrous glass crystals which settle in the lungs and can eventually choke victims to death. It used to be popular with builders and home renovators because it was easy to use. Previously, it was used for wiring in electric ovens and hot plates.

The large plant where Mr Banton worked was one of Hardie's deadliest work environments. Of his 137 fellow employees, who included his two brothers, fewer than 10 are still alive.

According to an obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald, Mr Banton first experienced breathing difficulties during a family holiday at Thredbo, an Australian ski resort, in 1988. He was diagnosed with asbestosis, or scarring of the lung tissue, and asbestos-related pleural disease, which includes calcification of the lungs and fluid on the lungs. The conditions are debilitating but not terminal. His brother, Ted, who had also worked at the Camellia factory, died in 2001 of mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of the chest and lungs). Another brother, Albert, is gravely ill with asbestosis. A third brother, Bruce, who was also employed at Camellia, is healthy.

Mr Banton, who became vice-president of the Asbestos Diseases Federation of Australia in 2002, attended every day of a special commission of inquiry into the Hardie affair in 2004. His battle cry was: "We're going to fight until we get justice for victims and their families." The inquiry recommended a negotiated settlement, which Mr Banton and Mr Combet eventually managed to extract from the company.

Earlier this year came the cruellest blow: the news that Mr Banton himself had peritoneal mesothelioma, a virulent abdominal cancer which is usually fatal within 150 days. But he continued campaigning, and even won a second compensation deal for himself from James Hardie last week, while he was receiving care in a Sydney hospital ward. That ward, for victims of dust diseases, is to be renamed in his honour.

Yesterday, the New South Wales parliament held a minute's silence for Mr Banton, and his family accepted an offer by the region's premier, Morris Iemma, of a state funeral next Wednesday, which the newly-elected prime minister Mr Rudd and his wife, Thérèse Rein, will attend.

"He struck me as a man of great courage," Mr Iemma said. "He was suffering himself but he was fighting for others. At a time when he should have been thinking of his own health, he was worrying about others. He was an inspiration – boundless energy, despite the fact he was ill. Bernie in his time took on the biggest fight of all, one of the biggest companies in the world, and he won – he won because of his courage, his determination, his conviction."

Mr Banton, who was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2005, is survived by his third wife, Karen, five children and 11 grandchildren. His brother, Bruce, said yesterday that the family was asking mourners to donate funds for asbestos research and treatment instead of flowers. Campaigners say 700 people a year are being diagnosed with mesothelioma, and have called for asbestos fibres to be removed from every building nationwide.

Mr Rudd said: "Australia is going to be poorer for Bernie's passing. He became a living symbol of what is right and decent and proper in the workplace relations of this country. Bernie's great contribution was as a fighter, a real fighter."