by Kathleen Ruff, Rideau Institute board member and senior advisor on human rights.
Published by RightOnCanada.ca, May 23, 2012
After 130 years in operation, Quebec’s asbestos industry finally closed down six months ago.
The last functioning asbestos mine, run by LAB Chrysotile at Thetford Mines, ceased mining operations in October 2011 after a landslide blocked off access to its asbestos deposit. The approximately 300 workers were laid off and in January 2012, the company filed for bankruptcy.
While considerable attention has been paid to the efforts of Montreal businessman, Baljit Singh Chadha, and his consortium of foreign investors to open the underground Jeffrey asbestos mine in the town of Asbestos, less attention has been paid to plans to re-open the mine operated by LAB Chrysotile at Thetford Mines.
Simon Dupéré, the president of LAB Chrysotile, stated, however, when filing for bankruptcy, that the bankruptcy declaration was part of a plan to re-launch the mine. He also stated that an essential element for re-opening the mine was that the United Steelworkers union, which represents the workers, must sign a 5-year collective agreement.
On April 3, the workers met to discuss a collective agreement, put forward by Mr Dupéré, who stated that this was a final, take it or leave it, offer on his part. The proposed collective agreement included cutbacks in pension and health benefits and in wages. The 216 workers at the meeting voted 72% to reject it.
The union stated that a key reason why the workers turned down Dupéré’s offer was because the proposal did not include a plan to restart asbestos mining. Instead, the plan referred to contracts with the Quebec government to carry out a road building project to replace the old highway that was destroyed by landslides from the mine’s tailings piles.
Mr Dupéré has now put forward a plan to re-start asbestos mining. Laurent Lessard, the deputy who represents the region in the Quebec National Assembly and who is Minister of Municipal Affairs, states that he believes the plan has credibility.
At a meeting of the United Steelworkers, local 7649, held in Thetford Mines on May 20, 52.3% of the 191 members present voted in favour of the proposed collective agreement put forward by Mr Dupéré on behalf of NEWCO Opérations Black Lake (apparently the new name for LAB Chrysotile). The collective agreement was virtually the same as the one that was previously rejected, except for the fact that it includes a plan to re-launch the mining of asbestos.
Under the new collective agreement, about 130 workers will return to work for a period of 3 months for the construction of the new road. At the same time, development work will be commenced to prepare for the resumption of asbestos mining operations. This work will last about eight months.
Like Baljit Chadha, Mr Dupéré says that he is seeking investors in order to implement his plan to re-open the mine and that he is optimistic.
Instead of supporting the deadly, bankrupt Quebec asbestos industry, that has created such a tragic legacy of human suffering and environmental devastation in Quebec itself, as well as overseas, the Quebec government and the Canadian government should show some intelligent and ethical leadership and provide assistance to the few remaining asbestos workers, many of whom are near retirement age and simply want a decent pension, as well as providing economic transition initiatives to the region.
In addition, the United Steelworkers union in Quebec and the Quebec Federation of Labour are betraying the interests of the workers by continuing to support the dying, deadly asbestos industry, an industry that is based on corruption of science, exploitation of workers and denial of solidarity. While asbestos investors, such as Baljit Chadha and Simon Dupéré, are seeking to profit from the re-opening of the two mines, the workers, the communities and the people of Quebec will not derive benefit from these projects, but will end up paying the human and environmental costs. Supporting corrupt information and investing in a deadly, dying industry of the past is not the way to build a sustainable future for Quebec workers or Quebec communities.
– Quebec is witnessing the most turbulent period of social and political upheaval than has been seen in decades. For the 100 days, students have been holding protest demonstrations over proposed increases in student fees. The Quebec government has now passed a law that severely restricts demonstrations of any kind. The law has been condemned by Quebec academics, legal scholars, the Quebec Human Rights Commission and even the Quebec Bar Association as an assault on the right to speak and assemble freely.
– A Commission of Inquiry under Judge France Charbonneau into allegations of bribery and corruption in the awarding of government contracts to the Quebec construction industry is about to start holding hearings. For two years, Premier Charest refused demands for an inquiry but was finally forced by public pressure to set up the Commission, which is expected to reveal explosive information.
Kathleen Ruff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org