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Fighting Back: A reflection on our pilot asbestos project in Vietnam07 June 2011
Late last year, a curious thing happened in Vietnam. After decades of fighting and arguing that white asbestos was safe, the Vietnam Roof Sheet Manufacturers Association (VRSM) embraced the need to move on from asbestos.
In late 2010, VRSM - the peak body representing the Vietnamese asbestos roof sheet industry - invited Vietnam's pre-eminent expert in asbestos alternatives to sit on their advisory board. Just months earlier, the association has been vigorously lobbying the government to have the inaugural conference of Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA's Asbestos Disease Prevention Project shut down because it threatened their industry.
So what happened? Part of the turnaround has to be attributed to our Vietnam-Australia Asbestos Disease Prevention Project, which has completed its first phase and has seen a dramatic turnaround in the way asbestos and asbestos disease is discussed and handled in Vietnam.
With support from AusAID, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute, the project has worked with the National Institute of Labor Protection to establish Vietnam's first focal point for asbestos issues - the National Resource Centre for Asbestos and Asbestos Related Disease.
We can all be proud of the achievements of the centre. We have developed Vietnam's first worker and union official asbestos training programs and we have begun talking to workers about their health and the risks asbestos holds. We have also completed studies on asbestos alternatives and built alliances with research institutes that can propel Vietnam to a post-asbestos future.
The initial impact of the project is promising and we are already seeing the campaign against asbestos spreading to other Mekong countries. Representatives from the Lao Federation of Trade Unions, who attended a workshop in Vietnam, are hungry to learn more about how asbestos is affecting Laotian workers. Already they have plans for the first national conference on asbestos to begin the education process for the government and unions.
However, based on the Australian experience we know that asbestos disease is not an issue that can be solved in a hundred years, let alone a one-year project.
Vietnam continues to be one of the biggest consumers of asbestos, importing around 65,000 tonnes of asbestos and asbestos products. In 2009 it produced 74,000m2 of asbestos roof tiling, the type of tiling favoured by the poorest parts of the community.
Thousands of workers continue to be occupationally exposed with millions more Vietnamese families living with asbestos in their houses. Our research found 34% of workers in affected industries believe that a paper mask is sufficient to protect them from asbestos. Clearly much more needs to be done.
With the first phase of the project complete, we are currently developing a five year project that would reinforce the project in Vietnam and expand it to Lao PDR and Cambodia. Asbestos and asbestos disease is a relatively new issue for development cooperation so we expect it will take a concerted campaign to secure funding for such a program.
1 June 2011 Update
Union Aid Abroad - APHEDA
Ph: (02) 9264 9343
Fax: (02) 9261 1118
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