Friday, August 21, 2009

Line Items On A Balance Sheet

The penalties handed down by the Supreme Court yesterday to ten former directors and executives of James Hardy Industries have been branded as “peanuts” and “a slap on the wrist”. The court disqualified the ten from managing a company for periods ranging from five to fifteen years, and also imposed fines ranging form $30 000 to $350 000. It was the former CEO Peter McDonald who copped the stiffest penalty, being disqualified for fifteen years and fined $350 000. The others were let off much more lightly with the former Hardies lawyer Peter Shafron disqualified for seven years and the others for five years. Mr. Shafron was fined $75 000, while the former chief financial officer Philip Morley was fined $35 000, and the remaining former directors were fined $30 000.

The immediate reaction from asbestos victims and unions has been of disappointment. It is not just the fact that a $30 000 fine is almost nothing to individuals who are very well off. It is not just the fact that banning them from running companies won’t even interfere with the international careers of some of these people. It’s not even the fact that the fines will most likely be paid for them by James Hardy or its insurers. It is the fact that this appears to be the value which has been placed on the lives of the thousands of asbestos victims who have suffered and died in the name of the company bottom line.

In all of the television coverage of the proceedings, one image that stuck in my mind was a protester’s placard which read “Fat cats lie while workers die”. That is a phrase which really does sum up the injustice that has been done. The former directors have been found guilty of knowingly misleading their shareholders, their workers, and the public by claiming that the Medical Compensation & Research Fund was fully funded. As we all know now, it was short by almost $2 billion.

What is most upsetting for many people is the way it seems that the wealthy former directors and executives of the company can apparently walk through the world of ordinary people and be completely untouched by anything. It is a stark illustration of the truth that there is a glass wall between the reality of ordinary everyday people, and the existence of those who run the world for their own benefit, regardless of the cost to others. We can see them through that wall, and they can see us, but nothing is ever able to touch them.

As tempting as it is to call for vengeance and retribution, all that the victims of James Hardy Industries truly desire is justice in the form of meaningful compensation, along with something, anything to show that those responsible share their humanity and have been touched by it. It is a simple recognition which is beyond monetary value. But perhaps that is the one thing of which they are not capable. After all, according to Paul Bastian of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, the Hardies executives only ever saw victims as “a line item on a balance sheet.”

Perhaps money is the only thing they understand, and perhaps they simply do not recognize human emotions, in much the same way that a colour blind person cannot recognize the colour red. Perhaps they are literally incapable of having any empathy for their victims in any way that you and I can understand. Either way, it means that the most appropriate way of educating them would have been to impose financial penalties that would actually make them think about what they have done.


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