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ISSUE 69 page 6

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Italian asbestos verdict annulled  on final appeal

We reported in previous issues on both the original trial and the initial appeal in the Eternit asbestos case in Italy.   A long prison sentence and millions of euros in compensation payments were confirmed against company boss Stephan Schmidheiny after an environmental disaster had led to 3,000 deaths. Now a second appeal has undone that decision.

The justice system in Italy is renowned for its slowness, the seemingly endless possibilities of appeal and the frequent use of the statute of limitations to quash convictions. Now these have combined to overturn a landmark judgement against an asbestos manufacturer. Although the previous courts had heard evidence of practices such as crushing waste material in the open, resulting in a cloud of asbestos fibre blowing over nearby towns, and workers being allowed to use empty bags to grow potatoes, nobody from Eternit  will suffer any consequences. The Court of Cassation, the highest in Italy, ruled that such evidence was out of date and could not be used to convict Schmidheiny. Although the Italian factories were closed 28 years ago, new cases of mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, are discovered every week in the small town of Casale Monferrato where the biggest plant was situated. Trade unions reported the latest death in the same week as the appeal was heard.
‘This is a terrible decision that wipes out 30 years of legal battles – without possibility of appeal’ said Alain Bobbio, a spokesperson for French anti-asbestos association Andeva. The reaction of the Italian public was also outraged with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi vowing to reform the court process: ‘We need to ensure that trials take less time, and change the statute of limitations’. Giuseppe Farina, general secretary of the CISL trade union confederation called the reference to the statute ‘surreal as the harmful effects from exposure to asbestos in many cases continue for more than 40 years and therefore have nothing to do with the timing of judicial proceedings’. Schmidheiny's spokesman called for all legal proceedings to be halted, saying the company had already paid ‘many tens of millions of euros’ in compensation to the victims since 2008. However the prosecutor, Raffaele Guariniello, has already gathered a new list of 300 victims and plans to sue for murder which has no expiry date in Italian law.

 

Recent rulings from the European Court of Justice

Austerity in Slovenia can’t stop pay rise
Payment by age justified in certain circumstances
The courts in Slovenia have given public servants an unexpected bonus. A law suit by their trade union SDDO found favour because a pay increase agreed in 2008 had not been fully implemented. After two of the four instalments the government froze the deal following the financial crash. The court ruled that the third tranche of the cash was already due when this happened and ordered the authorities to raise the wages of about 20% of public sector employees. Together with interest the total cost to the state will be about €35 million. Unions have agreed to receive the rise in two further instalments.
A case from Berlin has shown that although the EU’s Equal Treatment directive outlaws the principle of age discrimination in pay, there are certain objectives which justify such schemes. A group of workers at the equivalent of the City Council were recruited between 1992 and 2003 onto a pay scale based on their age at the time. In 2009 the system was reformed so that it was based on length of service and performance. However the scale points of existing employees were calculated according to their basic rate under the old system. This resulted in some established civil servants receiving less pay than the new recruits. The disadvantaged group then claimed age discrimination before the European Court of Justice. However the ECJ ruled that the new system protected the rights of those workers who had been on the old one. Given the impossibility of examining all 65,000 affected individuals under budgetary constraints, the transitional scheme could be justified despite still being based on a discriminatory criterion.




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