As the first phase of Sri Lanka’s chrysotile asbestos ban was about to take effect, top chrysotile exporter Russia blocked Sri Lankan tea imports to the country, leading international trade unions and health campaigners to condemn the ‘economic blackmail’.
On 18 December 2017, Russia abruptly halted imports of tea from Sri Lanka, a serious blow to the Sri Lankan economy. Just two days later the Sri Lankan government announced its decision to defer banning asbestos imports from Russia. Sri Lanka had previously announced a phasing out of asbestos starting 1 January 2018, with a full ban planned by 2024.
Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), said: “Imposing chrysotile asbestos on an unwilling nation is not fair trade, it is culpable homicide. Unions worldwide abhor this cynical economic blackmail. Russia must not and will not be allowed to blow a hole in fair trade rules.”
The National Trade Union Federation of Sri Lanka (NTUF) has urged the country’s government to return to the ban timetable and not bow to Russian pressure. “Being a big country, Russia has resorted to arm twisting its weaker trade partner. It is unfortunate that the Sri Lankan government has to give in to these pressure tactics and accept hazardous material from Russia,” said NTUF secretary general Padmasiri Ranawakaarachchi.
Kate Lee, executive director of union aid organisation APHEDA said: “We are dismayed that such blatant economic blackmail will mean more asbestos related deaths in Sri Lanka in coming years that would not have occurred had the phase out occurred in January as scheduled.”
She added: “Already estimates from global scientists suggest hundreds of deaths from exposure to chrysotile asbestos in Sri Lanka in 2016 alone. With recent high consumption of asbestos and the increased exposure of the population this is certain to rise sharply in coming decades.”