Kubota Corp., a major machinery maker, has established its own relief system for sufferers of asbestos-linked diseases who were not employees. This system, which offers “relief money” ranging from 25 million yen to 46 million yen each, covers residents around the company’s asbestos-contaminated factory in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture. Kubota’s quick decision deserves praise. It wasn’t known until June 2005 that not only employees but also local residents had suffered health damage. Kubota is perhaps the first company to offer monetary relief for nonemployees suffering from asbestos-linked diseases.

The relief system will spare residents having to seek compensation by lawsuit, a process that usually takes many years and increases financial and psychological burdens on them. By setting up the system, Kubota can avoid creating a bad image for itself as a result of a long litigation process. As of the end of March, 88 people were thought to be eligible for the relief money. Kubota estimates that payments will total 3.217 billion yen.

In working out the scheme, the company refrained from making a unilateral decision. It held four rounds of talks with representatives of the affected residents since early March. Under the scheme, people, both living and dead, who lived within a 1-km radius of the now-closed factory or who worked or studied at schools in the area for one year or longer from 1954 to 1995 are eligible for the money. The factory handled asbestos during that period. People who have handled asbestos as part of their job are not eligible.

Eligible cases also must involve the onset of lung cancer or mesothelioma, a cancerous tumor in the pleura or the peritoneum — a condition recognized under a new law that took effect in March to financially help sufferers of asbestos-related diseases not covered by labor-accident compensation.

One problem with Kubota’s scheme is how to treat people who live or lived outside the area but have suffered from asbestos-caused diseases. It is hoped that Kubota will deal sincerely with this problem. The company and residents have agreed to create a six-member grievance committee, with three members from the company and three representing residents.

Epidemiological studies that the Environment Ministry plans to carry out near asbestos-related factories in fiscal 2006 will be applicable not only to the area near the Kubota factory but also nationwide. The studies should be repeatedly carried out over a long period to cover people who have moved out of asbestos-related factory areas. The extremely long incubation period of asbestos-related diseases should be kept in mind.

Kubota does not admit to a causal relationship between asbestos and the diseases of residents. But the company says it cannot deny the possibility that asbestos fragments drifted from the factory and caused residents to develop diseases. After announcing the establishment of the relief scheme, a Kubota executive said the company had a “moral responsibility” and felt “social responsibility.”

After the June 2005 finding that some residents around the factory had suffered asbestos-linked diseases, Kubota paid a uniform 2 million yen as consolation money to victims and bereaved families of dead victims. (This consolation money has been abolished with the introduction of the relief system.) It is noteworthy that the company has institutionalized the relief scheme before admitting a causal relationship between asbestos and the diseases.

The scheme pushes up the amount of money residents receive to the level awarded to Kubota employees who developed asbestos-linked diseases or to bereaved families of Kubota employees who died of the diseases. Kubota pays 25 million yen to 32 million yen when an employee suffering from an asbestos-linked disease is recognized as the victim of a labor accident and thus covered by labor-accident compensation.

There are a few more problems. One is whether other asbestos-related companies can and will establish a scheme similar to, and as generous as, Kubota’s relief scheme. Another problem is the large gap in the amount of money received between the residents covered under Kubota’s scheme and people covered only by the new law that took effect in March.

Under that law, living nonworker victims will receive money to cover out-of-pocket medical expenses and a monthly rehabilitation allowance of 100,000 yen. Bereaved families of deceased nonworker victims will get 2.8 million yen in consolation money and a 200,000 yen funeral fee.

This is an area that may need to be rectified through legislative revision. Another problem demanding action is the suffering of people who have serious asbestos-caused diseases not covered under the law, such as pulmonary asbestosis.

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