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Safety concerns for refugees and workers as Nauru asbestos removal program kicks off

Refugees and local workers on Nauru are being hired to remove asbestos from houses on the island without proper protection from the hazardous material.

The ABC has also learned the material is not being disposed of safely and could pose a future health threat.

The work is linked to a $5.5 million housing renovation scheme announced by the government of Nauru in September, which hopes to deal with the roofing and cladding of up to 41 per cent of the island’s residences, plus key facilities, that contain the deadly material.

“This program is safe and greatly beneficial to the people of Nauru,” the government said in a statement, adding: “No refugees are involved in this project.”

But a Rohingya refugee that asked to remain anonymous because of concerns he could get into trouble for speaking to foreign media said he was hired to do construction work as part of the scheme.

The refugee said his employer did not tell him he would be tasked with removing asbestos materials.

“He didn’t say anything, he told me the morning I got there ‘Hey, you take up the roofing, get on’, just like that, didn’t tell me about danger or anything,” he said.

“One month I worked there. A lot of people looked at me and said ‘Hey, you don’t do it like that because you’re not using tools, not using the gloves, not using the masks. It’s a very big problem for you and your body’.”

While the government of Nauru said the renovation program was safe, the refugee said workers were not given the appropriate safety gear and sometimes went without any protection at all.

“Sometimes they give me masks and they give me one glove. After maybe two days, three days, another one. After three days they didn’t give me anything, no gloves, no mask,” he said.

Opposition MP and former president Sprent Dabwido has seen some of the renovation work himself and said he was concerned about safety on the sites.

“Those refugees are willing to do the hard work but I don’t think they know the safety risk they’re taking by doing this job,” he said.

“They climb onto the house, they remove the asbestos with no safety equipment.”

The ABC has received photographs of a group of Nauruans and refugees attaching a new roof to a house, removing the existing deteriorated asbestos roofing.

The photographs show workers wearing their own clothes, instead of coveralls, with only hats and pieces of cloth as head protection.

Source: ABC News