India has a voracious market for asbestos, which is used to make a cement composite used in low-cost building products. Canada sent 69,575 tonnes of asbestos to India in 2010, according to the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database, with a value of $39.1 million (U.S.). The leading supplier to the country, by far, is Russia. In 2010, Canada ranked third after that country and Brazil.
A small network of activists and aggrieved workers across India argue that there is no such thing as safe use in a country where there is no tradition or practice of occupational safety, no enforcement of regulations, no monitoring of workers’ health—and such severe poverty that Swami went on showing up for work for years, long after he was winded by a half-block walk and had been diagnosed with asbestosis. He knew full well his job was killing him. “In Canada you have all these safety measures,” he says. “In my country they’ve left us to carry it and die.”