FTSE 100 giant BHP Billiton, the world's largest mining company, has become embroiled in a row over compensation for workers suffering from manganese poisoning, a crippling condition similar to Parkinson's disease.
The dispute is centred on a South African plant run by BHP subsidiary Samancor Manganese - the Metalloys plant in Meyerton, south of Johannesburg.
Richard Spoor, a lawyer specialising in occupational health and the mining sector, is demanding compensation for six severely ill former workers as well as screening for the entire workforce. "There has been a spate of severe manganese poisoning cases at the Meyerton plant," said Mr Spoor. "I do occupational health and have seen some pretty ugly things but this [condition] is the worst I have seen. It's a living death."
Manganese poisoning is incurable and leaves victims, who also suffer seizures, unable to work. But Mr Spoor said that BHP had not paid compensation to the former workers. Instead they had been left to claim benefits from the Workmen's Compensation Scheme, a state-backed fund.
He said that the maximum payment people were entitled to from the scheme was 11,000 rand (£798) per month, and that the workers he was representing were "getting nothing close to that. The drugs [needed to control the condition] cost more than the [monthly] pension".
Mr Spoor is planning further meetings with BHP management, but will also involve trade unions in the campaign. It is thought that legal action against BHP has not been ruled out.
A UK-based spokesman for BHP said he could not comment on the individual cases. But he added: "Samancor Manganese takes the health and safety of its employees extremely seriously and is always looking for ways to increase levels of safety.
"The company has made substantial capital investments in order to reduce the exposure of its employees to manganese. These include dust extraction systems at its Metalloys plant. In addition, all workers are required to wear personal protection equipment that complies with the highest international standards."
South Africa has large reserves of manganese, and Metalloys is one of the main producers of manganese alloys.
Earlier this year, BHP hit the headlines when its copper miners in Chile went on strike after claiming their wages, unlike company profits, had not benefited from the surge in global commodity prices.Reuse content