South African factory staff sue British firms

Black workers are claiming damages for death and injury from industrial poisoning, reports Ian Burrell

Two dozen black workers from southern Africa are set to give evidence in London against British companies which they say poisoned them with asbestos and mercury.

Two workers have died from mercury poisoning and hundreds from asbestos- related diseases after working at plants set up by British firms. In three separate legal actions, the companies are accused of allowing their subsidiaries to flout safety standards which would have been required in the United Kingdom.

A claim for damages will be served this week on Cape plc, of Middlesex, by solicitors acting for workers at asbestos mines run by the company's subsidiary in South Africa. Employees from the Penge mine in north-east Transvaal will produce evidence that children under 12 were made to trample asbestos and pack it into bags while bosses with whips watched over them.

The workers, who were paid pounds 1 a week in the immediate post-war years, later died or became seriously ill from asbestos-related diseases. They allege that Cape was fully aware of the dangers of the material from 1931 when Britain's Asbestos Regulations were introduced to reduce exposure to potentially deadly fibres.

In South Africa, it is alleged, the company continued to expose its subsidiary company's black workforce to fibre levels at least 35 times as high as British limits. Asbestos-related cancer takes between 15 and 50 years to appear and victims are still being identified.

As part of the same action, two Afrikaner families living near an asbestos mill at Prieska in the north-west Cape, are also seeking damages from Cape. Studies have shown that 14 per cent of deaths in the town are from mesothelioma, a form of cancer only caused by asbestos.

Cape said that it pulled out of South Africa in 1979 and its present business had nothing to do with asbestos. The company's lawyers are preparing a response to the action.

Next October, 20 black South African workers and relatives of dead employees are set to fly to London to give evidence against Thor Chemicals Holdings Ltd, of Margate, Kent, which they accuse of exposing them to potentially lethal doses of mercury.

The workers, who are Zulu-speaking, claim that they were given no safety training and were allowed to eat food on the floor of the plant in Cato Ridge, Natal. In 1992, two workers died from mercury poisoning. Actions against Thor were started by their families and 18 other workers, two more of whom have since died.

Thor's lawyers have fought to stop the cases being heard in Britain but the company declined to speak about the case.

A separate case brought against RTZ, the London-based multinational, by a former worker at the company's Namibian uranium mine, will go before the House of Lords this month, when a decision will be made on whether it should be heard in Britain. Edward Connelly, now of Glasgow, alleges that the company breached safety standards in exposing him to uranium dust. He has throat cancer and can no longer work. RTZ, which strongly denies responsibility, believes the case should be heard in Namibia.

Richard Meeran, of the London solicitors Leigh Day, said: "These British companies are inevitably responsible for the design of technology and systems of work and have the power and duty to ensure that people are not injured. We are dealing with wholly owned subsidiaries here."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
The guide, since withdrawn, used illustrations and text to help people understand the court process (Getty)
newsMinistry of Justice gets law 'terribly wrong' in its guide to courts
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
scienceFeed someone a big omelette, and they may give twice as much, thanks to a compound in the eggs
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links