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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."