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
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
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: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?