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Spin gurus try to thwart black asbestos victims' legal claims

"THE ADMINISTRATION used young boys within the collecting bags to trample down and compact the asbestos fluff. There was a burly fellow patrolling the bags to lash at the backs of any boys who slowed their pace."

This is not an account of slavery in the 18th century, but the recollections of Gerrit Schepers, a South African government health inspector, who witnessed the labours of asbestos workers in British-owned mines as recently as 1965.

His testimony is to be used by lawyers as part of claims by 2,000 South African asbestos workers and their families against Cape plc, the British company that owned the mine that employed them. Because of a test case in the House of Lords last year, the way was opened for them to sue, and almost 1,900 did so this week.

But they have come up against the forces of spin. Cape, which owned the Cape Asbestos Company Ltd until 1979, has employed Charles Lewington, John Major's former media guru, and Wilf Weeks, who ran Sir Edward Heath's private office, to deflect attention from the company's responsibilities.

The men and their companies, Media Strategy Ltd and GJW Government Relations, have tried to plant stories in the right-wing press, pointing at the potential cost of granting legal aid to so many foreigners and describing their lawyers, Leigh, Day & Co, as "ambulance-chasers".

But they will not be able to erase Dr Schepers's memories of mining at Penge, in the northern Transvaal. He saw men, women and children fighting for breath and dying from lung cancers caused by asbestos fibres.

"On ... whether black workers and white workers received equal health protection ... it is almost ludicrous to suggest such a thing," he wrote to Leigh, Day & Co. "The white workers spent 95 per cent of their day time in offices or dust-controlled enclaves in the mill.

"The black men, women and children were exposed to all the dust that could be generated in drilling, blasting, mucking, cobbing and crushing asbestos ore."

White workers had proper health care: "At the mine and mill, the white workers lived in proper houses ... The blacks were crowded in shanty-town hovels, paid low and subsisted mainly on sour milk and maize porridge... There was no doctor for the blacks."

It is against this background that Cape is mounting a publicity blitz aimed at pressing the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, to block legal-aid applications from the South Africans. "The intention is to portray the issue as a 'foreigners get legal aid' story rather than promoting the 'poor victims of heartless multi-national' story," Mr Lewington is understood to have advised Cape. "A friendly journalist at the Daily Mail should be alerted ... [The journalist] would be provided with an [our] estimate of cost to the taxpayers, were all ... plaintiffs to be fully funded."

In 1997, the latest records available, Cape reported profits of pounds 12.3m on a turnover of pounds 243m from manufacturing and supplying building materials.

Richard Meeran, the Leigh, Day & Co partner representing the workers, said: "Their action should be paid from British taxes because ... they were exploited by British companies ... leaving them with nothing except terrible illness."