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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
filmReview: In the face of all-round devastation, even Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson appears a little puny
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Bright lights, big city: Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles by dusk
books
Sport
Harry Kane makes Paul Scholes' Premier League team of the season
footballPaul Scholes on the best players, managers and goals of the season - and the biggest disappointments
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: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Estimating, preparation of tech...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will work as part of a smal...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor