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."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Operations Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: I am currently recruiting for an Operati...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, Security Cleared

£100 - £110 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Ham...

Senior Digital Marketing Executive

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based i...

Junior Developer- CSS, HMTL, Bootstrap

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading company within the healthcare ...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz