Mercury poisoning payout for African workers

A british company has paid £800,000 to 20 South African workers who suffered mercury poisoning, in a case expected to have far-reaching implications for multinational businesses.

A british company has paid £800,000 to 20 South African workers who suffered mercury poisoning, in a case expected to have far-reaching implications for multinational businesses.

The workers complained of heart tremors, mood swings and sexual problems because of mercury exposure at a chemical plant in the Natal province. Thor Chemicals Holdings in Margate, Kent, which has operations in South Africa, has paid £300,000 in compensation plus an estimated £500,000 in legal costs. Thor settled without any admission of liability. A trial in the High Court had been due to start this month.

Richard Meeran, the lawyer advising the South Africans, said the case would open the door for other workers in developing countries who wanted to sue multinationals. He said: "This has particular significance for the way some British companies conducted themselves in the apartheid years."

The workers alleged that Thor had switched to South Africa because of "continuing trouble with the Health and Safety Executive". The South African Department of Manpower said the poisoning of the workers was the result of the same defects the HSE had identified in Margate and brought to Thor's attention.

Rather than reducing mercury levels, Thor had controlled mercury exposure by "recycling" workers: workers whose mercury levels were too high were sent to work in the garden until their levels dropped. They would be replaced by new workers or workers whose levels had dropped, it said.

Last month, the High Court ordered Thor to pay £400,000 to the court as a condition of defending the action.

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