Published: Saturday 31 May 1997

Twenty four black South African workers are planning to give evidence in London against three British companies, which they say poisoned them with asbestos and mercury. Reportedly, two workers have died from mercury poisoning in 1992, and hundreds from asbestos-related diseases after working at British plants set up in South Africa. In three separate legal actions, the companies - Cape Plc, Thor Chemicals Holdings Ltd and rtz - are accused of allowing their subsidiaries to flout safety standards required in the uk.

Cape Plc, the errant firm from Middlesex, apparently paid the workers one pound a week and made them work in adverse circumstances for decades, although allegedly Cape was fully aware of the dangers right from 1931 when Britain's Asbestos Regulations were introduced to reduce exposure to potentially deadly fibres.

Employees from the Penge mine in northeast Transvaal and two Afrikaner families living near an asbestos mill in Prieska are seeking damages from Cape Plc. Studies indicate that 14 per cent of the deaths in the town are from mesothelioma, a form of cancer caused only by asbestos. Graphs produced by the Cape itself showed that asbestos dust levels in the Penge factory were 12 to 35 times higher than the permitted level in the uk. Thor Chemicals of Margate, Kent, is accused of exposing Zulu workers to potentially lethal doses of mercury.

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