“Children were employed to break up blue asbestos rock without face masks and, of the 7,500 Leigh Day clients, 6% were employed on the mines from under the age of 7.”

The legacy of colonial racism and multinational exploitation of African workers: The Cape Plc asbestos litigation

Leigh Day, London

UK multinationals have long capitalised on the legacy of colonial racism through the exploitation of African workers. This is exemplified by the case against Cape Plc from 1995-2003, where Leigh Day acted on behalf of thousands of innocent people who were exposed to damaging environmental concentrations of asbestos.

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Historically, working conditions were brutal on the mines in Southern Africa, where figures like Cecil John Rhodes were central to the expansion of the British Empire’s colonial project. UK multinational Cape Plc developed in the same vein, profiting from institutional racism and a culture of concealment. As a result, black workers and communities in South Africa were decimated by Cape Plc’s mining operations, which knowingly exposed them to deadly levels of asbestos until the 1980s.

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In order to increase the prosperity of its business, Cape Plc accepted the systemic racial discrimination of South Africa’s apartheid regime. The company extensively employed black workers, simultaneously reducing wage costs, and spending less on accommodation, safety precautions, and medical and other facilities for workers. Despite health and safety risks, Cape Plc used black women and children as cheap labour in their asbestos mining and processing operations. Children were employed to break up blue asbestos rock without face masks and, of the 7,500 Leigh Day clients, 6% were employed on the mines from under the age of 7.

In 1949, young children encased in sacks were witnessed by a medical doctor trampling down asbestos which cascaded over their heads all day long as they were beaten with whips. Several children were diagnosed with radiologic asbestosis before the age of 12. Some Leigh Day clients were also employed by Cape Plc as “Chissa Boys” – teenagers who were tasked with lighting fuses after engineers had laid explosives. They then had to run away as fast as they could to avoid being blown apart.

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Racial discrimination by Cape was widespread. For many years, the company provided retirement benefits and bonuses for white staff, but not for black staff. Cape’s black workers were given micro x-rays whereas white workers had full x-rays. For years, the masks and respirators that Cape provided to black workers were less effective than those provided to white workers. Cape failed to take any proper steps to ensure black workers had adequately designed masks/respirators until at least 1977.

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In addition, Cape actively and intensively lobbied to conceal the nature and extent of health risks associated with asbestos exposure. These actions meant that the implementation of measures necessary to protect workers were delayed for decades. Despite their deliberate concealment of the mesothelioma epidemic in the Northern Cape at the time, it is clear that the devastation caused to South African communities and their environments by Cape Plc is unparalleled.

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The mines in South Africa were closed in the 1980s. However, this was due to fears for the safety of US and European consumers, and not for the protection of black miners. While settlements for UK and US-based workers employed by Cape Plc were secured from the late 1970s, no compensation was sought for South African victims until Leigh Day launched a case in England in 1995. From 1996-2000, Cape Plc tried to avoid justice by challenging UK jurisdiction in the courts. Whilst a landmark victory was achieved in the House of Lords in 2000, around 1,000 of Leigh Day’s 7,500 clients died during the case.

A settlement agreement was reached with Cape Plc in 2001, but the company later reneged on this. Renewed litigation resulted in a more modest settlement having to be agreed due to Cape’s financially parlous state at that time. Nevertheless, this meant that mine workers who were at the heart of the asbestos industry, did at long last secure some measure of justice and that Cape plc was held legally accountable.

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The Cape Plc case is not unique. Leigh Day’s International Department brings many cases against multinational companies where the dignity, rights and environments of African communities have been violated in pursuit of profit.

Images by Hein du Plessis: http://www.labournet.net/images/cape/layout4.htm

View Leigh Day’s International Department brochure: https://www.leighday.co.uk/LeighDay/media/LeighDay/documents/Brochures/LD_International-Digital-Brochure_1June2020.pdf

Further reading:

“Cape Plc: South African Mineworkers’ Quest for Justice”, Richard Meeran, Int J Occup Environ Health, Vol 9, No. 3, Jul/Sep 2003 https://www.leighday.co.uk/LeighDay/media/LeighDay/documents/Anglo%20-%20silicosis/Cape-quest-for-justice-by-Richard-Meeran-International-Journal-of-Occupational-and-Environmental-Health-2003-Vol-9-no-3.pdf?ext=.pdf

House of Lords Judgment – Schalk Willem Burger Lubbe (Suing as Administrator of the Estate of Rachel Jacoba Lubbe) and 4 Others and Cape Plc. and Related Appeals, 20 July 2000 https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld199900/ldjudgmt/jd000720/lubbe-1.htm

“I was given no warning by anyone”, Independent, 1 April 1997 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/i-was-given-no-warning-by-anyone-1264567.html

“South African asbestos victims win £21m”, Guardian, 22 December 2001



Asbestos Mining in South Africa: Review 2003