The Observer (U.K): Comment
Sunday June 18, 2000
Bringing the multinationals to book
At first glance the misery of the black South Africans coughing up their guts because they had the misfortune to be hired by the British-owned asbestos company, Cape plc, is sad but irrelevant. But to multinationals their condition raises a legal question as important as the addled Pinochet prosecution was to dictators: do courts control conglomerates or vice versa?
About 2,000 former Cape employees suffering from lung disease will ask the Law Lords tomorrow for the right to sue for compensation. Their lawyers' pleas look damning. Cape mined and milled asbestos until 1979 in South Africa. As early as 1931 asbestos companies, including Cape, were regulated in Britain. By 1954, the link between asbestos dust and painful deaths was clear. Cape's British workers have had £30 million compensation.
Yet Cape allegedly treated its South African workers as disposable serfs. They weren't issued with protective clothing and haven't received a penny compensation. Asbestos levels are claimed to have been 30 times higher than the British limit. Dr Gerritt Schepers, a health inspector for the South African government of 1965, which wasn't that bothered about the treatment of black workers, reported children 'trampling down fluffy asbestos, which all day came cascading over their heads. They were kept slepping by a burly supervisor with a hefty whip.'
Cape may have a counter argument. If so, its lawyers are insisting that it must be heard in the South African courts. But Cape pulled out of South Africa 20 years ago. The alleged decision to expose their staff to fatal illnesses was made in Britain. The resulting profits flowed to Britain. Yet the company is saying the trial should be heard in a country where it has no assets which can be seized if the judge finds against it. To date, the British courts have pretty much backed Cape. If the Law Lords don't reverse the perverse rulings we will be in a world where companies can trade globally, but be sued locally; where the World Trade Organisation can overturn the democratic decisions of national governments in the interest of corporations, but British courts refuse to make those same companies accept their responsibilities.