Asbestos Claims: briefing


18 April 2000
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Meeting Summary

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Meeting report

18 April 2000

Documents handed out:
1. Action Plan to Address the Effects of Asbestos Mining, Manufacture and Use
2. Status Report on Asbestos Claims
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Chairperson: Ms G Mahlangu

Ms Muriel Dube, Acting Chief Director: Environmental Quality and Protection in the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) presented a status report on asbestos claims. She said the presentation would focus on the issues raised by the Committee, namely:
The current case in London;
The status of the claims; and
the position of the Department of Justice.

Ms Dube stated, as background to the asbestos claims, that a British company, Cape Plc mined and milled asbestos in South Africa from the 1890s to 1979. The working conditions at the mines were appalling with workers exposed to deadly dust including families based nearby. Thousands of South Africans suffer from mesothelioma. About 150 unaccounted graves were discovered near Glen Allan Asbestos dump testimony of legacy of neglect. Compensation was along lines of racial discrimination; before 1994 Blacks could not claim compensation and compensation given to Whites was felt to be insufficient.

In 1998 the Court of Appeal in England granted five South Africans leave to have their claims entertained by London Court. In 1999 this decision was reversed on intervention of Cape Plc following 3000 further claims. In February 2000 the House of Lords gave leave to appeal against the decision which will be heard in June 2000. Cape Plc is delaying proceedings on the grounds that England where it is based is not a convenient forum. Also, leaning on a US Court decision over Bhopal case that public policy interest require the case to be heard in South Africa.

The argument for the case to be heard in England is that South Africa has no liability and compensation regime and there would be no funds to meet the claims. The issue should be exposed in London so that people can see how their companies conduct themselves in developing countries. The Minister of Justice delivered a supporting statement expressing that the case be held in London, all victims be compensated irrespective of whether or not they were employed by PLC, and that his Department supports all victims.

Currently there are two types of claims, one against Cape PLC and another against the Medical Bureau of Occupational Diseases (MBOD). The latter are cases of workers' compensation and exclude communities who never worked at mines. The claim does not address cases of secondary asbestos pollution related disease. Between April 1998 and March 1999 the Department of Health dealt with 147 cases and paid out an amount of R3 661 408,00. From April 1999 to December 1999 it dealt with 502 cases and paid out R9 935 353,00. The Department of Labour in 1995 handled 72 cases and paid R77 861,88 whilst in 1998 it dealt with 149 cases but amounts are not available.

The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism indicated that according to its coordinating role it was planning an asbestos strategic workshop. This came up with a programme of action informed by the Committee Asbestos Summit recommendations. There is concern that not all affected departments give their full co-operation. A report is to be forwarded to Cabinet to ensure collective implementation of the programme of action. A feasibility study is to be undertaken to determine levels of secondary asbestos pollution covering roads, schools, houses and playgrounds. Research is to be done on extent of asbestos roofing and available, cost-effective material substitution. A project to outline the best available technology not entailing excessive costs (BATNECC) is to be embarked on. A clean up programme will be initiated after study to also contribute towards job creation. In conclusion, Ms Dube pointed out that it is imperative to have total government commitment in implementing the programme of action. Budgetary reprioritisation is needed to address immediate priorities, such as the feasibility study.

The Chairperson afforded members an opportunity to say what would be the way forward from this meeting. It was stated that regarding problems the DEAT experiences with other departments, the Committee needs to write to these departments for a report. There needs to be a concerted effort to warn South Africans on use of asbestos, especially in the building industry. Linked to that would be exploration of alternatives so that there can be a gradual phasing out of asbestos use. These alternatives could still be manufactured by those companies that produced asbestos to minimize job losses. The Committee has to undertake visits to provinces such as Northern Cape, Northern Province and Mpumalanga. Funding has to be directed in the budget debate in order to empower DEAT. It is important to raise issues relating to asbestos in the public domain. To this end the Chairperson would forward a motion to the speaker of the House on questions raised.


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