Kodaikanal mercury poisoning: HUL settles with former workers, but there’s much left to do

Welcoming the settlement, campaign organisations in Tamil Nadu involved in ensuring HUL clean up Kodaikanal, say there's much more that needs to be done.

Written by Aaron Pereira | New Delhi | Published: March 9, 2016 5:31 pm
The amount has not been made public. Reuters The amount of the settlement between both parties has not been made public. Reuters

After a 15-year-long wait, Hindustan Unilever Limited has agreed to settle with former workers of its Kodaikanal thermometer factory. The amount, however, remains undisclosed.

In a statement, the company said it will provide ex gratia payments to 591 former workers/association members and their families. The amount will be “towards livelihood enhancement projects and skill enhancement programmes.” The settlement was arrived at on March 4.

The settlement comes after former workers at the clinical thermometer company petitioned the court claiming they had suffered exposure to the toxic mercury emitted by Hindustan Lever Limited (now HUL).

“We welcome the actions taken by HUL to bring these negotiations to a satisfactory closure. We are pleased with all the terms of the agreement which will help to ensure the long-term health and well-being of the factory’s former workers,” president of ex-Mercury Employees’ Welfare Association S A Mahendran said, adding that the association now considers the issue to be “fully resolved”.

However, the association is hopeful that the government will waive-off the tax that the workers will have to pay on the settlement amount.

“A substantial amount of the money will go towards repaying loans as well as medical bills. We are going to petition the government to waive-off tax on the ex gratia amount”, R Vaigai, lawyer for the association, told The Indian Express, adding that she could not disclose the amount as it would be a violation of court orders.

A poster released by the campaign organisations. A poster released by the campaign organisations, demanding Unilever act.

Unfinished business

Terming the settlement as unprecedented, campaign organisations involved in ensuring HUL clean up Kodaikanal, say there’s much more that needs to be done.

“The much-delayed settlement is great news, but Unilever still has unfinished business in Kodaikanal. You can expect a high-decibel global campaign in the coming months to ensure that Unilever cleans up its mercury contaminated site in Kodaikanal to international standards,” said Nityanand Jayaraman, a Chennai-based writer and activist who has been part of the campaign since 2001.

Jayaraman alleges that Unilever is leaving up to 25 milligrams/kg of mercury in soil – he claims this is 250 times higher than naturally occurring background levels — even after a clean-up.

Greenpeace estimates that just one gram of mercury deposited annually can, in the long term, contaminate a lake spread over 25 acres to the extent that fish from the lake are rendered unfit for human consumption.

The company is yet to respond to an email query sent by The Indian Express.

With the assembly polls scheduled to be held in May this year, organisations involved in the movement have now decided to build pressure on the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and Unilever to commit to a world class clean-up. They also plan on organising protest events at Unilever’s Annual Shareholders Meetings in England, the Netherlands and Mumbai.

Kodaikanal Won’t

The campaign demanding Unilever act saw its highest point when Chennai-born activist/rapper Sofia Ashraf recorded a video of her rapping ‘Kodaikanal Won’t’, a song set to Nicki Minaj’s ‘Anaconda’. The video, which currently has over 3.6 million views on YouTube, takes “an undisguised jab at Unilever for its failure to clean up mercury contamination or compensate workers affected by its thermometer factory in Kodaikanal.”

As the video went viral, campaigners urged viewers to tweet to Unileve CEO Paul Polman demanding that he take immediate steps to clean up the contaminated area as well as compensate workers.

Activists had also confronted Polman at the Paris Climate Change conference in December 2015 to which his response was: “That [Kodaikanal] was 15 years ago, and well, there was no pollution. We have developed Kodaikanal and given people there a better life.”

What were the demands

The association, in its petition, urged the court to direct:

* the state government and the Centre to evolve a scheme of economic rehabilitation and health care for the ex-workers of Hindustan Lever Limited’s Clinical Thermometer Factory at Kodaikanal and other victims, who have suffered exposure to the toxic mercury emitted by Hindustan Lever Limited and direct Hindustan Lever Limited to bear the costs of the same

* the state and Centre to prosecute the Hindustan Lever Limited for violation of the provisions of the Factories Act, 1948 and the various Environmental Laws, Regulations and Orders with regard to the operations of Hindustan Lever Limited,’s Clinical Thermometer Factory at Kodaikanal

* the Centre to revise the occupational health and safety standards with reference to mercury exposure in the Factories Act, 1948 and the compensation amounts in the Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923.

You can read the final settlement plea below

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