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15 Years on, Unilever Pays Workers Affected by Mercury Poisoning in Kodaikanal

According to activists, it is public outrage, not corporate responsibility, that prompted Unilever to do what it had refused to do for 15 years.

Published: 09th March 2016 02:23 PM  |   Last Updated: 09th March 2016 10:28 PM   |  A+A-

CHENNAI: Bringing to an end the long-pending dispute between Hindustan Unilever (HUL) and former workers of its thermometer manufacturing unit at Kodaikanal, the company today announced that a settlement on "humanitarian considerations" has been reached under which 591 workers would be paid ex-gratia and given other support measures.

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The memorandum of settlement reached between Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) and Pond’s HLL ex-Mercury Employees Welfare Association was announced after it was recorded by the High Court of Madras on Wednesday.

“The terms of the agreement will help to ensure the long-term health and well-being of the factory’s former workers,” S A Mahindra Babu, the president of employees association, was quoted as saying in a statement released by the company.

The workers moved the court in February 2006 seeking what the company termed as ‘economic rehabilitation’, following which the High Court asked Unilever to resolve the issue. Negotiations went on for the past two years, after which a settlement was reached and the agreement was signed last Friday.

Under this, HUL has agreed to provide ex gratia payments to 591 former workers and association members and their families towards livelihood enhancement projects and skill enhancement programmes.

The plant and the multinational giant was caught in a controversy after it faced two primary allegations: One, that the health of workers was affected after working with mercury for long years. A study by the Centre on Workers’ Health in 2011 reportedly concluded that many of them suffered from illnesses caused by workplace exposure to mercury.

The company on the other hand claimed: “Several expert studies have been conducted since the factory’s closure and all have concluded that our ex-employees were not harmed by working in the former thermometer factory in Kodaikanal,” the company claimed in the statement today.

The second charge was that mercury, a harmful metal if not handled with necessary precautions, was dumped in the factory site without ensuring the basic standards, leading to contamination of the local ecosystem.

In past years, activists and experts presented study reports that suggested the presence of harmful chemicals in areas within and outside the plant in Kodaikanal, an environmentally sensitive region. Some in the UK, the home country of Unilever, took up the matter there. Adding pressure on the firm to act on the concerns, activists took to the social media with a music video titled Kodaikanal Won’t which went viral.

“It was public outrage, not corporate responsibility, that prompted Unilever to do what it had refused to do for 15 years. Millions of people shared the music video and more than 150,000 people in over 100 countries petitioned and tweeted to hold Unilever CEO Paul Polman accountable,” said a statement from Chennai Solidarity Group which has been campaigning for the workers.

Miles to go

Even as the agreement spread cheer among the workers, activists said the job is only half-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, the activist who has been part of the campaign since its early days in 2001.

Pointing out that the former factory is located on a ridge overlooking the Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary, activists add that the standard fixed by the company – 25 mg/kg of mercury in the soil after clean up– is 250 times higher than the naturally occurring background levels. In the UK, in contrast, even the residential standard is 1 mg/kg.

“With its refusal to clean up Kodaikanal as it would a site in the United Kingdom, Unilever is begging for another global campaign, and we are happy to oblige,” said Shweta Narayan, an activist with The Other Media.

 “HUL has submitted the detailed project report to the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board in August 2015 [on soil remediation] and is awaiting consent,” Unilever added in the statement today.