Nearly 15 years after shutting down its thermometer plant in Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu, FMCG major Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) has come to a financial settlement for an undisclosed sum with a group of 591 workers who had sued the company for health damage due to mercury pollution.
Both HUL and the petitioners represented by lawyers and local activists refused to share details of the settlement on the grounds that it would amount to contempt of court.
However, the activists involved said it was a landmark settlement and the amount was a new record for India. One activist said the amount far exceeds what the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy received. The 1984 Union Carbide gas leak victims got an out-of-court settlement of $470 million (Rs 3,150 crore at Wednesday’s exchange rate, but closer to Rs 500 crore at that time) in February 1989.
Kodaikanal Won’t!, a rap song about the crisis by a 27-year-old Indian activist Sofia Ashraf to the tune of Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda, went viral with more than three million views on Youtube and support from Minaj.
Soon after the settlement, she tweeted that half the battle has been won
As part of the agreement, HUL has agreed to provide ex-gratia payments to the 591 former workers/association members and their families.
HUL has provided a contingent liability of Rs 78.20 crore in its 2014-15 financial statement, up from Rs 69.29 crore provision the year before, towards “Other matters including claims related to employees/ex-employees, property related demands, etc.“
The thermometer factory was shut down in 2001 and the litigation for settlement started in 2006.
SA Mahindra Babu, the president of the Pond’s HLL ex-Mercury Employees Welfare Association, said, “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. We now consider this issue to be fully resolved and have no more grievance against the company in this regard.”
“We have worked hard over many years to address this and find the right solution for our former workers,” said Dev Bajpai, executive director, legal and corporate affairs, HUL. “We are glad to see an outcome to this long-standing case. The well-being of our employees and communities in which we operate has and will always remain paramount. This agreement demonstrates our commitment to this”.