As many as 591 former workers of a Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) thermometer factory, who were exposed to mercury in the course of their work, won a major battle on Wednesday when the company arrived at a settlement with them.
The unit, located at Kodaikanal, was shut down in 2011 after an NGO discovered that it had been dumping toxic waste in the hill town scrapyard.
Environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman said it was an “unprecedented victory for the working class” that such a major company had bowed to public pressure, and given in to the demands of its former workers.
HUL came to an understanding with the factory’s ex-workers’ association on March 4, which was then recorded before the first bench of the Madras high court – comprising justice SK Kaul and justice MM Sundaresh – on Wednesday. The court also appointed lawyer Suhrith Parthasarathy as the nodal commissioner for implementing the settlement.
Why did the factory shut down?
In 2011, Greenpeace volunteers found mercury-filled thermometers dumped at a scrapyard in Kodaikanal, about 500 km south of Chennai. Following a huge hue and cry, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board shut down the thermometer factory.
What happened to its workers?
Social activists found that a significant number of former HUL workers, mostly residents of nearby villages, suffered from mercury poisoning. Though the workers were initially unaware of their rights, they were encouraged to form a unified body and then file a class action suit against the company – seeking compensation for the damage to their health.
How toxic is mercury?
Exposure to mercury can cause brain damage, autism, Alzheimer’s, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, cancer, kidney malfunction, neurological syndrome, insanity, paralysis, coma and – in extreme cases – death.
How many workers will benefit from the settlement?
As many as 591 workers employed with the thermometer factory will be paid an ex-gratia amount before March 28.