HUL settles with Kodaikanal workers affected by mercury factory
Bengaluru: The children of Kodaikanal, who have lived with mercury-laden soil, for decades now, since Hindustan Unilever’s thermometer factory opened here in 1987, may finally get some respite from the toxic metal that causes muscle atrophy, kidney failure, dermatological reactions and respiratory disease.
According to a joint press release, issued by Hindustan Unilever (HUL) and the Pond’s HLL ex-Mercury Employee Welfare Association, representing the ex-employees of the now shut thermometer factory, a settlement has been signed that promises “to provide ex-gratia payments to 591 former workers/association members and their families towards livelihood enhancement projects and skill enhancement programmes.”
They have also promised to clean up the area though details remain a trifle sketchy.
Dev Bajpai, executive director—legal and corporate affairs, HUL said that the company has had multiple meeting, over the last two years, with various stakeholders to resolve the issue and that “the wellbeing of our employees and the communities in which we operate has and will always remain paramount.”
Activists from organizations like The Other Media, Chennai Solidarity Group and Jhatkaa.com, say that it was public outrage that prompted this move. Things came to a head last year in July when a rap video titled, Kodaikanal Won’t, directed by filmmaker Rathindra Prasad, that asked Unilever to, “make amends now” for the pollution they allegedly caused in this “princess of hill stations”.
Sofia Ashraf, the young rapper who performed in this video, which has garnered 3.67 million views till date, says, “People have been fighting for Kodai since 2001 and obviously this is a pay-off of these efforts. But I do believe that social media catalysed this change. I think public attention went up because the video did really well on both social and main-stream media and a lot of international publications picked it up.”
Unilever chief executive Paul Polman responded to the video too, “Working actively solution kodai #UnileverPollutes# for several years already. Determined to solve. Need others, too, and facts not false emotions,” he tweeted a week after the release of the video.
According to the joint release, S.A. Mahindra Babu, president of the Pond’s HLL ex-Mercury Employees Welfare Association said, “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.”
Activists, however, are not completely satisfied, “We are very happy with the settlement but Unilever still has unfinished business in Kodaikanal,”said Nityanand Jayaraman, a Chennai-based writer and activist who has been part of the campaign since 2001, adding that the clean-up that the company offered to make is inadequate. “The mercury level in the soil goes up to 5000 mg/kg in certain pockets and they have offered to bring it down to 25 mg/kg,” he says, “They are an international company and the international standard is less than 1 mg/kg or soil. 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.”