Kodaikanal poisoning: Hindustan Lever settles with workers

10 Mar 2016


Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) has after 11 years entered into a settlement to provide undisclosed ex-gratia amount to the victims of mercury poisoning from its now closed thermometer factory in Kodaikanal.

The company was facing a class action litigation moved by the former workers of its factory at Kodaikanal who were allegedly exposed to toxic mercury vapour during their employment.

Claiming the settlement as historical, the association's counsel R Vaigai said, ''This is the first ever class action litigation moved by industrial workers against occupational health exposure.''

Highlighting the significance of the case, she said, ''We have approached the court through a writ petition invoking Article 21, seeking the central and the state governments to protect the life and personal liberty of the workers. We have not moved a plea for compensation/ damages.''

According to a joint press release issued by (HUL) and the Pond's HLL ex-Mercury Employee Welfare Association, representing the ex-employees of the 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.

A similar class action moved by the employees for damages before the High Court of London since the company is headquartered in United Kingdom will also be withdrawn in view of the settlement, Vaigai added.

According to the joint statement, the settlement has been entered into on humanitarian considerations to put an end to the long-standing matter pending before the court for several years, in view of the suggestion of the Madras High Court.

''We have worked hard over many years to address this and find the right solution for our former workers. We, alongside all involved, are glad to see an outcome to this long-standing case. The wellbeing of our employees and the communities in which we operate has and will always remain paramount. This agreement demonstrates our commitment to this,'' Dev Bajpai, executive director, legal and corporate affairs, said.

S A 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 grievances against the company in this regard.''

The issue pertains to a writ petition moved by the Ponds Hindustan Lever Limited Ex-Mercury Employees Welfare Association in 2006 against the Hindustan Unilever Limited (then Hindustan Lever Limited), the Union of India and the State of Tamil Nadu.

The association which represented 591 former employees of HUL's thermometer factory at Kodaikanal alleged that they were exposed to toxic mercury vapour during their employment leading to loss of life and exposure to severe health ailments.

The petitioner wanted the court to direct the Central and the State government to evolve a scheme of economic rehabilitation and health care for the former workers and other victims who suffered exposure to toxic mercury for which costs shall be borne by HUL.

The former employees also wanted the court to prosecute HUL for violation of provisions of Factories Act, 1948 and various other Environmental laws. They further wanted the Central government to revise the occupational health and safety standards with reference to mercury exposure in the Factories Act and compensation in Workmen's Compensation Act, 1923.

When the petition came for hearing on Wednesday before the First Bench headed by Chief Justice S K Kaul, a memo was moved to record the mutual settlement achieved on March 04 and dispose of the petition after the obligations are discharged by the parties as under the settlement.

Recording the submissions, the Bench appointed advocate Suhrith Parthasarathy as nodal commissioner to implement the settlement and posted the matter to March 28 for reporting compliance.

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