Kodaikanal mercury poisoning: HUL, former employees sign settlement

Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) has finally entered into a settlement to provide “undisclosed” ex-gratia amount to the victims consisting of future health care benefits.

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

Hindustan Unilever's clinical thermometer factory in Kodaikanal hills. The factory was shut down in 2001 by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Contorl Board after revelations that the company leaked mercury into Pambar Shola Forest Reserve for 17 years. Photo: G. Karthikeyan

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.”

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for damages before the High Court of London since the company is headquartered in United Kingdom will also be withdrawn in view of the settlement, Vaigai added.

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.

2001 TNPCB shuts down the HUL thermometer factory after sale of mercury contaminated glass to scrap dealers is detected. Health study of workers done
2003 Large amount of mercury scrap sent back to the U.S.
2006 Ex-employees move Madras High Court against Unilever. Health effects such as miscarriages, kidney and nervous system damages, mental disability in children etc. stated
2011 Committee constituted by Ministry of Labour concludes there was prima facie evidence of mercury-related ailments in workers
2015 Unilever CEO Paul Polman says he is determined to solve the issue after international focus following rap song.