After a long wait of 15 years, workers from the the former manufacturing unit of Anglo-Saxon MNC Hindustan Unilever in Kodaikanal have finally received their due. On Wednesday, March 9, the company announced their decision to settle, meaning that nearly 600 of the workers would be paid ex-gratia and other measures of support. The amount, which both parties have agreed upon, has not been disclosed to public.
The conflict began in 2001, when the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board shut down the factory after they discovered a dump site, which contained a 7.4 ton stockpile of crushed glass thermometers laced with mercury. The plant, and as a result the multinational giant, had to deal with two major allegations: first, as a result of working at the factory for several years, the health of their workers was adversely affected and second, a harmful metal that needed to be handled with necessary precautions was dumped at the site without basic protocol being followed, leading to contamination in the local ecosystem. While Unilever continued to claim that the presence of mercury did not cause harm the health of employees or the environment, several agencies and associations began to pile evidence against them. In fact, reports suggest that at least 104 women, including female workers and the wives of male workers, suffered from gynaecological problems, while at least 30 men have become infertile. 50 people, including 14 children, have died of mercury poisoning. In February 2006, the workers took the company to court, demanding for what the company termed as ‘economic rehabilitation’, and the High Court order Unilever to settle.
The delay in compensation and rehabilitation, along with Unilever’s blatant denial with respect to the negative repercussions of their factory’s output, caused many activists and organisations to take up the cause including, the Vettiver Collective and Other Media. It was under the banner of the #UnileverPollutes campaign driven by the Vettiver Collective that Sofia Ashraf released the rap song Kodaikanal Won’t, which helped garner the country’s attention. As the video went viral, immense pressure was put on the firm. Further, several activists in the UK, the home country of the company, also took to raising their voice in support of the factory workers.
After a long-drawn, delayed negotiation, today, the company announced the Memorandum of Settlement that Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) and Pond’s HLL ex-Mercury Employees Welfare Association reached, the process of which was recorded by the High Court of Madras. “The terms of the agreement will help to ensure the long-term health and well-being of the factory’s former workers,” said SA Mahindra Babu, the president of the Pond’s HLL ex-Mercury Employees Welfare Association, as per a statement from the company.
As per the settlement, HUL has agreed to provide ex-gratia payments to 591 former workers, association members and their families, which will be directed towards livelihood enhancement projects and skill enhancement programs. The company however continues to maintain their stance. “Several expert studies have been conducted since the factory’s closure and all have concluded that our ex-employees were not harmed by working in the former thermometer factory in Kodaikanal,” the company claimed in their statement today.
The news of the settlement has been hailed by activists across the country. However, the company’s responsibility doesn’t end there, since the company now has to clean up the mercury-contaminated site at Kodaikanal.
You can view Sofia’s rap video here
Words: Krupa Joseph