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After 15 years, Unilever settles with Indian factory workers over mercury poisoning

Hindustan Unilever headquarters (Reuters)
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NEW DELHI — In a significant victory for the Indian factory workers affected by mercury poisoning, the global consumer products company Unilever announced on Wednesday a welfare compensation that brings a long and angry battle to an end.

The settlement between Hindustan Unilever and the 591 former workers of the thermometer factory in the southern Indian hill town of Kodaikanal “is an unprecedented victory and a fitting culmination of the 15-year campaign,” said a statement by activists on their website.

The settlement negotiated between the company and the workers was endorsed by the Madras High Court in the southern state of Tamil Nadu on Wednesday.

A viral rap video, which drew more than 3.5 million worldwide views online last year, had raised the pressure on the company to settle and clean up mercury poisoning at Kodaikanal. The video, produced by environmental activists here, was followed by an aggressive social media campaign and a call for a boycott of the company’s products.

Dev Bajpai, the legal executive director of Hindustan Unilever, said in a statement: “The well-being of our employees and the communities in which we operate has and will always remain paramount.”

The company did not disclose the exact amount of the compensation but workers and activists said it was satisfactory.

“We are pleased with all the terms of the agreement which will help to ensure long-term health and well-being of the factory’s former workers,” said S. A. Mahindra Babu, who heads the ex-workers group, said. He added that the matter is now “fully resolved.”

Unilever’s Indian subsidiary began producing thermometers in Kodaikanal in 1984, after it closed its Watertown,. N.Y. site in the early 1980s.  But the factory was shut down in 2001 when the local pollution control board said it was violating environmental norms.

Workers struggling with illnesses linked to mercury poisoning have said in earlier interviews that the company had kept them in the dark about the health hazards lurking in the factory.

But activists now say the battle is only half won.

"What about clean-up? Come foward and clean up to the best standards," Pooja Kumar, Chennai activist who took part in the campaign for Kodaikanal workers, said in a Twitter message.

“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,” said a statement from Nityanand Jayaraman, a Chennai-based environmental activist.

In October last year, the company proposed a clean-up standard, that Jayaraman claims, was much lower than the safe mercury level guidelines followed in United Kingdom and Canada.