Unilever’s India unit says mercury exposure didn’t harm factory workers—but it agreed to settle with nearly 600 of them

HUL still needs to clean up the mess.
HUL still needs to clean up the mess.
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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Unilever’s Indian unit has agreed to pay former employees whose health was allegedly damaged by exposure to mercury at one of its factories in south India.

Hindustan Unilever (HUL), the country’s biggest manufacturer of consumer goods such as packaged foods and beauty products, said today (March 9) it had agreed to settle the claims of 591 employees of its Kodaikanal factory in Tamil Nadu, which once made thermometers. The company will provide payments—which it said it agreed to on “humanitarian grounds”—to help with the cost of ”livelihood enhancement projects and skill enhancement programs.”

Environmentalists and NGOs have been campaigning against HUL for 15 years. But the dispute was highlighted in August, when Chennai-based rapper Sofia Ashraf released a video—which quickly went viral—criticizing the company for not upholding its responsibility to employees and the environment.

The thermometer factory, located in the quaint hill station, was closed in 2001. But after the closure, locals complained that the company had not cleaned up adjoining forest areas tainted by mercury, which can cause neurological damage even at very small doses. Many of the factory workers also had complained of health problems which they said stemmed from exposure to toxic gases.

Some reports suggest that more than 30 workers have died due to the effects of the toxic mercury vapours. But HUL is sticking to its stance that there were “no adverse impacts on the health of employees or the environment.” From the company’s statement:

The workers had been offered alternative jobs in another unit of the company. However, they opted out of service. 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. Nonetheless, since this issue first came to light HUL has actively sought to address it in a responsible manner.

Cleaning up

Even after the compensation to employees, the problem is still not fully resolved. In 2001, around 7.4 tonnes of mercury waste was found by Greenpeace and some locals in a scrapyard close to a school. Later it was found that HUL had dumped some of the mercury in the adjoining forest areas.

When it shut the factory, HUL extracted about 5.3 tonnes of mercury, admitting it was from the plant. But as recently as last June, high levels of mercury were also found in samples of soil taken from four locations outside the factory.

“The much-delayed settlement is great news, but Unilever still has unfinished business in Kodaikanal. 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,” activist Nityanand Jayaraman said in a statement.

HUL said that it submitted a report to the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board regarding the soil remediation in August 2015, and is still waiting for the board’s consent.

Exposure to mercury causes severe damage to the kidneys and the brain, causing life-long disabilities and death. It also can hurt neurological development in fetuses, making exposure in pregnancy especially dangerous.

“Kidney damage has caused a lot of deaths in Kodaikanal, especially among young boys who were in their 20s and worked in the factory,” Jayaraman had told Quartz last year.