Marking a major victory in their struggle against the mercury pollution by the Hindustan Unilever Limited, the former employees of the company were today taken into a settlement by the management. It has agreed to provide an undisclosed ex-gratia amount to the victims, along with future health benefits.
The Kodaikanal thermometer plant has been in the news since more than a decade for the toxic mercury vapor exposure its workers had to face. It was in 2001 the TNPCB shut down the plant after sale of mercury contaminated glass to scrap dealers were detected. In 2006, the EX- employee association moved to Madras High Court against the company, following health issues like kidney failure, miscarriage among women and mental disability in children.
The association’s counsel R. Vaigai had called the settlement a historical one, as this is the first ever class action litigation moved by industrial workers against occupational health exposure.
“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,” she said. She also added that a similar class action moved by the employees before the High Court of London, where the company is headquartered, will be withdrawn as a part of the settlement.
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 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.
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, when it came for hearing on Wednesday before the First Bench headed by Chief Justice S.K. Kaul.