The verdant hills, forests and lakes of Kodaikanal — a popular tourist destination in South India — hides a toxic secret. Unsafe practices of handling and disposing hazardous material at Unilever’s thermometer factory has contaminated the region and exposed hundreds of workers to toxic mercury. Once released into the environment, mercury can cause various symptoms, among them: ‘birth defects, memory loss, organ failures [kidney, liver, reproductive, etc.]’.
Claiming that “There were no adverse effects on the health of the employees or the environment“, Unilever continues to deny responsibility for illnesses suffered by the ex-workers and their families, many of whom died or became physically handicapped as a result of mercury poisoning.
The rap song above demands: “Unilever, clean up your mess” — the mercury contaminants poisoning the air, forests and watersheds of Kodaikanal. It also urges the company “to make amends now” and compensate former factory workers and their families who are suffering from mercury related ailments.
Due to tighter US environmental regulations and increased awareness of mercury’s deadly effects, Chesebrough Pond’s relocated a thermometer factory from the US to India in 1983. In 1986 Unilever’s subsidiary, Hindustan Unilever Limited [HUL] acquired this plant as a part of Unilever’s acquisition of Pond’s. Falsely registering as a “glass manufacturing unit”, the factory was allowed to build in a residential area bordered by a watershed forest. Until 2001, the factory imported about 900 kg / per year of mercury from the US to produce 163 million thermometers annually for the American / European markets. More than 1,100 workers worked in the factory during its life-time and were never told about the dangers of handling mercury.
From KondaiMercury.org’s timeline:
In March 2001…former workers and residents exposed a massive dump of Unilever’s mercury containing wastes in a scrapyard in Moonjikal, a crowded part of Kodaikanal town. The company was also found to have dumped mercury wastes in the forests behind its factory…
In early 2003…the company was forced to export 289 tons of mercury-contaminated material to a mercury recycling facility in United States. India has no recycling facilities for mercury-contaminated material…
Kodaikanal’s story “is all too common across the world: the shifting of production involving hazardous materials and methods from Western countries to cheap labor economies, resulting in the exploitation of foreign labor & environmental destruction…” Corporate executives and corrupt local officials are seldom held accountable; under the banner of ‘doing business’ or ‘offshoring’, corporate greed / criminality is ignored to the detriment of millions of ordinary citizens.
The way Unilever has colluded with government officials to evade its responsibilities to the environment and affected people in Kodaikanal is a stark reminder of the Bhopal gas tragedy – where on Dec 3, 1984, almost 40 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate [MIC] gas, leaked from Union Carbide India Ltd. [ a subsidiary of Dow Chemical ], an insecticide-manufacturing plant in Bhopal, a city in Central India.
“At least 8,000 people died and half a million were injured on “that night”. In the years since, as more people died of their injuries and illnesses caused by inhaling the gas, the death toll has risen above 20,000… Today in Bhopal, more than 100,000 people remain chronically ill.
The compensation paid by Union Carbide, meant to last the rest of their lives, averaged some £300 a head: taken over 25 years that works out at around 7p a day, enough perhaps for a cup of tea. Over the years the survivors have received little medical help…. The long-predicted gas leak at Union Carbide was, and remains, the worst industrial disaster in history…”
In another example of corporate exploitation, Coca-Cola has been accused of “Groundwater Depletion and Pollution in India”. According to: Coke’s Crimes in India, “Coca Cola has drained vast amounts of public groundwater and turned farming communities into virtual deserts. Furthermore, its indiscriminate dumping of toxic wastewater into the ground has polluted the scarce water that remains”.
“Drinking Coke is like drinking a farmer’s blood in India”, “Coca-Cola is creating thirst in India” are some of the slogans used by protestors who want to close Coca-Cola bottling plants around India. For more information, go to: www.IndiaResource.org
Unilever constantly touts its ‘Sustainable Living Plan’ that is suppose to “reduce its environmental footprint and increase its positive social impact”. So why doesn’t Unilever remove toxic chemicals from its cosmetic products and compensate Kodaikanal workers who are struggling to rebuild their lives from the toxic mercury spill? In the powerful video below, Esther Rani, the mother of the young man who worked for Unilever talks about the devastating consequences mercury poisoning had on her entire family.
As indicated in this press release, forty six prominent international human rights and environmental award winners from 30 countries have written to Unilever CEO Paul Polman, reminding him that the UN Green Championship Award he won in 2015 comes with responsibility.
“We are sure… that you are aware of how the professed commitments of Unilever to justice and environmental sustainability are contrasted by your subsidiary’s handling of the mercury legacy issue in Kodaikanal, India…We urge you to personally intervene to ensure that an honourable settlement is offered to workers, and that the contaminated environment is cleaned up…”
Call to Action
Unilever is an Anglo-Dutch multinational corporation that makes and sells products under more than 400 brand names worldwide. In 2014, Unilever’s revenues were approx. $52 billion US dollars and with an advertising budget of almost $8 billion US dollars, it is one of the largest media buyers in the world. In the US,Unilever produces brands such as:
Unilever pretends to be a socially responsible company, but as can be seen in Kodaikanal, what it is really responsible for is profiting from workers’ exploitation and environmental destruction. Rather than greenwashing its brand, Unilever could be a corporate steward — clean up the contaminated environment and compensate its former workers for expenses related to their mercury poisoning.
Please consider helping the people of Kodaikanal by taking the actions below:
- Sign the pledge: I #WontBuyUnilever until Kodaikanal receives justice
- Sign the petition from Jhatkaa.org: “Unilever – take responsibility for Kodaikanal mercury poisoning.”
- Leave a comment on a Unilever Facebook page. [started by 38 Degrees, one of UK’s biggest campaigning communities]