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10 March, 2016

Unilever: Victory

I'm not sure how many of you recall my briefly mentioning how I was going to do my best to boycott products sold by Unilever awhile back after the news broke about their workers and the neighbouring areas (forest, bodies of water...) being affected by mercury poisoning (if you don't I referenced it in this post here when attempting to make a more concious decision on which skin care products etc. to buy from now on).  There's good news!! Rare, but good news that means some of these people will be taken care of after what they've had to endure.  This doesn't mean that the problem has been completely resolved, but it's a damn good start.

xxEm




"Dear Emilie,

Find a chair and sit down because what I’m about to tell you is HUGE. 8 months after we launched our viral "Kodaikanal Won't" music video and petition, Hindustan Unilever (HUL) has just announced that they are going to compensate 591 of their ex-workers in Kodaikanal[1]!

WE WON! This victory belongs to the ex-workers who have been agitating and organising for the past 15 years. This victory belong to the activists on the ground who have been relentless in their support of the ex-workers' demands. And this victory belongs to you. Because of our collective actions, we were able to hold a multi-billion dollar corporation accountable. People power won in the end.

Though delayed, this compensation will help ex-workers poisoned by mercury repay past debts, meet medical expenses and finally start rebuilding their lives.

This is a massive victory but we’ve only won half the battle. Unilever is yet to clean up the harmful mercury contamination inside and near their thermometer factory which continues to slowly poison forests and water bodies in the area.


Last July, Jhatkaa.org and the Chennai Solidarity Group joined forces to take the struggle of HUL ex-workers to social media. Our super viral video “Kodaikanal Won’t” made international waves, and CEO Polman was forced to respond promising quick action.   

This victory shows the power of our voices. Jhatkaa members like you continuously tweeted at CEO Polman and bombarded dozens of Unilever Facebook pages demanding immediate action. Thousands even pledged to boycott Unilever products till the time they cleaned up their mess in Kodaikanal. This public scrutiny resulted in HUL accelerating the stalled negotiations with the ex-workers. Our efforts made a real difference in the lives of the hundreds of ex-workers and their families.

We helped the ex-workers win on their first demand. Now let's win again on the environmental cleanup.

This time we have a strong target number: 6.6 mg/kg. That's the standard proposed by a recent scientific study. After extensive surveying and analysis in India, 6.6 mg/kg is the number they landed on[2]. It means that after clean up, no more than 6.6 mg of mercury can be left in every kilogram of soilThis is the standard to which HUL needs to clean up their contamination in Kodaikanal.

Instead, HUL is pushing for a clean up standard of 25 mg/kg -- three times weaker than should be allowed! Why? Because they think they can get away with weak standards in a developing country like India.  This cleanup standard is so weak that it wouldn’t even be allowed in the UK, where Unilever’s head office is based.


Ultimately, the Tamil Nadu State Pollution Control Board will direct the standard of cleanup. However, HUL keeps pushing for a weak cleanup standard so that they can save a bit of money, hence stalling the process for years.

HUL’s actions go against CEO Polman's claims -- that Unilever is an environmentally responsible company. And as the global head, Polman has influence at all levels of Unilever. If he comes out in favour of a strong clean up standard, it’s not something that his subsidiary Hindustan Unilever will be able to ignore. And if HUL agrees, then the Pollution Control Board can finally greenlight the cleanup to a high standard.

We’ve been able use our voices to keep pressure on Unilever CEO Paul Polman to ensure a fair compensation for ex-workers. Let’s push him again to ensure that Kodaikanal’s environment is cleaned up.


Thank you, Emilie, for being a Jhatkaa member and a part of a community that stands up and fights not just for themselves, but for each other, and something even bigger. Victories of this scale are rare. And make no mistake, this is a massive win for anybody who cares about human rights, workers’ dignity, and holding corporations accountable to the public good.

With excitement and gratitude,
Rachita and the Jhatkaa.org team
Sources:
1. HUL press release, 9 March 2016
2. Mercury cleanup standard India
3. Jhatkaa.org, Chennai Solidarity Group, The Other Media press release, 9 March 2016"


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