Unfair And Ugly

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Sustained campaign Former HUL employees observe a Global Day of Action every year to highlight violations of environmental and labour standards by the company
Sustained campaign Former HUL employees observe a Global Day of Action every year to highlight violations of environmental and labour standards by the company

“Unilever is a unique company with a proud history and a bright future. We have ambitious plans for sustainable growth and an intense sense of social purpose.”

Thus reads the vision statement of Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL), a leading fast-moving consumer goods company in India. But there is nothing ‘Fair and Lovely’ about HUL in Kodaikanal, often referred to as the “Princess of Hill Stations”, a much sought after tourist destination in Tamil Nadu.

The HUL, which posted an annual revenue of Rs 28,019 crore in the year 2013-14, has not acquitted itself well either in terms of protecting the environment or caring for the lives of its former workers at its thermometer factory in Kodaikanal, which was established in 1983 but closed down in 2001. They battle for their lives and for remediation of the polluted soil and environment in this quiet and verdant part of Kodaikanal caused due to careless disposal of mercury used in the manufacture of the thermometers.

Fourteen years after its closure, justice eludes the hundreds of former HUL workers and their families who are suffering from chronic illnesses. Over the years, the former employees have held many sit-ins and organised several protests, including observing a Global Day of Action on 7 March (this year it was observed on 6 March) to mark the anniversary of the closure of the Kodaikanal factory, all in an attempt to highlight the HUL’s labour, environmental and social practices in contravention of its stated commitment to sustainability and responsibility.

Nityanand Jayaraman, a former Greenpeace campaigner and well-known environmentalist, tells Tehelka, “Unilever’s failure to address its environmental and labour-related liabilities in Kodaikanal is something that needs to be seen at a global level because Unilever itself has a global presence.”

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HUL in our daily lives

The HUL invades households in myriad forms what with its 400-odd brands and 20 consumer categories worldwide. In India, an estimated 700 million consumers use the HUL’s 45 active brands of beverages, cleaning agents, soaps, shampoos, teas, detergents, personal care products and water purifiers, among others. The company owns some of the best-known brands such as Fair and Lovely, Dove, Ponds, Surf, Lux, Vaseline, Kissan, Bru, Lipton, Magnum, Annapurna and Pureit. “We meet everyday needs for nutrition, hygiene and personal care with brands that help people feel good, look good and get more out of life,” reads the home page of the HUL website. However, its own conduct insofar as its Kodaikanal factory is concerned has been far from satisfactory.

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“The Global Day of Action is an act of grassroots mobilisation where communities, labour organisations and environmental groups that are aware of Unilever’s real story of labour and environmental rights violations get together to tell Unilever that we are watching and speaking out. This year, people from the UK, the US, South Africa and Minamata, Japan, have participated in the Global Day of Action,” Jayaraman adds.

The Backstory

Kodaikanal, which in Tamil means the “Gift of the Forest”, changed forever in 1983 when Chesebrough-Pond’s Inc relocated its decades-old mercury thermometer factory from the US to India following the tightening of environmental regulations in the US due to mercury’s toxic effects. The factory was (wrongly) registered as a “glass manufacturing unit” and allowed to come up in a residential area bordered by a watershed forest. The factory produced 163 million thermometers using about 900 kg of mercury annually, which were exported to the US and Europe.

In 2001, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) ordered the closure of the factory for violating environmental laws after it was detected that the factory had dumped 15 tonnes of broken thermometers containing mercury in a scrapyard.

The company claimed that the waste deposited in the scrapyard was “tinged with mercury [that was] slightly more than 50 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg)”. However, subsequent tests revealed that the waste contained one percent mercury or about 10,000 mg/kg (10 g per kg). This, when even one gram of mercury is sufficient to poison a 25-acre lake. The tests established beyond reasonable doubt that the company had committed an offence under the Hazardous Waste Management Act.

The HUL communications manager, R Ram, acknowledges that the complaints or allegations were true. “In 2001, we became aware of an environmental breach at our erstwhile factory in Kodaikanal. Scrap glass containing mercury had been sold to a local scrap dealer in breach of our environmental operating guidelines,” Ram tells Tehelka.

“We immediately closed the factory and retrieved the mercury-bearing glass and soil from the scrapyard for safe storage. In 2003, we sent all mercury-bearing material in the factory, including the recovered glass scrap, to the US for recycling,” Ram adds.

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