Marking the 14th anniversary of the closure of Unilever’s polluting mercury thermometer factory in Kodaikanal, several hundred Chennaiites sent heart shaped e-petitions to Unilever CEO Mr. Paul Polman. The heart-shaped message read: “Have a Heart, Mr. Polman. Clean up Kodi; Compensate workers.” As one set of young volunteers educated visitors to the busy Besant Nagar beach about Unilever’s mercury pollution, others directed them to a colourful kiosk where they could send the e-petitions through two internet enabled laptops. The Chennai event was organised in response to an invitation by Pond’s Hindustan Lever ex Mercury Thermometer Workers Welfare Association and the residents of Kodaikanal to observe March 6-7 as a Global Day of Action Against Unilever. Supporters in Minamata, Japan; Durban, South Africa; United Kingdom, Scotland and the United States of America joined the Global Day of Action.
On March 7, 2001, Kodaikanal residents and environmentalists exposed how Unilever had dumped toxic mercury wastes illegally in a scrap yard in a densely populated part of the hilltown. The factory was shut down by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. The factory site and its surroundings are severely contaminated with mercury. A 2011 Government of India report concluded that Unilever operated the factory without proper workplace safeguards and that exposed workers and their family members are suffering from a range of mercury-induced health effects.
Unilever has refused to clean up the contamination to levels demanded by environmentalists and residents, and has denied that the workers’ illnesses are caused by mercury exposure. Members of the Chennai Solidarity Group said that Unilever’s failure to address the Kodaikanal liabilities is proof that the company is not sincere in its claims of pioneering corporate social responsibility. They urged Unilever CEO Mr. Paul Polman to live up to his claims of being a champion of sustainability.