Notes from inside the Unilever AGM

Supporters from the UK Ccampaign for Justice in Kodaikanal intervened inside and outside Unilever’s annual shareholders’ meeting in Leatherhead, UK, raising questions about the company’s failure to address mercury contamination and worker exposure issues at its now-closed thermometer factory in Kodaikanal, India.

While one supporter holding a placard that shouted “#HULCleanUpUrMess distributed flyers to shareholders outside the venue, another – Mr. Saleh Mamon — with a proxy raised questions inside the meeting. Here’s a quick summary of what happened inside the AGM excerpted from an update sent by Mr. Mamon.

“Just a quick report. As expected, the AGM was a well stage managed affair. The hall was full. After Paul Polman’s presentation, I got in with the second question followed by one on climate change.

I started with the policies he mentioned on sustainability, respect for people and environment. I pointed out that the report in Sunday Times on the poison cases at Kodaikanal was deeply worrying. This was a matter of social justice and a moral issue. The issues had been raised at previous meetings. Then I followed this with 5 questions as a proxy shareholder along the following lines —

1. Is there not a need for an independent assessment of the depth and extent of mercury contamination at the site and its surrounding given that the 2001 study is out of date and deeply contested?

2. Do we have a monitoring mechanism setup to protect the environment from the spread of contamination due to rainfall etc?

3. When will decontamination resume given the continuous risk of mercury spreading through the environment? Should the standard for clean up not be the UK one with 1mg/kg of soil or even the Dutch one with 10 mg/kg? Was it not wrong to set a standard of 25mg/kg in 2007?

4. It has been 14 years and is it now time that a through independent epidemiological study is carried out to assess the mercury poisoning of ex workers? Medical science has advanced and it will give us a better picture.

5. While the final settlement is pending, would it not be moral to put in place an interim framework of medical care for the ex-workers and also to provide them with a living allowance as many of them are destitute?

Paul Polman’s reply was that he appreciated the concerns, that the newspaper reports were biased and they had not looked at the UNILEVER website; That it was a long term issue and that they wanted to resolve it. He said they had 16 meetings with the people concerned. He added that there were many obstacles including NGOs and also people who had never been to that place.

He did not answer my questions specifically. I could not do any follow ups because the rule that was been followed was one question per person.