Real Unilever makes you sick!
By Madhumita Dutta, 12-07-2015
Yesterday was a ‘jolly good’ day, as the British would say. It was slightly windy and mostly sunny with occasional dark clouds threatening us with a quick shower. Since I have been here (in the UK), it hasn’t been easy not to discuss the weather or atleast referring to it once in a day. It’s the British version of ‘time‐pass’!
But yesterday’s weather wasn’t just about time‐pass, we had a good reason to talk about weather (hoping for a clear sky). It was the 131st Durham Miner’s Gala in the historic town of Durham in the northeast of England. Every year for over a century, workers and their families from the mining (pit) villages from across north east of England come to the historic town of Durham marching behind their colourful ‘lodge banners’ accompanied by the local brass bands for this annual gaye-la (pronounced locally) that started in 1871 in a show of solidarity and celebration of trade unionism in the coalfields of Durham (the first mine union was formed in 1869)(1). Except for a few years during the two world wars and the miner’s strikes in the 1920s’ and 1980s’, the gala has continued with its tradition every year. It’s now over 20 years since the last pit was shut down in this county after a bitter battle with Thatcher who called the miners “the enemy within”.(2)
The turnout this year was 1,50,000.00 Perhaps this year, this act of solidarity was needed more than ever because of the recent electoral outcomes in the UK with the Cameron government back in power for the second time with all its bedroom taxes, austerity cuts and anti‐immigration policies.(3)
Jostling with the crowds, with a table, a stack of photographs, pamphlets, petitions and a few bamboo sticks, my friends Andrew, Ankit and I set up a small stall along the River Wear amidst the hot dog stalls and chocolate fountains. Our stall, maybe not a crowd puller like those selling candy floss or hot dogs, did catch quite a few curious looks, and some people stopped by to look at the black and white photographs hanging from the strings…little Vishal’s big black eyes, bespectacled Ashwini’s faint image on the windowpane, Sivaganam’s pensive stare…
Our stall was to tell people about Unilever’s, now closed, mercury thermometer plant in a hill town called Kodaikanal in southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Originally set up by an American multinational, the factory was later run by the anglo‐dutch conglomerate Unilever ‘s 100% owned Indian subsidiary in one of Western ghat’s ecologically diverse areas. After running the factory for over 15 years, this British company was finally shut down by the Indian environment enforcement agency for violating all possible environmental standards under the law—like dumping of glass waste mixed with mercury in the forest, selling mercury contaminated glass to local recyclers, dangerously exposing its workers to high levels of mercury.(4)
Our stall was to raise awareness about this ‘respectable’ British company that sells almost every household product that we use in our daily lives—tooth paste, soap, shampoo, marmite etc., that it wasn’t all about ‘making life better’ for all people, but this company had actually ruined the lives of many the ex-workers, their families and the community in this small hill town of Kodaikanal.(5) We were requesting visitors to our stall to sign a petition addressed to Mr Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, to practice what he preaches to the other CEOs—‘doing sustainable business’. Not just that, Mr Polman even says that he is ‘committed’ to improving labour and human rights within Unilever’s supply chain. But then for some strange reasons, Mr Polman doesn’t believe that its his responsibility as the CEO of Unilever to clean up the mercury contamination and compensate workers for the health injuries and deaths that his factory had caused in this small south Indian hill town. Instead, Mr Polman and his company chooses to spend millions in doing bad science and bad PR to ‘prove’ that the factory is not to be blamed for all the unexplained deaths, mental illnesses and miscarriages amongst the mercury exposed workers and community in Kodaikanal.
Sheila from Heworth Colliery from county Durham, daughter of an ex–‐miner, who has been coming to the gala since she was a little girl, while recounting her fear of losing her dad in the mining pit whenever she saw the black banners in memory of dead miners at the gala, was shocked to see the photos and to hear the stories of misery of the ex‐workers in Kodaikanal. ‘The company should take responsibility…I will sign the petition, this is about working class struggle’. Another visitor while signing the petition remarked‐ ‘its Bhopal all over again, isn’t it?’ A visitor from Ecuador said –‘they do the same in our country, if not Unilever, then some other company’.
As we listened to the fiery speeches of the trade unionists and the left leaders on the stage behind our stall–‐ Jeremy Corbyn, Andy Burnham, Owen Jones amongst others, pledging their cause to the British working class, we continued collecting signatures on our petition from the British workers to bring justice to the workers in India. Workers of the world unite!
Madhumita is a PhD candidate in the University of Durham, UK, and a member of the Vettiver Collective.