So it took a rap song to go viral on the social web for this self-proclaimed socially conscious FMCG major to finally respond. Chennai-born rapper Sofia Ashraf’s rap song ‘Kodaikanal Won’t’ has raked in over 1.9 million views, throwing light on the mercury contamination created by Hindustan Unilever’s thermometer assembly plant at Kodaikanal. Up until now, none of us were aware of something like this by HUL!
Once upon a time, Unilever had a thermometer factory in Kodaikanal that dumped toxic mercury around its plant. The contamination has been adversely affecting the workers, the forests and the groundwater. Following protests by the Kodaikanal-based Palni Hills Conservation Council, Tamilnadu Alliance Against Mercury and the Greenpeace, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board had ordered the factory to close down for having violated the Environmental Protection Act.
Unilever was asked to clean up all the mercury in the soil too, and compensate the workers for the medical expenses they had to incur during all that working with the toxic waste. It’s been 14 years since the factory was shut down in 2001, but Unilever is yet to clean up the toxic mercury dumped by it, nor has it compensated the workers.
For full context, you can read this detailed article on Scroll, by Nityanand Jayaraman, who is part of the Justice Rocks Initiative that produced the rap video.
Here’s the rap song that started it all:
The video is accompanied by a call to action too – there’s a petition page addressed to Unilever CEO, Paul Polman that has already received over 54K signatures. Though the signatures are drastically less in number when compared to the number of views received, it has prompted HUL to respond.
HUL has released a statement on its website, as well as a 5-page report which says that the facts on this issue have been misrepresented. To begin with, it states three facts: a) it did not dump glass waste contaminated with mercury on land behind its factory, b) There were no adverse impacts on the health of employees or the environment, and c) There was limited impact on the soil at some spots within the factory premises.
An excerpt from the HUL statement:
While extensive studies on the health of our former workers and the Kodaikanal environment have not found any evidence of harm, we continue to take this issue very seriously and it’s one we are keen to see resolved.
We have been working hard to find a fair and mutually satisfactory resolution at the suggestion of the Madras High Court and have had more than ten meetings with our former employees’ representatives since 2014. However, achieving this will require all stakeholders – including employee representatives, NGOs and legal representatives – to get behind these efforts and agree on an outcome.
Several expert studies have been conducted since the factory’s closure and all have concluded that our former employees did not suffer ill-health due to the nature of their work.
In keeping with the social media age, HUL has shared this reponse on its Facebook and Twitter pages too. However, consumers are not ready to believe HUL, as can be seen in the comments made at the Facebook post.
Moreover, the KodaiMercury.org site has issued a point by point factsheet to each of the claims made by HUL. Apparently, the company has been lying and not adhering to its Code of Business Principles as it claims to.
As Jayaraman puts it, Unilever spends a portion of its annual Rs. 48,000 crore advertising budget in marketing itself as an environmentally responsible and caring company, so what stops it from addressing worker liabilities that are not likely to exceed Rs 1,000 crores?
To add to this, we ask - how long will it take the Unilever CEO to come forward and save its online reputation that is quickly spiraling downwards? Or is Unilever also going the Nestle way for the mess it made with Maggi? It’s a pity to see major brands losing their trust time and again, and then spending billions on new CSR campaigns to regain trust. But then again, it’s amazing to see the power of social media and how one 3-minute rap song can change the fate of a $58 billion company.