This article by Laurence DEFRANOUX was originally published on La Liberation on August 9, 2015 in French.
With a clip, Sofia Ashraf has propelled the cause of the employees of the thermometer factory, who want to expose their mercury poisoning.
Kodaikanal is a tourist resort perched at 2,000 meters in the south of India, known since 1845 for its magnificent views, clean air, waterfalls, forest, lake. It's also the place chosen in 1983 by a subsidiary of Pond's cosmetics as the new location for its thermometer factory, which had been located in New York state up to that point. For 18 years, metal was imported in large part from the United States, with thermometers going the opposite way to an American distributor who commercialized them in the US and Europe.
On the other hand, the Americans did not saddle themselves with hundreds of tons of toxic waste relegated to local partners outside of any official recycling cycle. They also did not inform the worker population of the dangers from exposure to mercury, which causes serious lesions in the brain, the spinal chord, the kidneys and the liver. There were no safety measures taken. Peter Suderarajan, a former employee, tells his story on film: "There was no way to wash ourselves. We had mercury in our eyelashes, eyebrows, under our nails. The mercury was everywhere where we were living, sleeping, in our water and our food."
"Dear stockholders, your company has poisoned us"
In 2001, with the help of the NGO Greenpeace, residents exposed 7.4 tonnes of broken glass and waterlogged dirt with toxic metal buried only 3 km from the factory, which in the meantime became the property of Hindustan Unilever, after Pond's was bought by the Anglo-Dutch multinational in 1997. But the times changed. The fabrication of thermometers is no longer part of the "hard nucleus" of the activities of the third largest consumer products manufacturer in the world, and most importantly, mercury is no longer popular. An international treaty aiming to reduce its use is underway, and mercury thermometers are already prohibited in several European countries. Unilever closed the Kodaikanal factory and in 2003, 289 tonnes of waste were sent by boat to be treated in the US under the order of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Office. It's the first operation of this scale in the world of returning toxic waste to the sender.
Since then, the inhabitants of Kodaikanal are fighting the general indifference toward making the multinational finally clean the site, where 1,045 people have worked, and to compensate the victims and their families. On June 30, former employees brandished signs at the general assembly of the stockholders of Hindustan Unilever (67% subsidiary of Unilever) in Bombay: "Dear stockholders, we have enriched you, your company has poisoned us." They estimate that the factory has caused the death of 45 former workers and 18 children. Their efforts were wasted: Unilever insists on negating the existence of profession-related illnesses that touch the workers when the pathologies tied to mercury exposure are well-known and very identifiable (1). The company has multiplied its negating declarations in front of Indian courts, it continues to accumulate counter-evidence in its favor and deliberately underestimates environmental pollution. The Indian Department of Atomic Energy has revealed up to 2,640 times the normal rate of pollution in the lichens of the fragile Pambar Shola forest, contaminated by mercury vapors ejected through ventilation.
Nicki Minaj's "Wow"
But the current state of affairs quickly changed in 10 days, with the dissemination on YouTube of the clip "Kodaikanal Won't" by Sofia Ashraf. A former graphic designer and campaign designer in an international advertising agency (which counts Unilever among its clients by the way) the young woman is from Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. A cinema and performing arts creator, she was contacted by three local NGOs to write a text for their campaigns. After having gathered information and visiting the site, Sofia Ashraf, who does not consider herself a singer and had never committed herself to an environmental cause, took on that of the mercury victims, and with former employees of the factory recorded a clip with the music of Nicki Minaj's hit "Anaconda."
Barely online on YouTube, on July 30, the clip did really well, beyond what had been hoped, in India and abroad. Viewed 2 million times, it launched the petition on the Jhatkaa citizen platform. Addressed to Unilever's CEO, Paul Polman, and asking for "the cleaning of the pollution at Kodaikanal and the compensation of the employees," the petition has reached 60,000 signatures. Sofia Ashraf, on the phone with Liberation, speaks of "an unexpected success. We had never expected such coverage." She says that her advertising experience was a trump card for the humanitarian campaign, even if "in advertising, one does not learn to work with the reality of things." At the other side of the world, the American rapper greets with an admiring "wow" the culture-jamming piece.
Rocked on social networks, the European multinational forked out a press release on August 4, affirming without batting an eye, "The safety of our employees is our number one priority. We have closed the factory and launched an investigation on this matter since its emerged in 2001." It then follows with a list of expert reports proving against all evidence that "none of the former employees suffer from an illness due to the nature of their work," and that "there are no negative effects on the environment." They have even accused the NGOs of "having delayed their efforts by opposing the cleaning work launched in 2009."
It's a delay that Sofia Ashraf explains in the following way: "Hindustan Unilever initially agreed to clean the soil until the amount of mercury fell to 10 mg/kg, which is the Dutch standard. Knowing that Kodaikanal has a fragile ecosystem, the NGOs asked that the British standard of 1 mg/kg be applied. The company responded that it would ultimately only clean up to 25 mg/kg. The Worker's Association of Kodaikanal and the Pollution Control Office of Tamil Nadu did not accept."
Rachita Taneja is behind the petition on the citizen platform Jhatkaa. She explains, "We were happy to see Paul Polman break the silence on our campaign, but disappointed to see him blame the Indian government. Hindustan Unilever has tried to impose cleaning standards that would not be legal in the United Kingdom, where Unilever has its headquarters. It's an obvious double standard."
Nevertheless, the case could advance in a spectacular manner. Meetings are planned for the entire week between the workers' representatives and the multinational. For Sofia Ashraf, "the success will not be complete until the inhabitants have received their reparations."
(1) Mercury poisoning is characterized by lesions in the nervous centers, which cause shaking, speaking difficulties, physical problems, stomach aches, vomiting ...