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Society’s Voice Against Unilever Mercury Contamination in Kodaikanal

CASE STUDY, CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY
IMT - Ghaziabad, 11 Pages
AUTHOR(S) : Dr. Ranjana Agarwal, Associate Professor, and Dr. Gunjan Malhotra, Assistant Professor - IMT Ghaziabad

Case Preview

Society’s Voice Against Unilever Mercury Contamination in Kodaikanal

On July 31st 2015, a rap video by a Chennai-based artist Sofia Ashraf went viral on social media and attracted the attention of the public. The cause of Mercury contamination in Kodaikanal was taken up through this video, “That’s some toxic shit”.1 The song was addressed to Paul Polman (Polman), CEO, Unilever.2 The crux of the video by Sofia Ashraf was that, “Unilever had dumped toxic Mercury in Kodaikanal, poisoning its workers and the forest. In the past 14 years, Unilever had done nothing to clean up the contamination or compensate its workers and their families, despite talking a big game about social responsibility.”3 The song drove the point
that Kodaikanal will not back down until Unilever takes responsibility.4

The rap video crossed 12 million views on YouTube and Unilever was pressurized to issue a response.5 Polman agreed to resolve the issue after it gained international focus following the rap song. The video culminated in resolving the 15-year-old struggle by workers and many supporters worldwide on March 9th 2016.6 Unilever settled the case with 591 former Mercury workers from its thermometer factory in Kodaikanal.7 However, they did not reveal the exact amount paid. The campaigning organizations such as The Other Media, Chennai Solidarity Group and Jhatkaa.org called this settlement a ‘fitting culmination of the 15-year campaign’.8 The timeline of events shown in Exhibit I...............

Exhibits

Exhibit I: Timeline: Struggle Meets Success


1 “That’s some toxic shit - Chennai born rapper sings to Unilever CEO over mercury poisoning”, http://www.thenewsminute.com/article/thats-some-toxic-shit-chennai-born-rapper-sings-unilever-ceo-overmercury-poisoning-32774, July 31st 2015 (Accessed Date: May 12th 2017)


2 Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) is the Indian subsidiary of the company Unilever which was accused of dumping Mercury in Kodaikanal. The names Unilever and HUL may be used interchangeably.

3 “After 15 long years workers win fight against Hindustan Unilever for mercury contamination”, https://yourstory.com/2016/03/workers-win-fight-hindustan-unilever/, March 10th 2016 (Accessed Date: November 15th 2017).


4 Kannaki Deka, “If you “Can’t do Sexy”, rapper Sofia Ashraf has a song for you”, http://www.thenewsminute.com/article/if-you-can-t-do-sexy-rapper-sofia-ashraf-has-song-you-60660, April 20th 2017 (Accessed Date: May 6th 2017)


5 “Kodaikanal Won’t”, . https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSal-ms0vcI, July 30th 2015 (Accessed Date: April 13th2017).


6 Princy James, “Activists attack Unilever on social media again, with Twitter storm over mercury mess”, http://www.thenewsminute.com/article/activists-attack-unilever-social-media-again-twitter-storm-over-mercury-mess-41937,April 20th 2016. (Accessed Date: April 12th 2017).


7 “Kodaikanal won! Activists cheer as HUL settles mercury poisoning dispute”, http://www.hindustantimes.com/business/h i n d u s t a n - u n i l e v e r - s e t t l e s - w i t h - k o d a i k a n a l - w o r k e r s - a f f e c t e d - b y - m e r c u r y - f a c t o r y / s t o r y -5YSS6vb8E2DB9mGGVsculO.html, March 10th 2016 (Accessed Date: November 15th 2017).


8 Sanjana Agnihotri, “Kodaikanal mercury contamination: Why Unilever is paying settlement to its 591 workers”, http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/kodaikanal-mercury-contamination-unilever-pays-settlement-workers/1/615992.html.,March 9th 2016 (Accessed Date: March 24th 2017)

Teaching Note Preview

Society’s Voice Against Unilever Mercury Contamination in Kodaikanal

 

Synopsis

Apart from making profits, a company has responsibility towards society as well as environment. It cannot afford to ignore its stakeholders, both primary as well as secondary. This case highlights the situation in Kodaikanal, in the state of Tamil Nadu, India where the company Unilever (HUL)1 polluted the environment due to Mercury spills in its thermometer factory. The workers of the factory suffered from intergenerational diseases. The company was forced to shut down. The struggle between ex-workers of the factory and the company continued for 15 years. A Rap video by a Chennai-based artist Sofia Ashraf went viral on social media on and attracted the attention of the public. The cause of mercury contamination in Kodaikanal was taken up through this video, “That’s some toxic shit”. Paul Polman (Polman), HUL’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), was addressed in the song. The song drove the point that Kodaikanal will not back down until HUL takes responsibility.2

The Rap video crossed 12 million views on YouTube, and HUL was pressurized to issue a response3. After the issue received international focus following the rap song, Polman stated that he was determined to solve the issue. 591 former workers of the factory were given compensation. The case highlights how society raised its voice and forced the company to own its responsibility towards its stakeholders

Mandatory Pre-Classroom Reading

• Video by Sophia Ashraf: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSal-ms0vcI
• Lawrence, A & Weber, J. (2010): The Corporation and its Stakeholders Chapter 1, in Business and Society: Stakeholders, Ethics, Public Policy, McGraw Hill, 2 -22.
• Steiner and Steiner (2016): The Study of Business, Government and Society Chapter 1 in Business, Government and Society, McGraw Hill, 13th edition, 15-17.

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Abstract

Apart from making profits, a company has the responsibility towards society as well as the environment. It cannot afford to ignore its stakeholders, both primary as well as secondary. This case highlights the situation in Kodaikanal, in the state of Tamil Nadu, India where the company Unilever polluted the environment due to Mercury spills in its thermometer factory. The workers of the factory suffered from intergenerational diseases. The company was forced to shut down. The struggle between ex-workers of the factory and the company continued for 15 years. A Rap video by a Chennai-based artist Sofia Ashraf went viral on social media and attracted the attention of the public. The cause of Mercury contamination in Kodaikanal was taken up through this video, “That’s some toxic shit”. Paul Polman (Polman), Unilever’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), was addressed in the song. The song drove the point that Kodaikanal will not back down until Unilever takes responsibility.1

The Rap video crossed 12 million views on YouTube, and Unilever was pressurized to issue a response2. After the issue received international focus following the rap song3, Polman stated that he was determined to solve the issue. 591 former workers of the factory were given compensation. The case highlights how society raised its voice and forced the company to own its responsibility towards its stakeholders.



Pedagogical Objectives

The case will help students:

  • To understand the profound effect that society can have on the image of company if it raises its voice. To realize the strength of society, the third sector, a powerful entity, and corporates cannot afford to ignore this fact
  • To discuss and understand the social responsibility of a corporate – a company is expected to be responsible for people, planet and profit
  • To understand the problems faced by a corporate if they do not fulfill their responsibilities towards all its stakeholders, primary as well as secondary
  • To understand the role of media and their influence on society through new technologies
  • To understand how activists use new methods as rap music and online technologies to further their cause

Case Positioning and Setting

The case is designed to be used by academia, industry, corporate communication agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations. The case can be used for teaching courses in management, social sciences, and sustainability studies. The case is suitable for use in graduate, MBA and executive MBA courses on business, government and society, corporate social responsibility (CSR), ethics and sustainability.

This case is intended as an opportunity for students to discuss the importance of taking effective decisions regarding social responsibility of a corporate entity. It also explores the importance of corporate’s impact on society and environment. The case highlights problems faced by a corporate if they do not fulfill their responsibilities towards all its stakeholders, primary as well as secondary. Society, the third sector, is a powerful entity and corporates cannot afford to ignore this fact. There is a need to protect the environment that affects its society. The society can ruin the reputation of a company. A company cannot afford to ignore its stakeholders. The case highlights how society and social media took to task as a powerful corporate entity and forced Unilever to pay compensation to workers.




1 ““That’s some toxic shit”- Chennai born rapper sings to Unilever CEO over mercury poisoning”, http://www.thenewsminute.com/article/thats-some-toxic-shit-chennai-born-rapper-sings-unilever-ceo-over-mercury-poisoning- 32774, July 31st 2015 (Accessed Date: May 12th 2017)
2 The link of the video is given - http://www.thenewsminute.com/article/thats-some-toxic-shit-chennai-born-rappersings-unilever-ceo-over-mercury-poisoning-32774, and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSal-ms0vcI 3 http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/how-the-kodaikanal-wont-video-went-viral/article7500019.ece



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