Return to Previous Page

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”. The song was addressed to Paul Polman (Polman), CEO, Unilever. 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.” The song drove the point
that Kodaikanal will not back down until Unilever takes responsibility.

The rap video crossed 12 million views on YouTube and Unilever was pressurized to issue a response. 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. Unilever settled the case with 591 former Mercury workers from its thermometer factory in Kodaikanal. 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’. The timeline of events shown in Exhibit I...............

Unilever Mercury Contamination: An Overview of the Situation

Kodaikanal, the princess of hill stations in India, is situated in the mountain mists of the Palani Hills in Tamil Nadu, India. Eucalyptus trees, Cypress, Acacia and fruit trees are found in this region. Rhododendron, magnolia and dahlia, and the glorious Byrant Park botanical gardens add towards the town’s beautiful, tree-lined lake. The region experienced unplanned sprawl across the hillsides. Being highly atmospheric, the mist comes rolling in across the mountains and hovers above the lake. There was lush greenery and abundance of fruits in this tourist place.

The contamination of the hill station started in 1983 when a Mercury thermometer plant was relocated to Kodaikanal. This plant was owned by Ponds and operating in USA. The plant was closed down in USA. It now started producing Mercury thermometers for American and European markets in the hill station of Kodaikanal by importing from United States of America (USA). This plant was later acquired by Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL), the Indian subsidiary of the company Unilever......

Impact of Mercury

Mercury, is a heavy metal, commonly known as quicksilver. It is been used traditionally for industrial purpose for making thermometers, barometers, fluorescent lamps, etc. However, it has to be used with care as it can have dangerous effect on human body as well as the environment. Exposure on a regular basis can cause damage or impairment of brain, kidneys, liver and nervous system. It can also lead to skin diseases and damage the eyes............

Impact of Mercury on Stakeholders

Workers were directly impacted by Mercury as they were exposed to it on a daily basis. In the course of operation of 18 years, around 1,100 workers worked in the factory. Some 18 ex-workers were reported to have died due to illnesses caused by exposure to Mercury. Nine children of former workers have died. According to youthkiawaaz.com, over 45 were dead and over 600 were poisoned as a result of the toxic dumping.

Workers were not given information about the hazards of working with Mercury. No safety equipment were provided for the workers and neither were there proper facilities to bathe clean after working in the factory. They were not provided with face masks to reduce their intake of Mercury in the air and changed uniforms only once every three to four days.........

Unilever’s Stance

HUL had been accused of considerable legal maneuvering to avoid paying compensation to the ex-workers and their families, many of whom died or have become physically impaired. Regarding the Kodaikanal issue, HUL clarified on its official website that it “did not dump glass waste contaminated with Mercury on land behind its factory.” Glass scrap with residual Mercury had been sold to a scrap dealer about three kilometres away from the factory, in breach of our guidelines............

Reactions Worldwide by Society

The world community had noticed the protests and the court cases since 2001 in India. In 2013, a UK-based campaign group raised questions over Unilever’s activities in India during its annual general meeting in London. Protesters challenged the company’s executive board over the issue. Scientists in India and the UK joined together to express solidarity with ex-employees and local residents exposed to toxic levels of Mercury in Kodaikanal, India.............

A Step by Society- Rap activism

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. This was part of a media campaign by Jhatkaa.org. The cause of Mercury contamination in Kodaikanal was taken up through this video, “That’s some toxic shit”. The song was addressed to Unilever’s CEO, Paul Polman. The Rap video crossed 12 million views on YouTube from 190 countries...............

Holding Unilever to Account

In March 2015, former workers at the factory staged a demonstration in the town demanding compensation to those persons whose health had been affected because of Mercury waste. They claimed the company had reneged on its assurance to provide compensation to the affected workers...........

Post Settlement Reaction – Former Employees Happy

Former employees of Unilever’s thermometer factory were satisfied with the settlement between Pond’s HUL Ex-Mercury Employees Welfare Association and Unilever. The negotiations finally reached a satisfactory ending. Association president S.A. Mahendra Babu, welcomed the action taken by HUL. “We are pleased with all the terms of the agreement which will help ensure the long-term health and well-being of the factory’s former workers.............

Post Settlement Situation – Environment Issues Still Not Sorted Out

Although workers suffered due to Mercury contaminated, environment issues have still not been sorted out. Unilever has not cleaned the Mercury contaminated soil in Kodaikanal.41 A Mercury level of 25 milligrams/kg has been left in the soil which is 250 times higher than naturally occurring background levels.........

Assignment Questions

I. Is cleaning the city free from Mercury the responsibility of Unilever? If so, Why?

II. ..............

Exhibits

Exhibit I: Timeline: Struggle Meets Success

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.

...............................

$5.48
Rs 0
Product code: CSR-1-0013, CSR-1-0013A

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



This Case Pack Includes:
- Abstract
- Case Study
- Teaching Note (**ONLY for Academicians)


** If you need to make copies, you must purchase the corresponding number of permissions based on the number of participants. Electronic downloadable links (PDFs, PPTs, Supplements etc.) are available immediately after purchase. Single copy can be used only for evaluation purpose. Unauthorized distribution of these files is prohibited pursuant to term of use of this website.

No. of Copies
$5.48
Rs 0

Related products




Request for an Inspection Copy

(Strictly for Review Purpose, Not to be Used for Classroom Discussion/Trainings)