Lever Ex-workers go on Hunger Strike to Condemn Company

Press release - April 23, 2001
KODAIKANAL, India — Ex-workers from Hindustan Lever's (HLL) mercury thermometer factory went on a day-long hunger strike to expose the company's "unrepentant and insensitive attitude" in the ongoing controversy regarding the company's hazardous working conditions and dangerously polluting mercury waste management practices

More than 300 people, including workers' family members and community residents, joined the protest in solidarity. HLL is a majority-owned subsidiary of Anglodutch MNC Unilever which is known for its brandnames Lipton Tea, Pepsodent and Pears soap.

Rather than conduct exhaustive health studies among its workers and ex-workers in a transparent and agreed-upon manner, the company has sent letters to Mahendra Babu, President of the HLL Ex-workers Association, threatening to sue him for defamation unless he proves that the unsafe work conditions in the factory caused damage to workers health.

The ex-workers have declared that they can testify to the unsafe work environment within the factory, but that the company will have to assess the extent of damage to workers' health due to the hazardous work environment. "The burden is now on Hindustan Lever to prove that their polluting working atmosphere has not caused the sicknesses that its ex-workers are suffering from," said Babu.

"When I worked there, they used to suck up the mercury from the floor using a vacuum cleaner once a day. In another section, where they heat thermometers in an oven, workers are exposed to gusts of mercury vapour every time the oven door is opened," recalls Babu.

Unilever's worldwide "Policy and Strategy" (www.unilever.com/en/en_ps.html) states that Unilever's aims are to: "exercise the same concern for the environment wherever we operate."

HLL's ex-workers have demanded that the company should immediately apologise for having dumped mercury wastes in Kodaikanal, begin sincere efforts to assess the extent of damage to environment and worker health, and pay for reparation. The ex-workers have also expressed solidarity with current workers, and demanded that the company should ensure that the workers do not suffer financially for the company's negligent behaviour.

Among the striking ex-workers are several people who blame their chronic health problems on the casual manner in which mercury is handled in the workplace at Hindustan Lever. Exposure to mercury and mercury vapour can pose serious health hazards, particularly affecting the brain, nervous system and the kidney.

In March, the company was caught having dumped toxic mercury wastes at a scrapyard and various other locations in Kodaikanal. After initial denials, the company admitted to having dumped the poisonous wastes, but maintained that allegations of dangerous work practices are baseless.

"We're appalled at the company's behaviour. They have used every trick in the book - lies, intimidation and cover-up - to avoid liability and loss of face. The company's behaviour is an insult to our community which has hosted them for nearly 20 years," said Albert Jayakumar, spokesperson for TAAM.

Ex-workers and community activists allege that the company has engaged in hasty cover-up operations. In early April, Greenpeace filmed the company using unprotected workers to dig up potentially mercury-contaminated wastes buried illegally within the factory site. TAAM, Greenpeace and the ex-workers have expressed concern at reports that the company plans to resume production on 25 April, 2001.

"It is interesting to note that the Ministry of Environment has been totally silent on the whole scandal. This points to the total absence of policy in India to protect the environment and workers from deadly poisons like mercury. The Ministry of Environment should make efforts urgently to initiate phase-out plans for mercury," said Greenpeace toxics campaigner Navroz Mody.

Greenpeace launched a global email petition on its website (www.greenpeaceindia.org) to bring to bear global pressure against the multinational's irresponsible behaviour.