“Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs (least developed countries)?” wrote Lawrence Summers, the then chief economist of the World Bank, in 1991. He argued that the loss of income due to disablement or death of workers in the LDCs would have a lesser impact on the world economy. Therefore, the World Bank should encourage the shifting of the environmental burden onto the LDCs. It made economic sense to him; it makes economic sense to the World Bank and the numerous multinational corporations (MNCs) that have profited by doing just this. But what of the workers and the communities that work and live around the “dirty industries”?
This is the story of a small hill town in Tamil Nadu, India. Famous as a hill resort for those wanting to escape the Indian summer, Kodaikanal also attracted a deadly MNC which was trying to please its shareholders while abiding by the US laws. Thus came Chesebrough Ponds in 1984. This company relocated its thermometer factory from Watertown, New York and, in its 18 years of operation in Kodaikanal, manufactured 165 million thermometers that were exported back to the US and Europe. Labour is cheap in India and the laws were either not there or never mattered. It made perfect economic sense for a company to relocate poisons across oceans as it made its obscene profits.
Disregard for life
More than 1,100 workers worked in the factory during its life-time. We know from their testimonies that the workers knew nothing about the dangers of working with mercury. The company made very little efforts to take care of the safety of the workers and often the workers worked under the most hazardous conditions. There was no safety equipment 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 3 to 4 days as there was not enough water in the factory to wash them. Contract workers worked with their bare hands to clean up the mercury that was spilt and women, who the company argues were only employed in the non-hazardous tasks, continued to get contaminated due to breakages and mercury spills. The workers inadvertently took with them as they went home, particles of mercury that affected the members of their family, especially their children.
In 1987 the factory changed hands. The new master was Hindustan Lever Ltd. (HLL), a subsidiary of Unilever, which had acquired Ponds. For Kodaikanal and its workers nothing changed but the name. The effects of working with mercury with no safety, slowly but steadily began to show as more and more workers began to suffer unexplained illnesses. Workers began to suffer headaches, skin rashes and spinal problems. With no knowledge about mercury, the workers failed to link their illnesses to it. They said they used to play with it while working. But absenteeism and attrition grew with time as the toxic heavy metal began to take its toll.
Mercury presents an even greater and costly problem of disposal. Mercury is a toxic metal that can form a highly toxic substance once released into the environment and exposure to these compounds could cause severe damage to kidney, liver and other vital organs. Exposure on a regular basis can cause skin diseases and damage the eyes. Mercury also affects the nervous system and organic compounds of mercury can cause reproductive disorders and birth defects. But for the corporation that travelled thousands of miles for profit, disposal was simple: ‘If you don’t want to treat it, DUMP it!’
With this maxim, the corporation, according to its own audit, stated that it had dumped 300kgs of mercury outside the factory premises and more than 70kgs into the air as emissions. The workers and the environmentalists working with the communities claim that the total amount of dumping is near to 50 tonnes. But what is more significant is the fact that the mercury was dumped into pristine protected forest lands which is also where the Pambar River has its source. Apart from indiscriminate dumping the company also sold tonnes and tonnes of mercury-filled broken glass to scrap yards in Kodaikanal and other places in Tamil Nadu.
In March 2001, the residents of Kodaikanal uncovered one such scrap yard and further investigations revealed the extent of illegal dumping. With pressure mounting from the people as well as from environmentalists, the pollution control board forced the closure of the factory in June 2001. But the damage had already been done. Eighteen ex-workers have died due to illness that can be traced to exposure to mercury; nine children of former workers have died. Many more workers and their children continue to suffer the effects of mercury poisoning. Frequent miscarriages and children born with congenital ailments and severe mental and physical disorders continue to be reported among the workers and their families. The fish in the lake of Kodaikanal is contaminated and has caused the loss of livelihood to many people. Water as far as Madurai, a major city about 130kms from Kodaikanal, has been contaminated. Workers and communities are paying with their lives for the dirty profits of an MNC.
Some of the workers who were affected by the mercury contamination formed a former workers’ welfare association to fight for justice and proper medical care. Their persistent struggles, along with the people of Kodaikanal and environmentalists, resulted in HLL (now rechristened HUL) sending 300kgs of earth contaminated by mercury to the US for treatment. But a lot more that the company refuses to clean up is still present in the soil and water of Kodaikanal.
Profits – the driving force of the capitalist economic system – ruined lives and the environs of this small town and it made cold-blooded economic sense. But this town is in no way an exception; it is rather the norm within which capitalism works. In much the same way, Union Carbide (presently owned by Dow Chemicals) exported unsafe technologies to Bhopal to produce toxic pesticides. The company, which thought it was not making ‘enough’ profits, systematically shut down all safety mechanisms to cut costs. Thus on the night of 2-3 December 1984, the world was a mute witness to the worst industrial disaster ever witnessed. Tens of thousands of innocent people died and hundreds of thousands were invalided for life so that a company and its shareholders could profit.
For 24 years now, the people of Bhopal have been fighting to bring the perpetrators of this homicide to justice. There are innumerable stories from across the world where workers and communities have been struggling to protect their lands, lives and liberty from the hegemony of capital. But the system forces itself on us, enslaving and exploiting us.
Lawrence Summers revealed the naked truth of this system when he encouraged the relocation of “dirty industries” to Africa and the third world, unmindful of how the people, denied strong public healthcare systems, would be able to survive this invasion. Against this onslaught upon our lives and liberties, the only weapon in our hands is working class solidarity and direct action. Our salvation lies in the obliteration of this unjust economic system and constructing a truly democratic workers’ state.
In a socialist state where human values and principles come before pseudo-sciences, where the well-being of the people is more important than production levels, where democratic power rests with the communities rather than concentrated in the ivory towers of New York, London or Mumbai, where the industries are run and managed democratically by well-informed elected representatives of workers and communities rather than by boards of directors sitting in far remote places and in secure homes, such crimes would be inconceivable. Under socialism, freedom would cease to mean the freedom of the few with money to harass and enslave the billions of workers. A truly socialist state would release the full potential of a liberated human race to fulfil its responsibilities, not merely to fellow humans but to all life forms and the environment.
This battle is not just about compensation or health care, it is not about cleaning up an area or about recreating the damaged environment and the communities. This battle is about human values and a battle for a brighter, nobler tomorrow and the people of Kodaikanal will eventually win it for they have nothing to lose. We can join them in their struggle in the true spirit of international working class solidarity. On 7 March, let us join them across the world in a global day of action against Unilever and its thousand other friends. On this day let us picket Unilever outlets, let us boycott their products, and let us demonstrate our solidarity with the workers of Kodaikanal in every other way.
Let us on this day, demand that
- Our governments enact and enforce stringent laws to check corporations from making profit by sacrificing the well-being of the workers and the communities.
- Corporations are made accountable to local people for their actions.
- Workers and communities are allowed access to financial records and records of the day-to-day functioning of all major industries.
- Workers be given the right to actively participate in the decision-making process and management of industries.
- Unilever pays for cleaning up the site and the dumping grounds of Kodaikanal.
- Unilever pays just compensation fixed by the labour movement for the disabling of workers and for the medical care of the victims of mercury poisoning in Kodaikanal.
- Unilever opens its factories across the world for inspection of their health and safety practices with regards to the environment and the workers.
This will be but a minor tremor, but it will hit at the root of the capitalist world order that has for 200 years kept us in servitude by making us fight isolated battles. Let us on 7 March join hands in sounding the death-knell of imperialist globalisation. Let us on this day together march towards a democratic socialist world.
If you can protest directly to Unilever offices in your country, please do.
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