How We Took On A Multi-Billion Dollar Corporation To Show That “People Power Works”

Posted on March 10, 2016 in Society

By Bhavik Lathia:

jhatkaaHow do you tell the story of a victory? Do you focus on the victors or the villains? The underdogs or the favorites? The game changers or the spoilers? The long race or the finish line?

How those questions are answered can impact the narrative that people know and repeat. So I’m going to start off by strongly prefacing the story I’m about to tell. What’s below is just one tiny part of a long struggle that resulted in victory. Yes, the events in this story are significant, but they’re not the only significant events. I want you to read my words, but I also want you to stay curious and read the words of the so many others who have contributed to the win I’m going to tell you about.

I’ll start at the end:

This week, 591 Unilever ex-workers in Kodaikanal won justice for themselves and their families. Over the past few decades, many of them had seen their lives torn apart because of the mercury they were exposed to in a factory owned and operated by Hindustan Unilever (HUL). Factory officials weren’t clear with their workers about the harm caused by mercury exposure and workers weren’t provided with sufficient protective gear as they handled the toxic element.

HUL’s mercury thermometer factory was shut down in 2001 due the work of some brilliant activists, and that’s how long ex-workers have been fighting for justice. From this beginning, their demands have been clear: 1) Unilever must honourably compensate all impacted workers and families, and 2) Unilever must clean up the mercury contamination in Kodaikanal to rigorous standards.

Today, the ex-workers won on their first demand and this long-delayed compensation will make a world of difference. It will allow HUL’s ex-workers to repay past debts, meet medical expenses, and finally start rebuilding their lives.

This victory belongs to the ex-workers who have been agitating and organising for the past 15 years. This victory belong to the activists on the ground who have been relentless in their support of the ex-workers’ demands. And this victory belongs to the hundreds of thousands of individuals across the planet who got involved in this campaign last July and August, taking online action to hold Unilever’s global CEO Paul Polman accountable.

This is where Jhatkaa.org comes into the story.

Jhatkaa.org is an Indian public mobilization group, and our toolset consists of technology, timely campaign strategy, and people power. Using these tools, we launch and run campaigns for the public good on a wide range of issues – from net neutrality to air pollution to human rights.

Last July, we partnered with activists in Chennai to bring the HUL ex-worker’s demands to social media in a big, splash-y way. We helped launch a parody music video, online petition, and Twitter action targeting Unilever global CEO Paul Polman.

None of us expected what happened next.

The music video, set to the beat of Nicki Minaj’s ‘Anaconda‘, went internationally viral, generating over 35 lakh+ views and our petition has over 90K signers from 100+ countries. It was also featured in The NYTimes, The UK Times, The Hindu, Buzzfeed, and many, many other media outlets around the world. Nicki Minaj even tweeted about it. And Paul Polman publicly responded to our campaign on Twitter, using our hashtag #UnileverPollutes and getting into a heated back-and-forth with our supporters.

During August, as the music video was going viral, our friends in the UK – 38 Degrees – also engaged their list of 20 lakh+ members on this issue. All of this resulted in a meeting with Unilever Global Senior Vice President Sue Garrard during which we delivered our collective 1.5 lakh+ petition signatures and presented the ex-workers’ demands (along with thorough documentation of this issue).

Since then, we’ve kept active pressure on Unilever both online and offline, and both publicly and behind the scenes. We launched a #WontBuyUnilever consumer awareness campaign, which reached over 5 lakh individuals on Twitter alone, and one of our members confronted Paul Polman about his company’s inaction at the Paris climate talks in December. We relayed his story to our members, which unleashed a fresh wave of angry messages at Paul Polman. In these ways, and so many others, we sustained our pressure on the Unilever global CEO.

And all of this, together, forever changed the narrative surrounding this 15-year struggle for justice. What once seemed like a longshot hope became a possibility. And this week, possibility became inevitability as the ex-worker’s signed documents guaranteeing them fair compensation.

The key lesson that Jhatkaa.org is drawing from this victory is that people power works. And we’re excited to continue lifting up the hundreds of thousands of voices who have joined this campaign since last July to ensure that Unilever now cleans up its mercury mess in Kodaikanal, immediately and to a high standard.

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