An Indian rapper calls for Unilever to compensate workers in her home city, but it’s a tragically well-trodden tale
Sofia Ashraf made headlines this week when she released her protest rap demanding that Unilever takes responsibility for allegedly abandoning a thermometer factory in Kodaikanal. The factory reportedly resulted in mercury pollution that Ashraf and other activists claim caused 45 deaths, as well as deformities among people who were involved with cleaning up mercury spills. Exposure to mercury can cause serious health problems and mercury poisoning is not an ailment to be taken lightly.
Look beyond the "Anaconda" beat and the "virality" of the video and Ashraf’s message is tragically sad, mainly on account of how often these types of cases crop up. Unilever is a multinational company and a manufacturer of many different types of consumer goods. In 2010, the company invested an estimated £5 billion in advertising across its various brands (Tl;dr – it’s not a company that’s short of money).
Money it may well have, but empathy and compensatory systems appear to be in short supply. According to the New Indian Express, "a woman called Bharatajyoti, another woman worker, has suffered six miscarriages. Her 20-year old daughter has stunted growth and suffers from frequent epileptic fits". Unilever launched an investigation but found that "there were no adverse impacts on the health of employees or the environment".
A Western desire for low-cost products and our insistence on using cheap labour is leaving scars on the world. Take the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The collapse of the structurally unsound factory is Bangladesh’s biggest industrial disaster to date. Clothing companies H&M, Primark, Mango and Gap all had clothes manufactured there and did all contribute to the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund, but by this point 1,134 people are already dead.
These are not the first Western companies to be accused of mistreating the people and the environment and sadly, they won’t be the last. In 2009 a Greenpeace investigation named multiple British supermarkets that were profiting from products supplied by Brazilian farms built on illegally deforested land, previously occupied by indigenous people. Deforestation is thought to be the single biggest contributor to climate change – you know, that issue that is causing a sharp increase in the amount of natural disasters besieging the planet.
"Clothing companies H&M, Primark, Mango and Gap did all contribute to the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund, but by this point 1,134 people are already dead"
It’s easy to think of climate change as an abstract idea that may or may not be there, but in 2010 55,000 Russians died after a heat wave. Forty years ago, heat waves weren’t considered a threat. It’s a bemusing merry-go-round of shit. Shell is pressing ahead with drilling in the Arctic, something that Inupiat villagers in North Alaska are divided over. On one hand they need the money that the drilling will bring, but they’re simultaneously terrified of a spill that’ll destroy wildlife and the sea that they need for fishing. Conditions in the Arctic make drilling more dangerous and scientists have warned that a spill would be impossible to clean up.
Additionally, oil companies don’t have particularly good records on spills – Exxon Mobil boasts an unhealthy list of awful incidents, including one in 1984 off the Gulf of Alaska that still hasn’t stopped damaging the environment. In 2010, the US government estimated that of the monitored wildlife populations, only 13 out of 32 ever recovered. Oil can still be seen in the water. Our planet is permanently blackened by an incident that occurred over 30 years ago. The planet’s ability to recuperate is perhaps not as strong as we blindly think.
It‘s rare that I agree with the Pope, but when he said "the Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth," it‘s difficult to argue with. Huge Western corporations are dictating the future of this planet and it feels like we’re pedalling as fast as we can into an irreversible darkness. Biologists say that we’re living through a sixth "mass extinction", with human beings to blame. How depressing that it’s making some people extremely rich. As placards on the streets keep reminding us, there is no Planet B.