Mercury and Corporate Citizenship
By Brendan Donegan · 30 April 2013

Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL), a majority-owned subsidiary of Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever, has left the town of Kodaikanal (Tamilnadu, India) tainted with mercury from its thermometer factory. In 2005 the company said it would clean up the factory site to a standard of 10mg of mercury per kilogram of soil: a Dutch soil quality standard for residential areas. But the UK standard is 1mg/kg – ten times more stringent than the Dutch – and Unilever's environment policy [1] states that the company aims to 'exercise the same concern for the environment wherever we operate.' There seems to be an inconsistency between this claim and the situation in Kodaikanal, which would be illegal if the factory site were in the UK, the country where Unilever PLC will hold its Annual General Meeting on May 15 2013. [2] Even by Indian law there are plenty of well-documented illegalities relating to the establishment, operation and monitoring of the Kodaikanal factory; [3] but the focus of this blogpost is on Unilever's double standards, which are the subject of a growing UK-based campaign.

The UK activists focus on Unilever's double standards because this seems the most appropriate focus for activists in the UK. Since the factory closed 12 years ago, ex-workers, residents and activists in India have been targeting HUL and the Indian government in their struggle for justice. For the UK activists to adopt these same targets would sound imperialist. For them, Unilever - a multinational corporation registered in the UK – seems a more appropriate target. Another target could be the UK government, on the basis that Unilever is a corporate citizen of the UK.

'Corporate Citizenship' is a term often used interchangeably with 'Corporate Social Responsibility' to describe a company's responsibilities towards society. It is sometimes taken to mean that corporations should be regarded as citizens within a territory – i.e. that corporations have citizenship of some sort. At present the UK denies any responsibility for what its corporate citizens do outside our sovereign territory. This is one of the differences between how we treat our individual citizens and our corporate citizens. We don't want our individual citizens engaging in paedophilia in Thailand. We don't want a British soldier to engage in torture in countries where torture is legal. Yet we allow our corporate citizens to produce mercury thermometers in countries with lower standards for worker safety or environmental protection, countries where it is easier to buy off regulators. Legally, Unilever does nothing wrong by adhering to Indian rather than UK standards for clean-up. The case UK activists can make against Unilever and against the British government is not a legal case, it is a moral and political case – they might say: morally this is wrong, and we think law should be changed to reflect this.

The struggle for justice in Kodaikanal is in part about highlighting the inadequacy of current mechanisms for regulating corporate citizens. It is also about the inequality built into these mechanisms. Unilever's line is that India has no soil quality standard at all, and consequently the company is being generous by offering to clean up to the Dutch standard. What does that say about the value of a human life? Is a UK citizen's life ten times more valuable than that of a Dutch citizen? Does the life of an Indian citizen have no value at all? Framed in these terms, the solution to this injustice is common sense: human life should be valued the same everywhere, a single international soil quality standard should be in use.

If India adopts UK standards, who will be the winners and who will be the losers? India's middle-class-driven public culture will argue against the imposition of higher standards by invoking the 'infant industry' argument: if higher standards are introduced, India, as a developing country, will lose its competitive edge as an investment site. In effect, taking this position amounts to admitting that until India is developed, the lives of Indian citizens have to be of less value than the lives of citizens of developed countries. But will India's economy ever be developed to a point where her government feels that it is appropriate for Indian citizens to be treated as citizens rather than as lives that are dispensable in the service of 'national development'?

Adding these layers of complexity to the activist narrative transforms the question of means and ends. If the activists formulate the goal of their campaign as getting Unilever to clean up Kodaikanal, then putting pressure on Unilever and the UK government by drawing public attention to the issue seems an appropriate course of action. If instead the activists acknowledge that the situation in Kodaikanal is a product of a world divided into developed and developing countries with different rules for each of these, then what is needed is a course of action that moves towards the abolition of this distinction. Such a project seems impossibly vast – and yet there might be a way to get Unilever to clean up Kodaikanal that at least gestures in the direction of this project. It just so happens that Unilever's subsidiary in India, HUL, has a strong trade union that has gained some significant concessions from the company's management in the past. What if justice in Kodaikanal were sought through workplace organising and the encounter between workers and management, rather than through an attempt to mobilise public opinion and the encounter between citizens and their state?




About the author

  • Dr Brendan Donegan

    Activist Consultant
    Brendan Donegan
    Goldsmiths University of London
    The focus of my professional work has been teaching and social research, with a focus on poverty and inequality in India and in the UK. I completed my PhD in Social Anthropology at SOAS, University... Read more

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