Thursday 30 April 2015

A Kettle of one?

'Peter' doing his thing.

Unilever, the world's third-largest consumer goods company, is so scared of protesters at its 2015 London AGM that it pre-emptively confines them behind a barricade. Sorry, that should read: pre-emptively confines HIM behind a barricade. Because there was only one protester.


Definition of kettle in English:

1. A metal or plastic container with a lid, spout, and handle, used for boiling water. See also fish kettle.
2. A bowl- or saucer-shaped container in which operations are carried out on metals or other substances with a low melting point.

3. chiefly British A small area in which demonstrators or protesters are confined by police seeking to maintain order during a demonstration:

Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch multinational behind many of the leading food and hygiene brands we see in our shops ("from nutritionally balanced foods to indulgent ice creams, affordable soaps, luxurious shampoos and everyday household care products," to quote their website), apparently takes health and safety very seriously. At the company's Annual General Meeting in 2015 - which took place today, on 30 April, at Unilever UK’s head office at Unilever House, Springfield Drive, Leatherhead KT22 7GR - a single campaigner was confined behind barricades some distance from the entrance to the building. Security guards explained to him that a decision had been taken beforehand that any protesters would be placed in this holding pen. He was told that the company's concern was that a large group of protesters might try to block the entrance to the meeting venue - a situation which would of course be a cause for concern, as a potential health and safety issue.

Let's start with what actually happened. Let's call this lone protester - who asked not to be named - Peter. Peter arrived at the entrance to the business park where Unilever House is located at about 12.30pm. Security guards asked him why he was there. He explained that he is not a shareholder, and wanted to give leaflets to shareholders as they went into the meeting venue. The security guards told him that he would need to stand behind the barricade shown in the photo. "I asked if I could stand somewhere where I would be able to talk to people and they told it was predetermined and not negotiable." Peter told us that at the point he was told he had to stand behind the barricade, it was not clear to him whether he was officially on Unilever premises, but he doesn't think that he was. "The security at the front of the business park asked where I wanted to go and I told them I would like to stand outside the Unilever building to talk to people. They called someone and then someone came to escort me to the pen, which was on the far side of the Unilever building. There was very little to no access to people coming into the meeting. They brought me lunch and said they will bring someone to talk to me." Peter added: "It was like I was some sort of an animal." 

"After being there for about 20 minutes someone came and told me I could stand near the front entrance where the shareholders were walking in." Peter explained that he was also asked whether others were coming to join him; the decision to let him stand near the entrance came after he answered "As far as I know no one else is coming to protest."

Peter was at the AGM as part of the UK campaign for justice in Kodaikanal – which is an independent group of concerned citizens based in the UK that seeks to engage in activities aimed at encouraging Unilever to undertake an independent assessment of, and appropriate response to, the situation in Kodaikanal, a small town in India. There is substantial evidence in the public domain that suggests that Unilever’s Indian subsidiary company, Hindustan Unilever Limited, is the principal source of mercury contamination in the ecologically sensitive Pambar Shola forest, and is responsible for exposing workers in its Kodaikanal factory (which produced mercury thermometers until 2001) and Kodaikanal residents to toxic levels of mercury. The campaign group was set up by a small number of UK citizens who were outraged that a company making such a big deal out of its image in UK was acting like this in India. Unilever presents itself as a leader in sustainable business, yet there is substantial evidence that Unilever’s response to the claims of ex-workers and residents in Kodaikanal has been woefully inadequate. Unilever has an environmental policy which states a commitment to showing “the same concern for the environment wherever we operate”, yet Unilever also claims on its website that it is “proud” to clean up Kodaikanal to a standard that would not be accepted in the UK. A Government of India study in 2011 concluded that Unilever did not take adequate measures to maintain occupational safety, that workers were exposed to mercury in the workplace, and that this exposure had resulted in health effects among workers and their families.

3 members of the campaign group attended the 2014 AGM. They bought shares in the company, went into the AGM, and politely asked questions about Kodaikanal in the Question-and-Answer section of the meeting. Afterwards they stood outside distributing leaflets to shareholders as they left. At one point a security guard asked them to remove their banner from the railings in front of the building; they immediately did so.

This year, 2 members of the campaign attended. It was agreed that Peter would distribute leaflets outside while another campaign member - a Unilever shareholder - went inside to ask a question along similar lines to previous years. This is the third year that campaigners have raised this issue at Unilever’s London AGM, it is nearly 10 years since the ex-workers initiated a legal case for compensation, and it is more than 14 years since the factory was closed because local residents and journalists discovered that mercury-contaminated waste was being dumped in a forest and a residential area.

These are the events and facts that form the context for Peter's experience today. It seems that Unilever takes health and safety very seriously - or rather, the company takes health and safety very seriously at the company's AGM, to the point of preventing a single protester from having access to its shareholders. Unilever does not seem to show the same concern for health and safety of its workers or residents in India.

More details of the issue and campaign can be found at or by emailing Nityanand Jayaraman (


  1. we support you and ALL efforts to clean and compensate the people and environment of Kodaikanal.


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