Scottish trade unions’ Bhopal solidarity visit

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SOLIDARITY: Stationery Workers' Union leader Rashida Bee with Alan Coombs, vice president of Community, and Robert Mooney, Chair of STUC disabled workers committee. PHOTO: Eurig Scandrett

by Eurig Scandrett, UCU Scotland and Scottish Friends of Bhopal Thirty years ago, the world’s worst corporate crime happened in Bhopal in central India. An insecticide factory owned by American multinational Union Carbide Corporation, released toxic methyl isocyanate gas into the local neighbourhoods, killing thousands. To mark the 30th anniversary, a group of trade union activists from Scotland travelled to Bhopal to join the commemorations and angry protests by the survivors.

The delegates from Unison, Unite the Union, CWU, Community, UCU and NUJ, as well as Edinburgh TUC and the Hazards Campaign, participated in marches, rallies, candlelit vigils and torchlit processions through the streets of Bhopal. Giant effigies of the logos of Union Carbide and Dow Chemical (which now owns Union Carbide) were burned outside the gates of the factory.

A museum was opened commemorating the disaster, and the 30 years of struggle by the survivors’ movement for justice. They visited the Sambhavna Trust clinic and Chingari Trust rehabilitation centre, independent grassroots initiatives funded by donations, mostly from Britain.

The delegation has its origins in a visit by two survivors to Scotland in 2012. Balkrishna Namdeo of the Gas-affected Pensioners’ Front, and second generation survivor, 19 year old Safreen Khan, from Children Against Dow/Carbide, met with representatives from the Scottish TUC and inspired solidarity action. The STUC disabled workers’ and black workers’ conferences both passed resolutions in solidarity with the Bhopalis struggle for justice.

Union Carbide came to Bhopal to benefit from the profits generated by the ‘green revolution’. Western companies introduced high-yielding crops, which were dependent on agricultural chemicals such as the insecticide Sevin. As the profits started to fall, Union Carbide cut corners on safety at the plant, which led to the disaster. The trade union at the plant raised concerns with their management in India and directors in the USA but were ignored and rewarded with union activists being sacked. Instead the company blamed workers for the disaster—without any evidence.

Trade unions have played an important role in the struggle for justice. The Scottish delegation met with Rasheeda Bee and Champa Devi Shukla, two union leaders from the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Sangh (union of gas affected women stationery workers). After leaving Bhopal, the delegation travelled to Mumbai and Delhi to meet union activists with whom they found much in common.

It is clear that, although the level of poverty and exploitation is more severe in India, the same issues are faced by unions everywhere: cuts, privatisation, casualisation, outsourcing and attacks on workers health and safety and the right to organise. As the t-shirt slogan puts it: ‘We all live in Bhopal.’

Scott Donohoe, Unison Scotland’s Health and Safety convenor and Chair of Scottish Hazards Campaign said: “this has been a life-changing experience. The people have been so welcoming and their struggle inspires us all. Back home in Scotland we’ll all be sharing our experiences with our branches and regions.”

Scotland has a long history of solidarity with Bhopal. In the months following the disaster, campaigners in the town of Livingston successfully stopped the development of a facility by Union Carbide. Dow’s sponsorship of the London Olympics was put under considerable pressure by British activists, and campaigners in Scotland successfully called for Dow not to be selected from a list of potential sponsors for Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games earlier this year.

After years of campaigning, Dow is in the process of shutting down its only remaining facility, in Grangemouth, and the delegates believe that Scotland should remain Dow-free. Recently elected Indian prime minister Narendra Modi from the right wing BJP party, is embarking on a ‘make in India’ project to entice corporations to invest in India by relaxing labour, environmental and taxation regulations and breaking trade union organising. Such conditions are similar to thirty years ago, which led to the corner-cutting and safety breaches at Union Carbide.

Activists in Bhopal welcomed the delegation and made clear that they were continuing to fight for justice. Union Carbide attempted to avoid criminal liability through a paltry $470million ‘settlement’ with the Indian Government in 1989, based on ‘back-of-envelope’ calculations of who was affected. This was rejected on appeal by the Indian Supreme Court, criminal prosecutions are continuing and the compensation case has been re-opened with a ‘curative petition’.

Union Carbide was absorbed by Dow Chemical in 2001, which has evaded justice ever since, refusing to appear in court despite a summons being issued. The CEO of Union Carbide in 1984, Warren Anderson, was subject to an extradition warrant, which was never enacted by the US government. Anderson died unpunished in the USA this year at the age of 92.

The survivors’ movement continues to press for justice from Dow, including for compensation based on accurate figures of those affected and to clean up the contaminated factory site from which toxins are washed into the drinking water of the local communities. Survivors also demand punitive criminal damages against Dow, in order to send a message to corporations coming to India that they will not be allowed to get away with murder.

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