September 19th, 2015
I don’t remember when I joined the company. Nor when I left. I am tenth standard pass (tenth grade). By the time I finished school, I had learnt English and tamil typing, and shorthand. I was a very fast typist. My fingers would fly across the typewriter.
I worked for four years in Mother Theresa University as a typist. That was a temporary job. It was then that I got a job in Pond’s. I worked in the Air Passing section. That entire section is in a cold room. We called it icing section. Mercury could be found scattered on the table and the floor at any given time. When a thermometer broke on the table, we would brush it to the floor. A woman cleaner would come infrequently and sweep out the floor, and clean up the mercury. I had rubber gloves to work with, but the gloves had holes.
My health began to suffer. But I never made the connection to my work. Mercury did not at all look dangerous, and we were not told about it. After a few years of working the mercury section, one hand and one leg began to go numb. Gradually it became so bad that I could not move it. It was only after treatment at JIPMER hospital in Pondicherry that I recovered. And then, four years ago, I had this stroke. I have recovered, but I am now very unsteady on my feet. I have lost my voice. I used to be a great singer. I have even received an award from Kamal Hassan sir. Now, I can sing, but my voice is very low. Curiously, when I sing, my speech doesn’t slur. But when I speak, my tongue does not roll well. I have also been suffering from tremors. My hands shake. Sometimes it is worse than others.
I got married while I was employed in Pond’s. My first four children were stillbirths. My fifth son, Joshua, had a heart problem. The doctors could not save him. They said they couldn’t perform a surgery on such a small child. We lost him when he was 1.5 years. Another child was born, a girl. We named her Evangeline Jennifer. She is studying in 10th standard. She really likes English; that’s her favorite subject. But now I hardly get to see her. Even when I see her, I cannot speak to her. My wife left me, after I lost my job and became too weak to work. I couldn’t contribute to the family economy. She felt she was better off without me.
Now I live with my parents. They take care of me. I run this tea-shop. It’s my brother’s. Because I’m not well, my father comes to help me. He is 74 years old. But he is healthy and strong. He exercises. I used to be strong too.
Mercury can damage the brain, leading to paralytic strokes, slurring of speech, and loss of voice.
Dominic Bernard, 48
Ex Mercury Worker
As told to Nityanand Jayaraman. Photographs: Amirtharaj Stephen, 2015.
Unilever is insisting on a substandard cleanup of brain-damaging, birth-defect causing mercury in Kodaikanal. Affected workers have still not been compensated. Don’t Buy Unilever products. To say you #WontBuyUnilever, give missed call on 08880109020 and take the pledge on www.jhatkaa.org/wontbuyunilever