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Tuesday, 21 August, 2001, 14:43 GMT 15:43 UK
Unilever chief's anti-bribes line
Niall FitzGerald on the Hardtalk programme
Niall FitzGerald: Unilever "never uses bribes"
Unilever, the food and hygiene giant, insists it does not pay bribes.

But its co-chairman says that does not mean the company never pays out so-called "facilitating payments".

There is a fine line, but the line is there, Niall Fitzgerald told BBC News 24's Hardtalk programme.

Facilitating payments - sweeteners - are "a marginal exception" to the blanket ban on bribes, Mr Fitzgerald said.

Custom and practice

"There are customary local things," he said. When asked whether these are the same as "sweeteners", he said: "You could put it like that."

But they are only used where local custom and practice dictate in the 90-plus countries in which Unilever operates. The idea is akin to tipping a waiter to get a better table, he said.

Unilever brands
Persil washing powder
Lipton tea
Dove soap
Organics shampoo
Calvin Klein fragrances
Magnum and Solero ice cream
Hellman's mayonnaise
Bird's Eye fish fingers
I can't believe it's not butter

He insisted that an overall code of conduct governs these matters, and bans the use of payments for unfair advantage - although trusted local managers have leeway to interpret the rules according to local habits.

All such transactions are recorded - although not necessarily under the heading of "facilitating payments", Mr Fitzgerald said - with tax relief on the "minute sums" involved claimed in the countries where they are paid.

Mr Fitzgerald's position contrasts with that of some companies, such as construction group Balfour Beatty, which admitted to British MPs recently that it is not always possible to know whether agents in remote locations are accepting bribes.

Burmese connections

The code of conduct dictates where and how Unilever can trade, he said, meaning that serial human rights abusers such as Burma are out of bounds.

Founded 1930 through merger of Dutch margarine maker Margarine Unie and British soap maker Lever Brothers
Corporate centres in London and Rotterdam
Turnover in Jan-Jun 2001 16bn
Pre-tax profit in Jan-Jun 1.3bn

But he admitted that Bestfoods, a US-based company Unilever bought last year, had a distributor in Burma until recently, although he insisted that he had "personally" ensured that connections with the country were severed.

The code of conduct also governs environmental issues, an area where Unilever has faced criticism of its Hindustan Lever unit in India.

Mercury allegations

Earlier this year the environmental watchdog Greenpeace revealed that Hindustan Lever's mercury thermometer plant near a mountain beauty spot in Tamil Nadu, Southern India, was dumping its waste around the local area and polluting local water supplies.

"We closed it down within 24 hours of being informed that our normal practices and procedures were not being abided by," Mr Fitzgerald said.

Most investment decisions were made on the assumption Britain would join the euro during this parliament

Niall FitzGerald

He insisted that no workers or other people had been harmed.

"If they had been, we would have done everything necessary to make appropriate reparations."

But Greenpeace said there is plenty of evidence of mercury poisoning from the 30-40% of the factory's thermometers which were broken during manufacture and then dumped.

"Ex-workers report kidney problems, chronic stomache aches, blood vomiting, infertility and women suffering a variety of gynaecological disorders," the group said, suggesting these are symptoms of mercury poisoning.

Niall FitzGerald
Born 1945
Joined Unilever 1967, co-chairman since 1996
Also non-exec director of Merck and Ericsson
Hobbies include jazz, opera and collecting antique furniture
Golf handicap 24
Viewed by senior UK staff as the "good cop" while co-chairman Antony Burgmans is viewed as the "hatchet man"

"The company has neither conducted a comprenhensive and scientific epidemiological study, nor published the basis of its claims that no workers have ever been affected."

The group said Unilever's own environmental audit showed that for years toxic waste had been buried in unlined pits.

As with the Burma distributor, the factory was part of a US company acquired by Unilever.

Euro defender

During the Hardtalk programme, Mr Fitzgerald defended his position as one of the most vocal supporters in the UK of British entry into the European single currency.

He reiterated his belief that Britain will lose its pole position in attracting inward investment if membership is put off much longer.

"The investment you are seeing today is based on decisions made two, three, four years ago," he said

"Most of them were made on the assumption that Britain would become a paid-up member of the euro during the life of this parliament.

"If it were to become clear that might not be the case, then that might change decisions - the impact of which we would only see in three, four, five years' time."

See also:

03 Aug 01 | Business
Upbeat Unilever unveils profit jump
27 Apr 01 | Business
Unilever cuts 8,000 jobs
29 Nov 99 | UK Politics
'Ethical business' plan unveiled
10 Jul 01 | Business
How ethical...How profitable?
22 Feb 00 | Business
Unilever: A company history
22 Feb 00 | Business
Unilever axes 25,000 jobs worldwide
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