The chairman of food giant Unilever, Niall FitzGerald, has admitted that local management in some of the 90 countries where the company operates accept “sweeteners” or “facilitating payments” to seal business deals.
He maintained however that the rules against bribery did not need to be tightened, commenting: “I trust [the local executives], that’s how we run our business.”
The comments were made during an appearance on BBC News 24’s Hardtalk programme, during which FitzGerald was grilled on the company’s business ethics. The topic has become an important one for both shareholders and consumers recently, and the interview also focused on Unilever’s stand on human rights and its environmental practice.
The human rights concerns centre on Unilever’s operations in Burma, a country that is widely known to have one of the worst human rights records. There has been some confusion as to whether Unilever operates at all in Burma, a charge brought by US-based firm Investor Relations Research. FitzGerald at first denied any trade with the country before later admitting that the US conglomerate Bestfoods, acquired by Unilever last year, does have a local distributor in Burma.
In India, Unilever has been blasted by environmental group Greenpeace over pollution caused by a mercury thermometer-making factory. FitzGerald stressed during the interview that as soon as Unilever knew about the pollution the factory was closed, and added that the company has an excellent record in environmental issues.