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The Reckitt Benckiser death campaign comes to London

Campaigners outside the Reckitt Benckiser shareholders meeting on 5 May
Choi Ye-yong (left) and Kim Deok-jung outside the Reckitt Benckiser shareholders meeting on 5 May (provided by the campaigners)

Reckitt Benckiser’s problems in Korea haven’t had much attention in the UK until recently. But a growing campaign to boycott their products in Korea, and a small group of campaigners who came over to picket the company’s annual shareholder’s meeting on 5 May, have brought the issues into the mainstream.

A week ago, Reckitt Benckiser (RB) issued a press release which sets out the background:

Oxy launched a Humidifier Sterilizer (HS) product in Korea in 1996. It was one of a number of manufacturers of HS products. In 2001 RB acquired Oxy to become Oxy RB. In 2011 the Korean Centre for Disease Control (KCDC) suggested a link between the HS product and lung injury at which point Oxy RB immediately and voluntarily withdrew the product from the market. Oxy RB have since participated in all investigations to fully understand the issue and bring resolution to the victims and their families.

The press release also expressed RB’s apologies and announced a compensation and humanitarian fund “to do the right thing for the victims and their families.” This must be positive news for the victims and their families. The press release was accompanied by a formal apology in Seoul by their Korean subsidiary on the same day, 2 May. According to the Guardian, the press conference was a heated affair.

This apology and move towards compensation is a step forward from the situation found by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, who visited Korea in October 2015:

Oxy Reckitt Benckiser maintains its position that the company has not been proven liable. They claim causation has not been proven for health impacts, despite their failure to prove the product was safe before being sold to consumers. According to the victims, neither the companies concerned nor the Government have offered a meaningful apology to the victims, which both explain as due to ongoing litigation. The victims remain concerned that subsequent measures by the Government and businesses are not adequate to prevent the reoccurrence of a similar tragedy. As of now, the Government has not provided compensation to support approximately 55% of the alleged victims because the causation between their symptoms and the substances in the sterilizer has not been ascertained.

The protestors in London included firefighter Kim Deokjung (김덕종), whose four-year-old son died as a result of the use of the Oxy steriliser. Their demonstration outside the company’s annual general meeting in Cavendish Square caught the attention of the attendees inside. According to the Financial Times, RB’s CEO Rakesh Kapoor apologised and said he was “personally very sorry” for the harm caused. He also agreed to meet the campaigners the following day. This they did, and RB issued a report of the meeting on 6 May.

The campaign for compensation will continue, and the campaigners have been meeting with lawyers in the UK to launch a civil claim against RB, whose Oxy disinfectant is responsible for 103 deaths according to a Korean government investigation. Tesco is also in the frame, as their Homeplus subsidiary sold a product said to be responsible for 15 deaths.

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