Victims’ relatives in furious attack on head of UK firm’s Korea unit

Chief of British company Oxy Reckitt Benkiser Korea hit and jostled as he apologises after the deaths of scores of people including four pregnant women.

A relative of a victim complains to Ata Safdar, head of British firm Reckitt Benckiser Korea, right, during a press conference in Seoul. Yun Dong-jin / Yonhap via AP
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The head of a Korean subsidiary of a British consumer goods company was slapped and shouted down Monday as he apologised for his firm’s role in selling a humidifier disinfectant blamed for more than 100 deaths in South Korea.

Shouting “too late” and “cannot forgive” in English, a handful of the victims’ relatives rushed the podium where Ata Safdar, the head of Oxy Reckitt Benckiser Korea, was speaking at a hotel in Seoul.

In scenes reminiscent of last year when Air France bosses were attacked by workers in Paris over planned job cuts, Mr Safdar was slapped and pushed several times as the event descended into chaos.

“I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry. I deeply apologise. We want to make amends,” Mr Safdar told the angry relatives, bowing repeatedly in a gesture of contrition.

Mr Safdar was finally able to resume his statement, in which he offered a “heartfelt and sincere apology” to all the victims and said his company was committed to a multimillion-dollar compensation plan.

The case came to light after four pregnant women died of lung problems for unknown reasons in 2011.

A subsequent government probe found a “significant association” between lung damage and products used to sterilise domestic humidifiers.

Most of the victims were found to have used Oxy Ssak Ssak, a liquid humidifier disinfectant sold by Reckitt Benckiser in South Korea from 2001, that has been blamed for around 103 deaths – mostly women and children.

The products were withdrawn from local markets in 2011.

“Oxy RB accepts responsibility for the role that Oxy RB products played and the delay in providing adequate remedy,” Mr Safdar said.

He also announced the creation of a five billion won (Dh15.79bn) humanitarian fund to “provide assistance to those who have suffered”.

The company had earlier donated a similar amount to a fund set up by the South Korean environment ministry.

The company has been sharply criticised in South Korea for taking too long to apologise or accept any responsibility in the case.

Mr Safdar said his office would cooperate fully with an ongoing probe into whether executives had approved the sale of toxic sterilisers while knowing of the health risks.

“My sincere hope is that the investigation is concluded as soon as possible, so we can help bring about closure for all affected victims,” he said.

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