Coca-Cola Contracts Fizzle at University of Michigan

ANN ARBOR, Michigan, January 3, 2006 (ENS) - In a victory for student environmental and human rights activists, the University of Michigan has suspended its business relationship with the Coca-Cola company because of its practices in India and Colombia.

The decision, effective January 1, suspends 13 contracts with Coca-Cola worth $1.4 million annually because the company has not agreed to protocols for a third-party review of labor practices in Colombia and has not developed protocols for reviewing environmental concerns in India.

In response to student concerns, the university convened a Dispute Review Board (DRB), an advisory body composed of students, faculty and administrators to look into the issues in India and Colombia.

After deliberating for 10 months, the DRB recommended in June 2005 that the Coca-Cola company be placed on probation. The DRB laid out a series of benchmarks that the company would have to meet to show that it was acting in good faith to solve the problems in India and Colombia, including agreeing to an independent, third-party investigation into issues in those countries.

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Coca-Cola produces close to 400 products in addition to its signature cola. (Photo courtesy Coca-Cola)
According to deadlines established by the university, the company and the university were supposed to select an independent auditor together and reach an agreement on review protocols by December 31, 2005. In a letter dated December 16, Coke said it would miss that deadline because of legal complications.

The university's total yearly expenditure on Coke products is $1.4 million.

The university says that if the situation is resolved, it will resume purchasing of Coke products. For the present, campus vending machines that contain Coke products will either be stocked with alternate products or remain empty.

The Coalition to Cut the Contract with Coca-Cola, a group of student organizations that is pressuring Coca-Cola to change its ways, congratulated the university on its decision in a statement.

The statement condemns what it calls the company's efforts to treat the alleged environmental and human rights violations "as public relations issues, instead of taking the necessary steps to become a socially responsible corporation."

The coalition said it is concerned that the university still maintains Coke is acting in "good faith."

Clara Hardie, a student leader at the university, said, "The campaign to hold Coca-Cola accountable is far from over, and we will continue to fight to ensure that the University of Michigan administration is moving in the right direction, and putting Coca-Cola on notice that this suspension can lead to expulsion if they fail to act in good faith."

Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Center, an international campaign organization that worked with the student organizations to make the case against Coca-Cola, is pleased with the suspension.

"We welcome the move by the University of Michigan to cease doing business with a company that engages in flagrant human rights and environmental violations, and this will send a strong message to the Coca-Cola company that it must clean up its act," said Srivastava from the India Resource Center's office in San Francisco.

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Police beat demonstrators attempting to shut down the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Mehdiganj, Uttar Pradesh, India. Over 350 people were arrested in the incident, November 25, 2004. (Photo by Amit Srivastava courtesy India Resource Center)
Coca-Cola is the target of numerous community-led protest actions in India. Villagers accusing the company of creating severe water shortages and pollution.

One of Coca-Cola's largest bottling plants in India, in the town of Plachimada, Kerala state, has been shuttered since March 2004 because the local community says the beverage production has created severe water shortages and pollution in the area.

In November, the Kerala state government declared the area's water resources to be "over-exploited." The state government notified the area under the Kerala Groundwater Control and Regulation Act to regulate the use of groundwater due to scarcity.

The company must register its wells and borewells with the newly formed Ground Water Regulatory Authority, which will decide whether the company can use the groundwater for beverage production.

There are frequent demonstrations against the company's operations across India. The most recent was in Kala Dera, Rajasthan in north India where over 1,500 people marched on December 12 demanding the closure of the Coca-Cola factory.

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Atul Singh became president of the India Division of The Coca-Cola Company in September 2005. (Photo courtesy Coca-Cola)
Community leaders have vowed to increase the pressure on the company. "We will not rest until we have shut down the bottling plant," said Sawai Singh in Rajasthan.

More protests in India are planned for January and February.

In Colombia, the company is accused of murders, kidnappings and torture of union leaders and organizers with the National Union of Food Industry Workers, says Javier Correa, president of Sinaltrainal, the union's name in Spanish.

In July 2001, the United Steelworkers of America and the International Labor Rights Fund filed a lawsuit on behalf of Sinaltrainal, several of its members and the estate of Isidro Gil, one of its murdered officers.

The lawsuit alleges the workers have been murdered and tortured by paramilitary death squads brought in by local Coca-Cola bottling plant managers to suppress the workers’ organizing efforts with violence.

Coca-Cola bottlers “contracted with or otherwise directed paramilitary security forces that utilize extreme violence and murdered, tortured, unlawfully detained or otherwise silenced trade union leaders,” the lawsuit states.

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Ray Rogers of Campaign to Stop Killer Coke addresses demonstrators in New York. (Photo courtesy Campaign to Stop Killer Coke)
Ray Rogers, director of the New York City based Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, says of the company's Colombia operations, "Coca-Cola continues to rake in billions each year, yet the frightening conditions at the Coke plants remain unchanged."

The lawsuit and campaign aim to force Coca-Cola to prevent further bloodshed and to provide safe working conditions.

In April 2005, Coca-Cola released the report of an independent workplace assessment conducted in Colombia for the company, saying the report reveals "a workplace environment where labor and human rights are respected and protected."

Cal Safety Compliance Corporation, an independent firm that conducts social accountability and workplace environment, safety and health audits for companies around the world, found no violations and uncovered no allegations with respect to human rights abuses at any of the plants.

In the areas of environment and safety and health, "minor infractions were noted at four of the plants." The infractions were brought to the attention of plant management and the Coca-Cola Company, and all are being addressed based on a corrective action plan, the company said.

Stuart Kyle, director of social compliance for the company, said the report's findings are not surprising. "While outside claims of anti-union activities have been levied against our company and our bottlers, we have always believed that the people who work in our Colombian bottling facilities do so in an environment free of intimidation, harassment or discrimination based on union affiliation or activities."

The Coca-Cola system in Colombia currently has signed labor contracts with all 12 of its unions.

Students in other colleges and universities in the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom are campaigning to revoke Coca-Cola's contracts until they meet the demands of the communities.

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United Students Against Sweatshops holds a boycott Coca-Cola event at New York University in December 2005. (Photo courtesy USAS)
On December 8, 2005, New York University joined the list of universities that have kicked Coca-Cola out. The NYU students who led the campaign were part of the United Students Against Sweatshops effort to raise awareness about human rights violations in Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia and Turkey, among other places.

New York City Councilmember Hiram Monserrate who led a delegation to Colombia, concluded, "It seems indisputable that Coke workers have been systematically persecuted for their union activity."

In November 2005 the company issued a statement on a lawsuit filed after demonstrators at the company's headquarters in Turkey were allegedly subjected to violence by police.

"The Coca-Cola Company and its bottling partners comply with all applicable labor and employment laws in the countries in which we do business," the company said. "We recognize international labor standards and are committed to respecting the workplace human rights of our employees and the parties with whom we do business. We respect our employees' right to join or not join labor unions, and ensure that those rights are exercised without fear of retaliation, repression or any other form of discrimination."

But company statements do not satisfy the protesters. "We are putting the Coca-Cola company on notice. It will continue to lose lucrative contracts with more colleges and universities until it cleans up its act in India," said Srivastava of the India Resource Center.

Coca-Cola products will not be completely eliminated from the University of Michigan campus. Some third-party vendors such as chain restaurants may continue to carry the products because of agreements with the company that require them to stock the beverages.

Coca-Cola manufactures some 400 different products and distributes them in 200 countries. The company says it is involved in an ongoing global effort "to work with its bottling partners and suppliers to assess and correct noncompliance with local law, identify and implement best practices in the areas of labor, health, safety and environment throughout the company's entire supply chain."