CORRECTION APPENDED: This story incorrectly stated that Ed Potter, Coca-Cola’s global relations director, is heading the International Labor Organization’s investigation of Coke’s alleged human rights violation. He is the U.S. employer delegate to the ILO.
With a shaky voice and tears in her eyes, University alum Deepti Reddy questioned Ed Potter, global relations director of the Coca-Cola Company, about his ability to remain impartial following Potter’s speech on workplace rights at Wyly Hall last night.
Reddy, once a member of the now-defunct Coalition to Cut Contracts with Coca-Cola, asked Potter about his involvement in the investigations of the company’s alleged human rights violations in Colombia. The campaign petitioned the University administration to halt the sale of Coke products on campus in 2005. The demonstrators temporarily halted the sale in late 2005, but the University resumed purchasing of Coke products in April 2006 after the company agreed to an independent investigation – headed by Potter.
Potter also serves as a U.S. employer delegate to the International Labor Organization – a branch of the United Nations that monitors human and labor rights – charged with conducting an independent investigation into the soft drink giant’s alleged violations.
Potter, a 30-year veteran of labor relations, started his speech by describing the changes in his field. He didn’t mention last year’s campaign during his speech. Instead, he spoke about supply chain theory as it relates to labor and about his roles in the Coca-Cola Company and the international arena. He said those roles have changed considerably because of the speed at which information is dispersed and the rise of nongovernmental organizations.
Potter cited an the increase in number of NGOs from just 400 in 1980 to 50,000 today and the increase in Internet users from a million in 1994 to a billion today.
“Public awareness of the water issue in India was driven by one guy with Internet access,” he said, “Local issues are more easily interconnected today.”
Potter said his job is to identify potential environmental and labor problems before they are made public so they can be corrected before they harm Coca-Cola’s image.
Potter, who has worked for the International Labor Organization since 1997, was hired by Coca-Cola in March 2005 to improve the company’s response procedures to human rights violations.
In response to Reddy’s emotionally-charged question, a composed Potter said his position with the ILO didn’t conflict with his position with Coca-Cola because the International Labor Organization doesn’t pay him for his work.
Reddy asked Potter why he opposed the release of evidence indicating human rights violations by Coca-Cola and their Colombian bottlers in a lawsuit filed by the International Labor Rights Fund on behalf of SinalTrainal, a Colombian labor union.
Potter responded by saying that there is distinction between allegations and evidence and that the violence may be unrelated to Coca-Cola’s actions but the product of Colombia’s historic civil strife.
“Colombia had four decades of civil war, over 100,000 thousand deaths and 4,000 labor union deaths,” Potter said. “The drug traffickers pour more money into the economy than the government.”
Potter said addressing allegations of workplace violations was a main priority for Coca-Cola.
“We aspire to be a leader in corporate responsibility,” Potter said. “The public often holds Coca-Cola like other recognizable brands accountable for anything occurring under the trademark.”
Potter’s lecture was a part of the Global Impact Speaker Series, which is sponsored by the University’s William Davidson Institute.