Members of the Michigan Student Assembly met last night to discuss allegations against the Coca-Cola Company concerning human rights violations in India and Colombia before voting tonight on a resolution to recommend that the University end its contract with the soft drink giant.

Beth Dykstra
Coke representative Lori Billingsley speaks alongside colleagues Percey Wells and Harry Ott at the Michigan Student Assembly debate about Coca-Cola in the MSA chambers of the Michigan Union last night. (Ashley Harper/Daily)

MSA representatives had the opportunity to hear from representatives from both Coca-Cola and the student-led anti-Coke campaign known as the Killer Coke Coalition

If MSA votes against Coke, it will be agreeing to a resolution that would aim to pressure the University to cut its $1.2 million contract with Coca-Cola.

“It was an excellent opportunity for both sides to confront the issues, for representatives to hear the concerns of both sides and for students at large to make their own judgements,” said LSA senior Jason Mironov, president of MSA.

MSA had originally planned the vote for last Tuesday but delayed it to get a perspective from both sides.

RC Junior Ashwini Hardikar, co-chair of MSA’s Peace and Justice Commission spoke about the significance of tomorrow’s decision.

“Symbolically this will help pressure the (University) president and others involved in making the decision about the contract to drop (it) with the University,” Hardikar said.

MSA first heard testimony from Laura Billingsley, a spokeswoman of the Coca-Cola company, and Harry Ott, director of Global Environmental Assurance at the Coca-Cola company.

Billingsley said some of the allegations brought against Coke include that the company supports intimidation of union leaders, and that the company does not provide sufficient protection for its employees.

“The Coca-Cola company has collective bargaining agreements in place with 11 different unions in Colombia, covering wages and benefits, and health and safety measures,” Billingsley said.

If any employee feels unsafe, she added, there are a number of safety and security measures, which Coca-Cola can utilize. These include transportation to workers’ houses in order to protect them from possible paramilitary attacks.

One of the allegations the Killer Coke Coalition and Coca-Cola workers abroad have made against the company is that it uses paramilitaries to intimidate its workers.

Billingsley added that these benefits are offered collectively through the union, the government and the company.

Javier Correa, an activist in the anti-Coke campaign and former worker at a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Colombia, disagreed with Billingsley’s statement, saying that Coca-Cola never provided any of these services to him.

He added that the protection practices that Billingsley described are provided by Colombia to everyone who has a collective bargaining agreement.

“The protection which (the representatives from Coca-Cola) claimed is only through the state. The Colombian Government, through the Ministry of the Interior has forced this protection (to be implemented),” Correa said.

Ott spoke about the company’s practices in India, and said that the company has recently taken an initiative to work with local communities to reduce the pollutant and toxin concentration both in products and the environment surrounding the bottling factories.

“The company has a set standard worldwide, regardless of the local standards. If our standard and the local standard conflict, we go with the more stringent,” Ott said.

Ahmed Srivastiva, a member of an anti-globalization activist organization called Indian Resource Group said that Coca-Cola had taken some action to implement reform, but said that much of its initiative was taken only after orders from Indian courts.

“By omitting references to some very, very important court decisions, and government actions … a great campaign of misinformation is being carried out by the Coca-Cola Company,” Srivastiva said.

After the forum, Coca-Cola representatives denied the allegations presented by the opposition groups at the meeting.

 

The Killer Coke coalition, a group of students rallying for University divestment from the Coca-Cola Company, has accused the soft drink giant of many human rights violations.

The Killer Coke coalition:

-Coke uses paramilitaries to intimidate workers in their Colombia bottling plants

Coca-Cola:

-The company bargains with workers in the Colombian bottling plants to insure fair wages, benefits and health and safety standards

The Killer Coke coalition:

-Coke’s plants are contributing to pollution in India

Coca-Cola:

-The company is working with local communities to reduce pollutants and improve conditions

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