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Students vs. Coke: Group presses University of Waterloo not to renew contract with Coca-Cola

By Barbara Aggerholm
Waterloo Record
February 19, 2007

A group of University of Waterloo students is joining an international lobby to convince universities to kick Coca-Cola off campus.

Members of Students Against Sweatshops want UW not to renew its contract to sell Coke and Coke products.

Alleging labour and human-rights violations and environmental abuses in other countries, particularly in Colombia and India, the group wants Coke to be off-limits.

The campaign raises awareness among consumers about making ethical choices when they buy a product, the group says.

"Students can use their buying power to try to pressure companies to change their labour practices in other countries," said Magda Karski, a second-year psychology student at UW and a member of the group.

The UW group joins students on campuses across United States and Canada, including University of Guelph and McMaster University in Hamilton, which are lobbying against Coke.

The campaign is timely.

Coke's contracts with UW, University of Guelph and University of Windsor expire in August, when they'll go to tender.

"Sure, it will be an issue...on the radar screen, but as to what's determined, we're far from being able to say that," said Bud Walker, director of UW's business operations.

At U of G, students will vote soon on a referendum asking them to support a switch to an "alternative ethical beverage supplier," said Becky Wallace, academic commissioner of the Cental Student Association.

And at McMaster University, students are trying to convince administrators not to renew a longtime contract that gives Coke a monopoly on campus.

This month, a small but determined group of UW students set up an anti-Coke information booth in the busy Student Life Centre.

Paper footprints leading from a Coke vending machine to their booth directed the interest of lunching students.

"We'd like the university as a whole to say that, ethically, we shouldn't have Coke on campus until they (Coke officials) comply with four demands as part of an international campaign," said third-year Spanish student Miriam Papps, a member of UW's Students Against Sweatshops.

She said the giant beverage company should admit to alleged abuses, have independent third-party investigations into allegations, compensate people affected, and adopt a global code of conduct.

"We want students to at least know about it," said Saad Khan, a third-year economics student and member of the group. "Even if they don't care, they should at least get some idea of what's going on in the world."

Among the allegations, Papps and student activists at other campuses cite concerns that paramilitary groups killed union leaders at Coke's bottling partners in Colombia; and that Coke's factories in India caused severe water shortages for rural communities.

They point to at least nine websites they say give ample evidence of problems with Coke, including one featuring a campaign by American anti-Coke activist Ray Rogers.

In the past, Rogers has made presentations at Canadian campuses, including U of G and McMaster.

Coca-Cola spokesperson David Moran said allegations are false. The company has set up a website of its own (www.cokefacts.com).

"The concerns that are brought forward by...students or administrators or customers, it's something that we take seriously, and we want to make sure that we're addressing their concerns," said Moran, Coca-Cola's director of communications in Toronto.

Moran said there have been two independent inquiries that "turned up nothing" in Colombia.

What's more, "the vast majority of the unions there are very much in support of the company and what it's doing and thinks that these allegations are unfounded and really more harmful...to their employment than trying to help anything," he said.

Moran said Coke has "reached out" to the International Labor Organization's independent investigation in Colombia.

And in India, the company has brought in local and global experts to assess the impact of Coke's plants on water use, Moran said.

"At the same time, we're bringing in rainwater barrels in terms of making sure we're minimizing our water use. We've asked (an expert) to come in and do an independent investigation of our water use, the impact on the local community and everything that's going on."

Random surprise audits of water at Coke bottling plants are underway, he said.

Papps questions the legitimacy of the International Labor Organization's investigation, given Coke's involvement with it.

Papps' group, which is connected to the Waterloo Public Interest Research Group, is asking UW students to sign a petition opposing beverage exclusivity contracts like the one between Coke and McMaster University.

Exclusivity contracts force students to support companies "with shady environmental and human rights records internationally," the petition says.

While University of Waterloo does have a Coke contract, it is not an exclusive one, Walker said.

Ten years ago, when universities like McMaster University and University of British Columbia were signing exclusive deals, UW rejected the idea, he said.

Those deals meant every soft drink sold on campus had to be from the Coca-Cola line. Coke products include: Powerade, Minute Maid, Nestea, Fruitopia, Five Alive, Fresca and Sprite.

Walker said UW's contract with Coke has three parts: the cola beverage itself is sold exclusively in food-service outlets, but not at athletic facilities and bars.

Only Coke products are sold in food services vending machines. A choice of juices and waters, not just Coke products, is offered in food service outlets. Half the products must be Coke, though.

Walker said UW, U of G and University of Windsor will consider service, product range, price and acceptability by the student market when they award the new contract.

"Coke and Pepsi are highly accepted products for that age group," he said.

"I haven't noticed people drinking less Coke on campus."

In fact, Coke sales are up from last year, he said. UW's total annual sales of Coca-Cola products, including carbonated beverages, juices, sports drinks and water, is $1.2 million.

Walker said he'll listen to students' concerns.

But, he said, the bottom line is Coke has not been convicted of wrongdoing in Colombia. And he knows of no other legal reason to pull the plug on Coca-Cola today.

"The situation is anything but clear," Walker said. "We'll analyze it and keep tabs on what's happening....It's not something you should make a knee-jerk reaction on.

"We usually take the position if the law is not acting on it, it's not our position to take action on it outside that framework."

Papps, who met with Walker last week, wants students to vote in a referendum on whether they want Coke booted off campus.

"He (Walker) is going to need a lot of convincing," she said. The group will gather more information, educate students and gain student support. "This is really important to us."

McMaster University students voted in a 2005 referendum to dump Coke. Now, all they have to do is convince administrators, said Hayley Watson, a third-year McMaster student who is president of Campus Choice, the anti-Coke group there.

McMaster's exclusive 10-year contract with Coke, believed to be worth $6 million to the university, is up for renegotiation this year, she said.

Watson said students and some administrators are listening to the concerns.

She pointed to Swarthmore College, a top liberal-arts college in the U.S., which just decided to remove bottled Coca-Cola products from some of its dining facilities.

At the same time, Swarthmore College is calling on Coca-Cola "to permit an independent investigation into allegations of complicity in anti-union violence in Colombia," says a press release on the college's website.

At University of Guelph, the student union cut its contract with Coke three years ago, Wallace said. Today, U of G's administration is "open to exploring other options," she said.

David Moeckner, executive director of U of G's hospitality services, said the public tender for the new contract will go out to everyone, including Coke.

"If Coke or Pepsi or any supplier is convicted, we'd take a hard look. To date, we haven't had any of that situation," he said.

"If we start with one supplier without proof of conviction, at the end of the day, how many other suppliers will we have to eliminate based on unfounded accusations?"

Moeckner recommended students boycott Coke products if they feel strongly about the issue. "If our sales were going through the floor, we'd be concerned."

As it stands now, "our sales are up, not down."

Coke's Moran is philosophical about the campaigns. Students are inquisitive by nature, he said.

"Our response is, let us provide you with all the facts and information that we have."

But Wallace said students want action.

"I think students are getting even more frustrated that this is going on, and we haven't seen Coke address the issue," she said.

"We don't want to see another glossy Coca-Cola campaign. If they're not willing to do it, we don't want their products sold on campus."

UW Ethical Policies Target Apparel Suppliers

University of Waterloo quizzes its apparel suppliers about their labour practices before allowing them on campus.

The university requires such suppliers to sign a document after they answer a number of questions, including whether their factories undergo "third-party visible inspection of standards."

"UW is committed to contracting with apparel suppliers who uphold just labour practices as established by statute/adopted by convention by the government(s) of their respective countries and whose contractors do likewise," the document says.

The contracting guidelines apply only to apparel suppliers.

The guidelines have existed since about 2001 when students in Canada and the United States were raising strong concerns about apparel sweatshops, said Bud Walker, director of UW's business operations.

There was no issue then with beverage suppliers such as Coca-Cola, Walker said.

Walker said UW is concerned about the ethical practices of companies with which it deals.

"If we find out that companies have committed any acts and have a bad image...we simply aren't going to deal with them, whether we have a set of requirements or not."

He said the guidelines have never resulted in a supplier being rejected by UW.

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