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Cola wars strike close to home

The Lethbridge Herald
Issue: 3/23/05

Management students at the University of Lethbridge may well be scratching their heads about just how far the arm of a multinational corporation can reach.

Last week students in the International Management Experience (IME) program had to change their plans so their annual fundraiser wouldn't violate the terms of the university's contract with Coca-Cola.

This week, the students heard how the same multinational is trying to distance itself from alleged human rights violations in Colombia.

IME students planned to raise money for the Green Acres Foundation by selling special ticket packages to a Hurricane hockey game and through money raised by a Pepsi bottle toss during the game. The Enmax Centre has a contract with Pepsi. The problem was advertising for the fundraiser featured the university and Pepsi logos. So the Pepsi logo was a no-go.

"We met with Coke and worked out an arrangement as to how our students could continue with their project and yet not violate the contract. Coke was very, very good about that," said Nancy Walker, U of L finance and administration vice-president.

The university and the Students' Union have signed 10-year exclusivity contracts which dictate Coke-only products will be sold on campus. Such contracts are quite common and contract details are confidential, although Walker and SU general manager, Jon Oxley, say there is a financial benefit for students.

Tuesday, the Faculty of Management and the Lethbridge Public Interest Group, a student organization funded by students, sponsored a talk by an International Labour Rights Fund (ILRF) lawyer who works on cases to hold multinationals accountable for human rights violations. His topic? A lawsuit filed in the United States against Coca-Cola by the ILRF and the United Steelworkers of America on behalf of the Colombian union representing Coke workers and some members who have been murdered, tortured and unlawfully detained.

The talk didn't violate the university's contract with Coke because that's a matter of academic freedom and freedom of speech, Walker said.

The lawsuit alleges human rights violations occurred at bottling plants contracted by Coca-Cola in Colombia.

Coca-Cola said in a statement the allegations are false and it's outrageous to believe it would have anything to do with that kind of behaviour.

Derek Baxter, assistant general counsel to the ILRF, said Colombia has the worst record for killing union leaders. The ILRF is seeking to have the U.S. judicial system intervene using a law that allows foreigners to sue in U.S. courts for very serious violations of international law.

The lawsuit was launched in 2001 and, while a judge's decision was mixed, the case is proceeding.

"The judge ruled the case can proceed against the Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia," Baxter said.

In the judge's opinion, the ILRF hadn't proved Coca-Cola has direct control over labour relations at the bottling plants and shouldn't thus be held responsible.

The ILRF plans to appeal and argue Coca-Cola has wide control over its bottling plants.

Coca-Cola says judicial inquiries in Colombia have found no evidence of wrongdoing and, along with Coca-Cola being dismissed as a defendant, it's confident the court will find no evidence against its bottlers.

Baxter said Coke could fix the problem if it wanted to.

"Clearly these companies are created to serve Coke," Baxter said. "If Coke wanted to send a powerful human rights message to fix these problems it certainly could."

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