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USAS Statement on the Commission Process to Investigate Coca-Cola in Colombia

Since the campaign against Coca-Cola for human rights violations in Colombia started, students have been demanding an independent investigation in Colombia. Administrators in some universities have said that they will not cut or renew contracts until this investigation occurs. However, Coca-Cola has been adamant in refusing to cooperate with an independent investigation- even going so far as to hire the for-profit monitoring agency, Cal-Safety, which has a track record of missing egregious violations in high profile cases such as in the case in El Monte California, the most infamous incident of sweatshop abuse in modern American history. (see the USAS cal-safety report)

As the campaign has grown in strength and scope, Coca-Cola has shifted from refusing to even meet with college administrators to flying around the country and trying to put out the "fires" of student activism. They have failed at doing so. However, Coca-Cola is currently engaged in a process with certain administrators to try to resolve the current issues. A meeting in Washington DC, on May 6, 2005, set up a commission to discuss a truly independent investigation. Students were dismayed to find that four persons on the payroll of Coca-Cola would be participants of the Commission meeting on July 7 in Chicago. Students demanded that if the investigation is to be truly independent, Coca-Cola cannot be part of either the planning process or the financial support. Students have made the following demands regarding the investigation in Colombia:

1. This commission cannot include Coca-Cola or anyone with ties to Coca-Cola

2. The investigation cannot include any individuals who have ties to Coca-Cola Atlanta

3. The investigation must be paid for by universities, there can be absolutely no funding or involvement from Coca-Cola Atlanta or anyone with ties to Coca-Cola

4. The investigation must be finished by OCTOBER

5. The investigation in Colombia must include both CURRENT and PAST issues: issues relating to the present lawsuit MAY NOT BE EXCLUDED from the investigation- as these are some of the most egregious violations of our codes and also some of the most contentious issues in this case. This includes issues such as the murders, torture and kidnapping of union workers.

6. The investigation must include at least two student representatives, chosen by the students themselves

7. The investigation cannot include the Fair Labor Association-- a corporate sponsored organization that is currently involved in a case in Indonesia in which the FLA is providing a cover for Eddie Bauer's refusal to take responsibility for over a million U.S. dollars in severance and back pay that is due to workers.

It was only after strong presentations by student activists from Hofstra, the University of Michigan, Indiana University, and Depaul University at the July 7th meeting, that administrators agreed that Coca-Cola would not be involved in future meetings.

However, there are a number of key issues that are still hotly contested:

1. Coca-Cola claims that it does not have the power to convince Coke/FEMSA (the bottling company) to cooperate with an investigation.

Coca-Cola has the power to demand cooperation by its bottling plants, but not the will. Efforts by multinational firms to deflect responsibility for the labor practices of their subcontractors have been largely discredited in recent years, especially with respect to the USAS and WRC model. After nearly a decade of pressure from anti-sweatshop activists, for example, Nike and most other major apparel companies now claim some level of responsibility for all of the workers in their supply chains. Universities have even sought to address the issue by explicitly stating in their codes of conduct that the policy "shall apply to each of the licensee's contractors." Brands have forced their sub-contractors to change labor practices in factories where they are only sourcing 5-10% of the total production. Coca-Cola's claim that it does not have power over its bottling plants is an excuse- one that students and administrators should not accept.

Moreover, Coca-Cola requires all companies granted the right to bottle its products to submit to a "Bottler's Agreement," giving Coca-Cola authority to evaluate and demand changes in its practices up to the smallest detail. According to Coca-Cola's 10-K report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in December in the U.S. of 2000, for example, "Coca-Cola must approve the types of container used in bottling and controls the design and decoration of the bottles, boxes, cartons, stamps, and other materials used in production." The Agreement also includes requirements for employee qualification and appearance and requires bottlers to adhere to Coca-Cola's own code of conduct for the treatment of employees. Coca-Cola has the right to terminate or suspend any bottling relationship for non-compliance with the Agreement's conditions. This arrangement suggests, contrary to the company's claims, that Coca-Cola in fact has a great deal of power over its contrac tors to ensure responsible practices.

Indeed, Coca-Cola has in the past used its Bottler's Agreements as a basis for intervening to protect workers' rights. When a similar wave of murders against trade unionists occurred in Coca-Cola bottling plants in Guatemala during the 1980's, Coca-Cola was able to stem the violence by forcing an independently owned franchise, whom workers charged was responsible for the attacks, to sell its business to a third party. Coca-Cola has demonstrated that it has the power to intervene in order to ensure workers' safety - it is only a matter of its will do so.

2. Coca-Cola says that including issues from the lawsuit would be a "non-starter" for the investigation.

Coca-Cola is extremely careful not to allow this current effort for an independent investigation to interfere in the current lawsuit against Coke/FEMSA and PANAMCO and the potential lawsuit against Coca-Cola (Atlanta). However, it is imperative that the investigation's scope include the murders and tortures of trade unionists in Colombia. These are the very issues that have always been at the center of the campaign. How can we resolve this case if we are to exclude from its scope the very issues at hand? The point of resolution is for Coca-Cola to take responsibility for what has gone on in its bottling plants and to change the situation. In order for this investigation to be legitimate and successful, the commission must not be swayed by Coca-Cola's attempts to avoid accepting responsibility for past human rights violations.

3. Coca-Cola needs to develop a policy to deal with social responsibility that is accountable to workers and that allows for truly independent monitoring.

Coca-Cola needs to agree to a comprehensive change in its social responsibility program that includes transparency, accountability to the workers and communities in which they do business, and access to their facilities for independent monitors. Until we can create a system to hold Coca-Cola accountable, we will continue to see cases such as the one in Colombia that take years to resolve.

4. This process must happen in a timely manner.

Excessive meetings are not necessary and are a known stall tactic of the Coca-Cola company. The members of this commission must do their part to ensure that time is not wasted in this process by setting meetings in a timely and responsible manner. There is obviously a lot of work to be done by this commission, but the length of the process has the possibility of being greatly amplified by unnecessary processes. The main objective of this commission must be to facilitate the creation of an investigation into Coca-Cola's labor and social responsibility practices; any other tasks should be considered distractions and should be dealt with on non-commission time. We must agree on a strict timeline and stick to it in order to resolve the matters at hand.

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