Saturday, April 29, 2006

Of Bored Protesters and Coca-Cola

Wow, almost a week since my last post. How time flies.

Anyway, while browsing around this evening, I came across an editorial from the Daily Bruin questioning the wisdom of recent protests aimed at banning the sale of Coca-Cola products on the University of California Los Angeles campus. Since I had heard about similar attempts at other universities, but didn't exactly know why anyone would bother trying to ban Coke, I decided to read up and do a little digging.

From the Daily Bruin article found here:

When Associated Students UCLA representatives speak at their monthly board meetings, the room is usually relatively quiet.

But at the ASUCLA board of directors' meeting this past Friday, it was hard to hear their voices over the shouts and cheers of about 20 students demonstrating outside Kerckhoff Hall and the muffled murmurs of another 50 or so students gathered on both sides of Kerckhoff Stateroom.

Ah, always a great way to start a debate. Protesting loudly and disrupting proceedings are always a great way to express a point of view.

Representatives from Coca-Cola presented information at the meeting, stating the company's position in a debate over Coca-Cola's alleged human rights violations abroad.

ASUCLA officials said they wanted to use the meeting to understand both sides of the dispute, and eventually come to a decision on whether to continue selling Coca-Cola products on campus, though no decision was made Friday and no specific date for the decision has been set.

Sounds perfectly reasonable. Both sides speak and there's plenty of time for the board to come to a decision, if one needs to be reached at all.

The commotion at the meeting was caused by Coke-Free Campus, a student coalition protesting the sale of Coca-Cola products on campus because they maintain the company is violating human rights.

The student organization met with board members at the board's last meeting on March 10 to present their allegations of Coca-Cola's engagement in inhumane practices against its workers at Colombian bottling plants.

Too bad common courtesy apparently didn't make an appearance at the meeting. And what are the alleged human rights violations, you might be asking?

At the last meeting, they claimed The Coca-Cola Company had allowed its workers in Colombia to be murdered, detained and tortured without investigation by their employers.

Interesting, if true. fills in the details on the allegations:

Isidro Segundo Gil, an employee at a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Colombia, was killed at his workplace by paramilitary thugs. His children, now living in hiding with relatives, understand all too well why their homeland is known as "a country where union work is like carrying a tombstone on your back."

A chilling description of Gil's assassination, based on eyewitness accounts, is the centerpiece of a lawsuit filed in Miami in July 2001 against Coca-Cola, Panamerican Beverages (the largest soft drink bottler in Latin America) and Bebidas y Alimentos (a bottler owned by Richard Kirby of Key Biscayne, Fla., which operates the plant in which Gil was killed.

In the lawsuit, Gil's union, Sinaltrainal, the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) and the United Steelworkers of America assert that the Coke bottlers "contracted with or otherwise directed paramilitary security forces that utilized extreme violence and murdered, tortured, unlawfully detained or otherwise silenced trade union leaders."

Again, interesting if true. Unfortunately, didn't bother posting any evidence that actually links the killings to the Coca-Cola management, so for all their allegations the argument is really a moot point. Columbia is a dangerous country, overrun by various paramilitary groups of all ideological colors, and most of them are involved in organized crime and the drug trade. Without hard proof, I'm loathe to point the finger at managers simply because of ideological beliefs. But that's not all the Killercoke people are upset about:

At Coca-Cola’s bottling facility in Kala Dera, near Jaipur, Rajasthan [India], the sinking water table has created water shortages for over 50 villages. Over 2,000 people marched in August 2004 to protest Coca-Cola’s practices.

And there were also allegations of prodcuct contamination:

One of India's leading voluntary agencies, the Center for Science and Environment (CSE) said Tuesday that soft drinks manufactured in India, including those carrying the Pepsi and Coca-Cola brand names, contain unacceptably high levels of pesticide residues.

The CSE analyzed samples from 12 major soft drink manufacturers that are sold in and around the capital at its laboratories and found that all of them contained residues of four extremely toxic pesticides and insecticides--lindane, DDT, malathion and chlorpyrifos.

"In all the samples tested, the levels of pesticide residue far exceeded the maximum permissible total pesticide limit of 0.0005 mg per liter in water used as food, set down by the European Economic Commission (EEC)," said Sunita Narain, director of the CSE at a press conference convened to announce the findings.

The level of chlorpyrifos was 42 times higher than EEC norms, their study showed. Malathion residues were 87 times higher and lindane--recently banned in the United States--21 times higher, CSE scientists said.

On the other hand, the Indian government tested samples shortly after the CSE report came out, and found that, "tests of samples of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo products showed that they conformed to safety standards." So much for that problem.

I'm just not seeing justification for boycotting Coca-Cola products. Coke can't be held responsible for the state of unrest in Columbia, and knee-jerk protesters voicing unlikely allegations about Coke murdering union sympathizers fails to rouse my indignation. As for localized problems in India, so what if one or two plants have bad relations with the locals? That's for the communities and government to deal with.

Some people just have too much time on their hands, I swear.

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