Coca-Cola Vows to Change Perception Abroad
By Harry R. Weber
Associated Press
April 19, 2005

ATLANTA -- The Coca-Cola Co. vowed Tuesday to change the perception of people who still believe it permits abusive practices abroad, a tough sell to some shareholders who bombarded the world's biggest beverage company with questions about human rights and water depletion.

At his first annual meeting since taking over the Atlanta-based company's top post, chief executive Neville Isdell had his hands full pushing through Coke's routine business of the day. The meeting was in Wilmington, Del.

Shareholders didn't want to talk about re-electing the board of directors or appointing an independent auditor. Instead, they questioned Isdell about issues he's heard before, namely the killings of several union workers at Coke bottling plants in Colombia and accusations that some of Coke's plants in India have depleted local groundwater.

Isdell said Coke has not done anything wrong in the two countries, noting that government inquiries in Colombia have dismissed the accusations that Coke was complicit in the deaths by failing to protect workers there. He also said a high court in India has sided with Coke over the water dispute. Even so, Isdell conceded that the company's best efforts to put the questions to rest have not been successful. Last year's annual meeting also descended into questions about alleged abuses abroad.

"As long as anyone continues to believe these allegations, we're going to take them seriously" and work to change people's perceptions, Isdell said.

Isdell turned down a request from one angry shareholder representative to have a face-to-face debate with him, saying "I get many of those (requests) and I respectfully decline that at this point in time." Later, he said the company will engage "anybody who believes, even though they're wrong, the accusations."

Outside the hotel where the meeting was held, about 25 protesters gathered. Some carried signs and banners and chanted anti-Coke slogans such as "Workers don't get what they need, all because of corporate greed."

Amit Srivastava, an activist with the India Resource Center, noted that leaders in one Indian village have refused to allow a Coca-Cola plant there to reopen. The plant has been shut down for over a year now because the village council has refused to renew the company's license because they believe it is depleting the village water supply.

"The good news is that people in India really have started to organize themselves to hold Coca-Cola accountable," Srivastava said.

The protesters represented campus groups from several colleges and universities that have been working to ban the sale of Coke on their campuses.

Carrying a bullhorn, Ryan Bates, 21, a University of Michigan political science major, said "Coca-Cola is putting the value of profits over the values of human dignity, lives and communities."

According to preliminary voting results released during the meeting, three shareholder proposals, including one that would have restricted compensation for current executives and another that would have restricted severance packages given to departing executives, were rejected.

Coca-Cola shares rose $1.77, or 4.3 percent, to $42.74 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares have traded in a range of $38.30 and $53.50.

Associated Press Writer Randall Chase contributed to this report from Wilmington, Del.

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