Coke hires firm to examine bottlers in Colombia, elsewhere

For years, critics have been calling on Coca-Cola to launch an investigation into allegations that the company has been involved in anti-union violence at its bottling plants in Colombia. And for years, the Atlanta-based company has vigorously denied the allegations.

But in the next few months, Coke will release "summary" results of a worldwide audit of its bottlers, including bottlers in Colombia. While the timing may make it seem like the company is finally giving credence to critics' accusations, a Coke spokeswoman says the audit is part of a long-planned project to "assess and, where necessary, seek to enhance the model for providing industry-leading operations and work environments for all of our employees in our entire system."

Lori Billingsley, the spokeswoman, says Cal Safety Compliance Corp. - the company conducting the audit - has already done work for Coke in examining workplace conditions of Coke's suppliers, so it's a natural next step for Cal Safety to look at bottlers.

"It's something we've been looking to do for a while," Billingsley says. Cal Safety analysts will evaluate wages and hours, facility security, collective bargaining, and other workplace conditions.

Perhaps not surprisingly, critics believe that no impartial and thorough study can be conducted when the firm doing the investigation is being paid by the company being investigated.

"You have to be suspect because Coke is hiring [Cal Safety]," says Ray Rogers, director of the national Campaign to Stop Killer Coke. "We wanted them to go to human rights organizations inside Colombia and do an independent investigation. By the very nature of Coke paying some outfit that does corporate work raises serious questions about the legitimacy of anything they do."

Rogers expects the final report will criticize Coca-Cola in some areas, "but in terms of real damaging stuff, it'll probably be a whitewash."

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