By HARRY R. WEBER
AP BUSINESS WRITER
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
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
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 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
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
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
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