Unreal thing

IssueDecember 2002 - February 2003
Feature by PN staff

There are many reasons not to drink Coca-Cola, but this most symbolic of drinks has yet to face a coordinated boycott campaign. However, it is now facing a combination of court cases and international public hearings accusing it of employing paramilitaries to kill and harass trade unionists in Colombia.

Seven Colombian trade union negotiators working for companies associated with Coca Cola have been killed, mostly in the mid-1990s, but there are currently around 50 who have been threatened and union meetings have been broken up. Therefore, on behalf of the Colombian union Sinaltrainal, the US Steelworkers' Union and the International Labour Rights Fund have taken out a law-suit in the USA against Coca Cola, accusing Coca Cola's Colombian operations of using paramilitaries against trade unionists. At the moment the legal wrangles continue as to whether this case falls under the jurisdiction of US courts.

Coca-Cola deny the accusations, but point out that their operations in Colombia have suffered from the killing of employees, burning of trucks and extortion by left-wing armed groups. Coca Cola distributors have dropped three per-cent of their buyers and, because of guerrilla activity, are unable to operate in more than 80 municipalities in Colombia.

In addition to the legal case, Sinaltrainal has organised two public hearings so far this year - one in Atlanta, Georgia, and the other in Brussels on 12 October - with a third planned for Bogota' on 5 December. These appeal to the public to make their own judgement about the operations of the multi-national Coca Cola and also of the Colombian state against trade unionists.

In additions to harassment, Sinaltrainal criticises Coca-Cola for the fact that 76 per cent of the workers in its Colombian operations are part-time, to avoid giving them benefits. It calls for a change of attitude from Coke: respect for human rights, investment in local communities and social development, and avoiding harmful ingredients.

The multinational corporations operating in Colombia have so far shown more concern about guerrilla violence than about the violence and human rights violations of the state and the paramilitaries. Yet they are susceptible to international pressure and bad press coverage. Shell pulled out of drilling on U'wa land, ICI withdrew an ingredient from the spray used in fumigations, and Chiquita (formerly the United Fruit Company) has negotiated a new deal accepting trade union rights.

What will happen with Coke?