Colombians and the Other Kind of Coke
by Lissa Rees
May 3, 2003
While our TV screens are full of images of the Middle East, a war is being waged on the quiet against workers on the other side of the world, according to union activists from Colombia. Trade unionists at the third Latin America Solidarity Organizing Conference, from 10th - 15th April in Washington DC, described the fears of workers faced with worsening human rights abuses and appealed for support for a worldwide boycott of Coca Cola to be launched in July that aims to put pressure on the company to address a series of bloody crimes at its bottling plants.
Javier Correa, President of Sinaltrainal (the Colombian Food and Beverage Workers Union) and Fernando Velez, a member of the Executive Committee of
Sintraestatales (the State Workers Union) said life is increasingly difficult for labor activists in the Andean country, where 1,900 trade unionists have been assassinated since 1990 -- 184 unionists in 2002 alone. The murders have yet to be investigated and the government colludes in allowing abuses to continue with impunity.
The paramilitaries responsible for attacks maintain open relationships with management, and are permitted to freely enter workplaces and terrorize employees, said Correa. Workers and their families live in fear of death threats, kidnapping and murder in a campaign aimed at destabilizing unions and discouraging employees from organizing to improve working conditions.
"I am terrified of going back there," said Jose Luis Cortes, a member of CUT (the Unitary Workers Federation), who spoke from the audience. "There are thousands of Colombians like me, who are in hiding." He has been living in the US for almost a year under a union protection program but will be returning to Colombia in the next few weeks. "I have to go back because my two little girls are there," he said.
Transnationals like Coca Cola benefit from cheap labor in Colombia, where employees are paid as little as $70 per month. However, the company may soon be forced to respond to accusations of complicity in human rights abuses that may have helped to maintain the rock-bottom costs of employing Colombians to bottle the ubiquitous soft drink. A lawsuit was filed in Miami in July 2001 by Sinaltrainal and the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) against Coca Cola, Panamerican Beverages (the largest soft drink bottler in Latin America) and Bebidas y Alimentos, who operate the Carepa plant where 28 year-old Isidro Segundo Gil worked before he was murdered by paramilitaries in 1996 -- one of at least five union leaders who have been killed at the same factory.
Sinaltrainal and the ILRF say 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." Coca Cola say the allegations are based on "a political agenda."
On 30th March of this year, U.S. District Court Judge Jose E. Martinez decided that Coca Cola's agreement with bottlers "doesn't give the company control over the plant where the murder (of Gil) happened," but that the case can go ahead against Panamerican Beverages and American-owned Bebidas y Alimentos.
Daniel Kovalik, attorney for the Plaintiffs in the case, commented, "The Judge has dismissed Coca-Cola and Coca-Cola Colombia from the lawsuit, we think prematurely. We are asking the Judge to reconsider or to certify this decision for appeal to the higher court. We are optimistic on this score. However, regardless, the case is proceeding against the other Defendants."
Colombian and US activists are also condemning US support of Colombian armed forces through the now multi-billion military aid package Plan Colombia, originally launched by President Clinton and substantially increased by the current Bush administration. Close links between the army and paramilitary groups have been widely documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
There are around 300 different Coca Cola brands sold around the world. For a full list, go to: www.cocacola.com
For more info about
And on the boycott of Coca Cola: www.killercoke.org
Lissa Rees is a freelance writer from London based in Miami, Florida, who writes on social issues, especially in Latin America. Her articles have appeared in New Internationalist and Red Pepper. She is currently working on a documentary film about US foreign policy in Colombia and Ecuador. She can be reached at: Herman_melissa@hotmail.com