At KillerCoke's Website You'll find a raft of information on Coke and its bottlers' operations in Colombia. There is extensive documentation of rampant violence committed against Coke's unionized workforce by paramilitary forces, and powerful claims of the company's complicity in the violence.
An April 2004 report from a fact-finding delegation headed by New York City Council Member Hiram Monserrate contends:
“To date, there have been a total of 179 major human rights violations of Coca-Cola's workers, including nine murders. Family members of union activists have been abducted and tortured. Union members have been fired for attending union meetings. The company has pressured workers to resign their union membership and contractual rights, and fired workers who refused to do so.”
“Most troubling to the delegation were the persistent allegations that paramilitary violence against workers was done with the knowledge of and likely under the direction of company managers. The physical access that paramilitaries have had to Coca-Cola bottling plants is impossible without company knowledge and/or tacit approval. Shockingly, company officials admitted to the delegation that they had never investigated the ties between plant managers and paramilitaries. The company's inaction and its ongoing refusal to take any responsibility for the human rights crisis faced by its workforce in Colombia demonstrates — at best — disregard for the lives of its workers.”
“Coca-Cola's complicity in the situation is deepened by its repeated pattern of bringing criminal charges against union activists who have spoken out about the company's collusion with paramilitaries. These charges have been dismissed without merit on several occasions.”
Allegations such as these formed the basis of a lawsuit filed in 2001 by the International Labor Rights Fund and the United Steelworkers of America in U.S. courts against Coke on behalf of a Colombian trade union and union leader victims of violence at Coke bottling facilities in Colombia.
In 2003, a federal court dismissed the claims against Coke, arguing that its relationship with the owners of the Coke bottling plant in Colombia was too attenuated to hold the soft drink multinational responsible for human rights abuses at the plant. The plaintiffs have since re-filed their complaint — they argue the original decision was mistaken, but that Coke's subsequent purchase of the Colombia bottlers means the company is now clearly responsible for the bottlers' actions.
Strangely, for the response to KillerCoke.org, you can check out CokeKills.org . That site, which is operated by Coke, redirects you to Cokefacts.org .
Here's what Coke has to say:
“Colombia is a dangerous place, but The Coca-Cola Company and its bottling partners will continue to do everything they can to keep employees safe.”
“The pervasive violence in Colombia, and the targeting of union members by its perpetrators, has, unfortunately, touched The Coca-Cola Company in a very personal way. Employees of our Company and bottling partners in Colombia have been threatened, kidnapped, and some have even been murdered. Among them was Isidro Gil, who was on security duty at a bottling facility in Carepa in December 1996 when he was shot at the plant gate. In a lawsuit in Colombia, the court concluded that the bottler not only took proper steps to initiate investigation by the authorities, but went further to enhance its workers' safety by heightening security at the plant. In the United States, The Coca-Cola Company was dismissed from a lawsuit concerning, among other things, Mr. Gil's murder.”
“In the midst of the violence plaguing Colombia, The Coca-Cola Company and its bottling partners have instituted special safeguards to protect employees — not just while they're on the job. For those at greatest risk, the security measures extend beyond the workplace.”
“The Coca-Cola Company and Coca-Cola FEMSA [the Colombia subsidiary] believe that respect for human rights and labor rights are non-negotiable, fundamental values. We operate our businesses in Colombia and throughout the world according to these values.”
The back-and-forth is rather detailed. We find the claims of the advocates for Coke's Colombian workers most persuasive.
Leave aside for the moment the issue of Coke's legal liability. The idea that Coke can't control the behavior of its bottlers is simply implausible. It can control them if it so chooses — just the way that clothing retailers can control the actions of their manufacturers, but even more so.
Instructive in raising questions about Coke's good-faith concern for its workers is its unwillingness to support an independent investigation into the Colombia allegations — even after the company's former General Counsel, and the former assistant U.S. attorney general, Deval Patrick, had committed to one. Coke's refusal to authorize an investigation reportedly contributed to Patrick's decision to resign from the corporation.
Even more instructive is Coke's refusal to agree to “Seven Points for Settlement” put forward by the Colombian union and its advocates. These are reasonable points to which the company could agree without accepting blame for the abuses committed at the bottling plants. Completely apart from the litigation and the campaign against Coke, these are points to which the company should agree if it wants to clamp down on violence in the bottling plants. They include:
In Colombia, denounce anti-union violence, assert that anti-union violence is bad for business, and indicate the company's belief that the union is not connected to armed groups in Colombia.
Agree to support the creation of an independent committee to which workers can submit complaints about anti-union violence and intimidation at or around any Coca-Cola bottling plant.
Investigate connections between local Coke management in Colombia and paramilitaries, and remove any managers with such ties.
End criminal harassment charges in Colombia against plaintiffs in the lawsuit and other union leaders.
Compensate victims of anti-union violence.
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