The Multinational Monitor


September 2001 - VOLUME 22 - NUMBER 9

T H E    F R O N T

Coke Abuse in Colombia

Coca-Cola and its associates are responsible for “the systematic intimidation, kidnapping, detention and murder” of union members working at the company’s Colombia bottling plants, charges a labor coalition in a July lawsuit.

The United Steel Workers Union and the International Labor Rights Fund joined forces with a Colombian union to file suit against Coca-Cola, its Latin American bottler and two Key Biscayne, Florida investors who own a bottling company in Colombia. The suit was filed in a federal court in Miami.

Coke, which denies the allegations, has until October 23 to file a formal response.

The case was initiated by SINALTRAINAL (the National Union of Food Industry Workers, in Colombia), which alleges the company’s Colombian partners maintain open relations with murderous death squads as part of a strategy to intimidate trade union leaders. Five union members working in Coke bottling plants in Colombia have been killed since 1994.

In June, one union worker — Oscar Polo — was shot to death as he was walking in the street with his youngest daughter. Polo had been involved at the time in negotiations with the management of Coke’s plant in Monertia, Cordoba province, over proposals to provide security to trade unionists under threat.

The lawsuit also alleges that, in 1994, paramilitary forces murdered two SINALTRAINAL members, Jose David and Luis Granado, and then presented the rest of the workforce with an ultimatum to either resign from the union or flee Carepa, where the bottling facility is located.

“The management of Bebidas y Alimentos [the Carepa bottling company] permitted these paramilitary forces to appear within the plant to deliver this message to union members and leaders,” the plaintiffs allege.

Colombia holds the infamous distinction of being ranked number one in the world for the number of trade union leaders murdered each year. According to Amnesty International, at least 112 trade unionists were executed in the country last year.

Although it is widely agreed that right-wing paramilitaries are doing most of the killing of Colombian union activists, it is less clear who is ordering the killings. The SINALTRAINAL suit is the first to link a North American multinational to such atrocities in the country.

A spokesperson for Coke at its headquarters in Atlanta referred Multinational Monitor to the company’s spokesperson in Colombia.
“We vigorously deny any wrongdoing regarding human rights violations in Colombia and are deeply concerned by these allegations against our company,” says Pablo Largacha, spokesperson for Coca-Cola de Colombia. “We have been and continue to be assured by our bottlers that behavior such as that depicted in the claim has in no way been instigated, carried out or condoned by these bottling companies.”

Lawyers for the plaintiffs say that Coke will have a hard time disassociating itself from the case because of its partial ownership of the Latin American bottling affiliate, and because of detailed contractual agreements which provide it strong oversight over operations that bottle its brand of soda.

“Throughout the world, the Coca-Cola Company operates in conjunction with bottling companies under contract to bottle our products,” Largacha says. “While the Coca-Cola Company and its bottlers are separate companies, we work with all of those bottlers to ensure global consistency of production and marketing of our brands.”

Terry Collingsworth, an attorney with the International Labor Rights Fund, says the company’s claims of “global consistency” oblige it to assume responsibility for the atrocities in Colombia. The company stepped in to curb human rights abuses in Guatemala after three union leaders were killed in the 1980s. The intervention shows that the company could stop the Colombian atrocities if it wants to, he argues.

The plaintiffs say that they turned to the U.S. courts for relief because they “do not have access to an independent or functioning legal system within Colombia. … Not one perpetrator has been successfully prosecuted for any of the thousands of cases of trade union assassination which have taken place since 1986.”

— Charlie Cray