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Coca-Cola and the murder of Colombian trade unionists

There has, in the past few years, been an increasing number of exposés and allegations relating to poor behaviour by multinational corporations and their partners in the so-called developing countries. Of these, perhaps the most shocking is the recent case of Coca-Cola and its bottlers in Colombia. Coca-Cola itself has been accused of involvement in the intimidation and killing of trade-unionists there, including the murder of three people, including in 1996 of Isídro Segundo Gil, a union activist. In July 2001, in the absence of any arrests for the crimes, a suit was filed in Florida, USA, against four companies, including Coca-Cola, by labour-rights groups in relation to what happened.

Colombia has long been a very dangerous country for trade unionists - 153 were assassinated in 2000; 3,800 since 1986, by far-right paramilitary groups and guerillas. The paramilitaries, such as the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), see their victims as subversives and legitimate targets, and their actions are largely supported by the "virulently anti communist" Colombian military. The actions have unsurprisingly coincided with a significant reduction in trade union membership over the years, with membership of the food workers' union that covers the Coke plant having dropped from 5,800 to 2,400 in five years - indeed it is claimed that paramilitaries gave workers at the factory a time-limit to resign from the union or face being killed.

The right wing forces are motivated in particular by a strong desire for an unhindered free market in Colombia, such that wealth may be generated by successful investment from the west, but the resulting conflict has been bloody indeed.

The occurrences are largely undisputed, but only recently have western corporations been implicated in the crimes. Apart from Coca-Cola, bottling companies on the defending side of the suit are Panamco, Panamerican Beverages (its parent company) and Bebidas y Alimentos, which is owned by Miami resident Richard Kirby. A lawyer of Kirby's, one Bill McCaughan, told the New York Times that Kirby is a well-respected businessman with no association with the paramilitary or guerilla groups. Quoted in The American Prospect, Coca-Cola Company rep in Colombia, Pablo Largacha, said "bottlers in Colombia are completely independent of the Coca-Cola Company" - but in a separate statement, said

Throughout the world, the Coca-Cola Company operates in conjunction with bottling companies under contract to bottle our products... 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.
and
We vigorously deny any wrongdoing regarding human rights violations in Colombia and are deeply concerned by these allegations against our company

US Senator Paul Wellstone was obviously concerned as well, not just about the specific allegations, but about the general situation in Colombia, and the role the US plays.

"Regardless of the outcome of this particular legal case, US companies with subsidiaries in Colombia have an obligation to address the upsetting trend of violence against workers, particularly union representatives," he said. "It is clear that some companies regularly hire out paramilitary gunmen to intimidate and kill in order to break labor unions."

Summing up the workers' angle, Coca-Cola employee Edgar Paéz had the following to say:

We want to strip off the mask hiding the involvement of transnational corporations in our internal conflict. To do this, we need a judicial forum outside the country, since within Colombia those guilty of these crimes are treated with impunity. In this particular case, those responsible include Coca-Cola. But they're not the only company pursuing policies that violate human rights. By strengthening our ties with the Steelworkers and the AFL-CIO, we're creating our own global answer to the globalization of the corporations.

Sources:
The New York Times
The American Prospect
www.politicsol.com
Information Network of the Americas (INOTA)
Essential Information's Multinational Monitor

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