August 12, 2006

Inside Colombia's Coke Problem

Inside Colombia’s Coke problem:
It’s not what you think

After spending a week walking cobble stone streets, drinking espresso in colonial cafes and talking in broken Spanish to the people of Bogota's historic La Candelaria neighbourhood, it's not always obvious that Colombia has a Coke problem.

No, the issue here isn't the jittery brain rotting white powder, it's the caffinated teeth rotting brown soda.

In recent years, Coca-Cola has been chastised in Colombia and beyond for alledgedly collaborating with right wing paramilitaries to intimidate and murder union activists at its bottling plants.

Gonzalo Quijano, a leader of the National Food Service Workers Union (SINALTRAINAL) who represent employees at Colombian bottling plants, left a meeting with company officials one August evening in 1997. "When I arrived home a man was waiting outside and he asked for my name," said Mr. Quijano.

"Then he took out a gun and shot at me. He missed and I ran into my house." Quijano's story isn't unique in this country, where more trade unionists are killed than anywhere else in the world: 2,500 dead unionists since the mid-1980s alone.

In the last decade, eight Coca-Cola union activists have been murdered while 48 others have been forced into hiding, and 65 have received death threats, according to SINALTRAINAL leaders.

A Coke spokesperson from the company's New Brunswick bottling plant couldn't be reached for comment before deadline.

"Perpetuating an urban myth is more exciting [for activists] than knowing what the facts are," Edward E.

Potter, Coke's global labor relations director, corporate lawyer and infamous intellectual mercenary, told Businessweek Magazine.

Potter contends that only one of the eight murdered Coke unionists was killed on company property.

A Coke spokesperson in Colombia said the corporation has also been threatened by drug dealing paramilitaries who burned four company trucks.

Quijano doesn't buy this rhetoric. "In Medellín (Colombia's second largest city and home to former drug czar Pablo Escobar) Coca-Cola used to send medicine to paramilitary groups," said Quijano.

"In Barranca (a mid-sized industrial city) the paramilitary have met with high executives of the company...

they have agreed on sending them Coca-Cola, water and money for their troops," he said.

In February, 1999 Cambio Magazine, a popular Colombian weekly owned in part by Nobel prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, published an article denouncing a meeting between senior Coke executives and paramilitaries.

According to the article, the paramilitary didn't let Coca-Cola sell in the Magdalena Medio region until Coca-Cola agreed to pay them.

"All Coke has to do is say 'we're not going to send you anymore syrup until the (union) murders stop,'" said Ray Rogers, director of the international Stop Killer Coke Campaign. "Bingo. The problem would be solved." In 2001, the United Steel Workers Union and International Labor Rights Fund sued Coca-Cola in a Florida court on behalf of the families of murdered SINALTRAINAL members.

The judge dropped Coca-Cola from the suit in 2003, although the Colombian bottlers remain defendants.

The trial and the Stop Killer Coke Campaign have generated bad press for a company valued at $23 billion USD, with almost invaluable brand recognition.

To pacify critics, Coke hired the consulting firm Cal Safety Compliance in 2005 to conduct a study of its Colombian operations. Not surprisingly, the company found no instances of anti-union violence at Coke bottling plants.

The dog and pony inquiry was kind of like Bonnie hiring Clyde to investigate alleged bank-robberies, or better yet Enron hiring Arthur Anderson to review its cooked books.

Initially, Coke agreed to allow an independent International Labor Organization (ILO) investigation of its Colombian operations, but later balked because the company didn't want findings to be admissible in the ongoing lawsuit.

The Killer Coke campaign has been a bit of a headache for many North American unions. Coke, to its credit, has an operational policy where beverages are produced in the country where they're sold. Thus, a Coca-Cola boycott in Canada would affect many unionized New Brunswick workers who bottle and distribute the syrupy beverage.

The Killer Coke Campaign is focusing on getting universities and high schools to cancel their contracts with the company. Already more than a dozen American schools, including New York University and Bard College, have kicked their Coke additions, booting the company off campus.

Activists at UNB are planning to leaflet students and faculty about the company's alleged Colombian killing spree.

According to the Florida district court, Coca-Cola's net worth in Colombia grew eight-fold from 1990 to 2001, while its assets increased by a factor of 26; the company also reported an annual profit margin of 80 percent in Colombia in the 1990s, Inter Press Service reported.

While the company's Colombian operation was profiting handsomely, fear and harassment took its tole on the union. "In 1993 we had 6000 members," said Mr. Quijano. "But due to pressure from employers, many deserted." Today, the union only has around 1,620 members.

Ray Rogers of the Killer Coke Campaign is demanding the company pay compensation to the families of murdered Colombian unionists equivalent to the monthly salary of Coke's CEO.

Rogers notes that the company paid nearly $200 million to settle a racial discrimination class-action law suit launched by black Coca-Cola employees in Atlanta. "They can afford to do this," said the life long union agitator. "Besides, what is a human life worth?"

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