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Coca-Cola in Colombia:
Increased Profits, Downsized Workforce

by Lesley Gill
July 27, 2004
First Published in Colombia Journal

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Coca-Cola is the second most widely understood word in the world, after “okay.” Yet less well known than this quintessential U.S. symbol are the labor practices of the Coca-Cola Company, which claims that it “exists to benefit and refresh everyone it touches.” The multinational engages in union-busting practices in Colombia and bears responsibility for some of the violence directed against workers over the last 20 years, according to the National Food Industry Workers Union (Sinaltrainal), which organizes Coca-Cola laborers in Colombia.

Sinaltrainal is locked in a battle with a Coke bottling contractor, Mexico-based FEMSA, over the contractor’s refusal to find new jobs for 91 workers who were fired after production halted last year at 11 of the 17 Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia. The workers were previously employees of Colombian Coca-Cola bottler Panamco, which FEMSA acquired in 2003. The Ministry of Social Protection has recently upheld the firings, even though collective bargaining agreements negotiated between Coca-Cola and Sinaltrainal stipulate that FEMSA must relocate displaced workers in new positions. The national president of Sinaltrainal, Javier Correa, notes that Vice-Minister of Social Protection Luz Estela Aranjo, who oversaw the case, is a former lawyer for the Coca-Cola Company and Sinaltrainal vice-president in Barrancabermeja, Juan Carlos Galvis, says that the ruling “has serious repercussions for the union.”

Over half of the jobless laborers are union leaders. Some of them may now lose the protection provided by a state-sponsored program for threatened unionists and become more exposed to paramilitary violence. The company’s refusal to accommodate them and its pressure tactics against 500 employees who were forced to take early retirement are part of an ongoing campaign to undermine and eliminate the union, say Sinaltrainal leaders. To protest Coca-Cola’s labor practices and those of its bottlers, 30 unionists staged a 12-day hunger strike last March, and Sinaltrainal is currently considering new protests against the company.

The labor conflict comes at a time when the multinational is posting record profits. Its worldwide operations earned $1.3 billion dollars in the first quarter of 2004, the first time that quarterly earnings exceeded one billion dollars. These revenues represent a 35 percent increase over last year.

In addition to job loss and company intransigence, the March strike highlights a continuing pattern of violence against labor leaders. As hunger strikers pressured Coca-Cola in Cartagena, Barranquilla, Cúcuta, Calí, Medellín, Barrancabermeja, and Bucaramanga, paramilitaries in the town of Palmira threatened workers with death if they did not leave the city within 90 days. Nine Coca-Cola workers have been murdered since the late 1980s. Sixty-seven others have been threatened, kidnapped and forcibly displaced, and family members are often targeted in order to pressure labor leaders into renouncing union activities.

Sinaltrainal accuses Coca-Cola and two of its bottlers with failing to protect workers and using right-wing paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) to murder and terrorize them. Shortly after FEMSA announced the plant closings last year, armed men kidnapped the 15-year-old son of labor leader Limberto Carranza in Barranquilla as the young man rode his bicycle home from school. The kidnappers beat and tortured him and stated that his father was on a list of people whom they planned to murder. During the boy’s ordeal, his father received a telephone call in which an individual said, “Unionist son-of-a-bitch, we are going to kill you ... and if we can’t kill you, we will kill your family.”

Sinaltrainal has correlated the instances of most intense violence against workers with specific periods of labor conflict, such as strikes, contract negotiation and protests. Coca-Cola is in fact notorious for its anti-union tactics. Guatemalan workers only managed to save their union by occupying a factory in Guatemala City for a year when the country was in the midst of a bloody civil war. Like other multinational corporations, Coke benefits from the reduced effectiveness of trade unions that arises from the intimidation of workers. This is because weak unions pose less resistance to job cuts, lowered wages, reduced benefits and “flexible” contracts, and threats, selective assassinations and false accusations serve as tools of labor management. They also contribute to a climate of anti-unionism in which Sinaltrainal is associated with guerrilla insurgencies, with members unable to exercise their rights to free association.

The Colombian state has facilitated the debilitation of unions with labor legislation enacted in 1990 that made hiring temporary workers easier, and more recent “anti-terrorist” statutes that have further curtailed labor rights by allowing the security forces to detain people without judicial warrant. Some 6,700 Coca-Cola workers have lost their jobs between 1992 and 2002, and 80 percent of the Coca-Cola work force is now composed of non-union, temporary workers, and wages for these individuals are only a quarter of those earned by their unionized counterparts. Union membership nationwide has fallen from 12 percent of the work force in the mid-1990s to 3.2 percent today, while the country’s official unemployment has nearly doubled from 10.5 percent in 1990 to the current 19.7 percent.

On July 21, 2001, the International Labor Rights Fund and the United Steel Workers Union filed an Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) suit on behalf of Sinaltrainal in U.S. Federal Court in Miami. The plaintiff seeks to hold the company and its bottlers liable for allowing paramilitaries to commit a series of crimes against Coca-Cola workers. Most prominent among these crimes is the 1996 murder of union leader Isidro Gil and the burning of the union’s offices in Carepa in the Antioquia department. Prior to the murder, workers observed the plant manager conversing with a paramilitary leader in the company cafeteria, and paramilitaries subsequently entered the factory and forced workers to sign letters of resignation from the union that were written on the company’s computers (see Coca-Cola Accused of Using Death Squads to Target Union Leaders).

Coca-Cola vehemently denies that it is responsible in any way for the deaths of Colombian workers, arguing that it neither owns nor controls the bottler. Yet the company shares several board members with FEMSA, controls 40 percent of its stock and receives information on a daily basis about operations in Colombia. A U.S. judge ruled in March that FEMSA must answer the charges laid out in the lawsuit, but he accepted the parent company’s argument and removed it from the case. Plaintiffs, however, plan to appeal the ruling.

Coca-Cola’s denials would be more credible if the company acted vigorously to protect the lives of its employees. Allegations that the company is complicit in the terror waged against its employees are nurtured by its legal retaliation against union leaders. After the ATCA lawsuit was filed against it, for example, Coca-Cola charged some of the Colombian plaintiffs with slander and defamation. Although the Colombian prosecutor dismissed these charges after finding them to lack merit, the company’s hardball, anti-labor tactics present a different picture of the Coca-Cola Company than the refreshing image that it likes to project.

Lesley Gill teaches anthropology at American University and is the author of The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas (Duke University Press, 2004). This article first appeared in Colombia Journal.