By Nadia Damouni
What started as a civil court case in Florida almost three years ago between the Coca-Cola Company and several of its Colombian employees — who had accused their employer of human rights violations — has now spread to New York City, where a local fact-finding delegation recently returned from Colombia, loaded with testimonies of systematic murder, torture, kidnapping and intimidation.
The independent delegation, composed of educational and union representatives, was led by New York City Council member Hiram Monserrate, Co-Chair of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus. His team spent 10 days visiting sites around Colombia, where Coca-Cola’s bottling plants and its subsidiaries, Panamco/FEMSA, have been held accountable for using paramilitary forces to suppress union movements.
“It was overwhelming the volumes of tragedy that we heard city after city,” said Dorothee Benz, communications director for the Communications Workers of America during a news conference last Thursday. She gave further examples of the harassment received by family members, describing the kidnapping of children and intimidation of spouses as a means of pressuring employees to withdraw from a trade union organization.
One such union is Sinaltrainal, a workers’ coalition that represents the rights of Colombia’s Coca-Cola employees. Despite Sinaltrainal’s efforts to bring paramilitaries and bottling plant officials to court for their alleged role in the assassination of nine Coca-Cola employees, no charges have yet been made available.
In response to these claims, the delegation stated in its preliminary report that “violence is often committed with complete impunity from the Colombian justice system” and that it is carried out by “right-wing paramilitary forces, also known as death squads.”
According to eyewitness accounts told to the delegation, Coca-Cola worker Isidro Gil was murdered in 1996 within the confines of a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Carepa, Colombia. The manager of this plant — who fled just before the assassination — reportedly consorted with the paramilitaries in the region and allegedly threatened to wipe out the union prior to Mr. Gil’s death. Eyewitnesses to this murder fear for their safety in Colombia. Mr. Gil is one of more than 1,500 Colombian trade unionists killed in the past decade according to the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF).
At the news conference, Council member Monserrate suggested that Coca-Cola has never addressed the violence against trade unionists: “With respect to Coca-Cola, not one person has been prosecuted or convicted for any of these murders. Not one person has been prosecuted or convicted for any of the countless kidnappings that have occurred. Not one person has been prosecuted or convicted for any of the beatings that have occurred on-site [at bottling plants] or at people’s homes, which are directly connected to their employment at Coca-Cola.”
Segundo Pantoja, director of the Center for Ethnic Studies at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, told New York News Network that Coca-Cola’s practices were just “one component of a complex picture” in which multinationals have taken advantage of a politically unstable climate. “Exploitation of labor is nothing new, and Coca-Cola has major plants in Brazil and other South American countries. But what is happening in Colombia has crossed the boundaries of life and death. There is a direct threat of life to maximize profits,” Mr. Pantoja said.
Agreeing with this sentiment, Ray Rogers, director of Corporate Campaign, Inc., and Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, said: “By keeping unions out of bottling plants through an alliance with paramilitaries, profits can be more easily reaped as labor costs remain low. The object is no social movement.” He added that it is difficult for workers in this type of situation to change jobs due to a scarcity in the employment industry, a common factor among developing countries that causes a network of “slave labor.”
With a lack of employee security, Sinaltrainal, in conjunction with the United Steelworkers of America and the ILRF, filed a lawsuit in July 2001 against the Coca-Cola Company and its Colombian subsidiaries under the Alien Claims Tort Act. This act, which allows foreign victims to bring claims to U.S. courts for violations of fundamental human rights clearly defined under international law, was presented to the U.S. District Court in Florida.
However, in March 2003, the case was dismissed on the grounds that it did not have enough “factual or legal basis.” Meanwhile Coca-Cola had already begun proceedings against the plaintiffs in a Colombian court, accusing the workers of slander and defamation and calling for 500 million Colombian pesos in compensation.
During a meeting in July with Coca-Cola representatives, including Rudy Beserra, vice-president of Latin Affairs in Atlanta, Ga., Mr. Monserrate said that it was “unacceptable” for the company to file criminal charges against its former employees, who had suffered harassment “to a point that they had to file a civil suit in the U.S.” Mr. Monserrate addressed the company’s legal counsel in Colombia’s capital, Bogotand was told that the lawsuit was a “consequence” of the employees’ claims against Coca-Cola.
As part of the delegation’s preliminary findings, Mr. Monserrate has asked for Coca-Cola to dismiss immediately all criminal charges against union members and publicly denounce all acts of anti-union violence. Coca-Cola officials in Atlanta sent a statement to New York News Network, indicating that an international law firm had launched an in-depth investigation in 2001 that “produced no evidence supporting the allegations.” They were unable to release related documents still being used in the pending lawsuit against their bottling partners.
In their defense, Coca-Cola said that they “deplore and condemn all acts of violence committed by any paramilitary or guerilla group in Colombia that targets trade union leaders or any other group.” They also argued that through their extensive business relations in the country, local jobs and suppliers have been created, contributing “to the aspirations of Colombia for peace, economic opportunity, and long-term stability.”
Mr. Monserrate and his delegation members, however, were not convinced. The Council member insisted that the public start acting more conscientiously with their purchases. New York holds one of the largest Colombian immigrant communities and is a leading consumer of Coca-Cola and its products.
Mr. Monserrate said: “We talk about Coca-Cola, a logo that signifies American capitalism. It is what America is all about, and I would hate to think that this logo or symbol in foreign countries, as it is today in Colombia, signifies death, violence, kidnapping and the crackdown on workers throughout the world.
“We are all shareholders in Coca-Cola, not only through direct investment but also through consumer dollars. I believe it is our responsibility in the U.S. to ensure American transnational corporations are good citizens and they are abiding by the law not only here but [also] abroad.”