Coca-Cola is the biggest brand on Earth. It is not just a drink, it is the symbol of the American way of life and of capitalism. Gallons of it are drunk by almost everyone, it is available in every single shop in the country and it reaches almost every corner of the globe. But I have been boycotting it for about seven years now, ever since I heard about its dark underbelly. Coke may be the symbol of the prosperity of capitalism but it is also the symbol of greed and exploitation. This global corporation has despicable links with the death squads of Columbia.
I stopped drinking Coke when I heard about its horrifying treatment of its workers in Colombia. Coke has strong ties with death squads and numerous union leaders have been intimidated, beaten and even killed. Columbia is notorious for its violent paramilitaries, particularly those who target trade unionists and human rights activists. These paramilitaries also double as drug cartels and are infamous for their collusion with the Colombian military. In the last 25 years 2,914 trade unionists have been killed. That averages 2 a week. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) estimates that only 1% of trade union murders end in a conviction. The basic freedom of association and organisation for better working conditions is a right that is continually suppressed.
Coca-Cola workers were originally unionised and (by Colombian standards) reasonably well-paid. However, during the 90s there were cuts to wages and benefits, which were resisted by the union. It was at this time that union leaders began receiving death threats, something they don’t see as a coincidence. In fact, union activists claim that one of the Coke managers named Aristo was friends with some paramilitaries. It is suggested that paramilitaries were hired to intimidate the union and the workforce into accepting lower wages.
The terror campaign was so blatant that one union leader, Isidro Gil, was murdered on the grounds of the Coca-Cola factory in December 6th 1996. The same day, Adalfo Luis Cardona, another union leader, was chased through the streets by paramilitaries in broad daylight but luckily managed to reach a police station. However the police told him there was nothing they could do and escorted him to the airport where he fled to the United States. That night the offices of the union were firebombed. The next day paramilitaries showed up at the factory and handed out a letter to Coke workers declaring they would resign from the union or be killed as well. The message was crystal clear. No union was welcome at Coca-Cola. The union was crushed, its leadership was dead or in hiding and the employees were intimidated and terrified they would be killed. Coke followed up by cutting wages in half from $380-450 a month to $130 a month, Colombia’s minimum wage.
Further intimidation came from the Coke security manager who claimed Luis Eduardo, Domingo Floers and Alvaro Gonzalez Perez (all union leaders) had planted a bomb in the plant. They were arrested in March 1996 and spent six months in jail. No evidence was offered as it was claimed the bomb had exploded but not caused any damage. While in jail their families lacked any support and were reduced to begging for survival. The charges were eventually dismissed for lack of evidence and they were released and re-instated in their jobs, but they have never received an apology or compensation.
Coca-Cola has not answered or replied to any of these allegations. In fact their only response has been that they do not own any bottling plants in Colombia. This is technically true as Coca-Cola like most global corporations (Nike, Gap etc) only owns the brand and the recipe, all the actual production is contracted out. Therefore they claim they are not responsible for the actions of their bottlers. Coke is effectively operating a franchise and decides the ingredients, colours, shape of bottle, packaging and all the other details of the bottlers operations and in some cases owns shares in their bottlers. Coke is the only customer of the bottlers so it is ridiculous to think Coke has no influence over them. If the Coke brand is on it, then Coke is responsible.
Some employees claim the sub-contracting is just a fiction, that Coca-Cola really runs the show. They claim they received their orders from Coke, were told what to do by Coke and could be fired by Coke, but were technically employed by a sub-contractor (who don’t sign contracts with their employees therefore denying them job security or benefits like healthcare or pensions). In 1992 80% of Coke’s Colombian workers were unionised. Due to union busting and the increase in casual work (80% of Coke’s workers are casual workers) this is now at 6%. Whatever the links between Coca-Cola and the paramilitaries are, it is clear that coca-Cola has certainly benefited from their action in intimidating and crushing the union.
New York City Councilman Hiram Monserrate organised a delegation to investigate these claims. He found that “Coca-Cola is complicit in human rights abuses of its workers in Colombia…The conclusion that Coca-Cola bears responsibility for the campaign of terror leveled at its workers is unavoidable.” The report referred to
“a total of 179 major human rights violations of Coca-Cola’s workers, including nine murders. Family members of union activists have been abducted and tortured. Union members have been fired for attending union meetings. The company has pressured workers to resign their union membership and contractual rights, and fired workers who refused to do so…Most troubling to the delegation were the persistent allegations that paramilitary violence against workers was done with the knowledge of and likely under the direction of company managers.”
The names of Coca-Cola union organisers murdered:
- Avelino Achicanoy Erazo (killed 30th July 1990)
- Jose Eleasanar Manco David (killed 8th April 1994)
- Luis Enrique Giraldo Arango (killed 20th April 1994)
- Luis Enrique Gomez Granado (killed 23rd April 1995)
- Isidro Segundo Gil (killed 6th December 1996) His wife Alcira Del Carmen Herrera Perez was murdered on 18th November 2000.
- Jose Libardo Herrera Osorio (killed 26th December 1996)
- Oscar Dario Soto Polo (killed 21st June 2001)
- Adolfo De Jesus Munera Lopez (killed 31st August 2002)
This is not the first time Coca-Cola has been the subject of controversy. In his last speech before his death, Martin Luther King called for a boycott of Coca-Cola in protest at its refusal to hire black people.
And so, as a result of this, we are asking you tonight, to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis. (Martin Luther King)
In 2000, Coca-Cola paid out $192.5 million dollars as a result of a court case where they were charged with discriminating against their black employees. Coke has a dark past with Fascism, with many of its German managers forming close bonds with the Nazi Party. Fanta was invented when the German plant ran out of ingredients during the Second World War and had to improvise. There is evidence of Cocoa-Cola using child labour in El Salvador. They have depleted and polluted water reserves in India exacerbating droughts. They carry on union busting and exploitative activities in Turkey too. Not to mention Coke is an unhealthy mash of chemicals (an experiment in my school found that by boiling Coke you could make tar).