Coca-Cola and human rights in Colombia

Coca-Cola's activities in Colombia have been a permanent attack on labour and trade union rights.

THE transnational corporation Coca-Cola settled in Colombia in 1940, through a franchise granted to the Indega S.A. bottling company in the central, northern coastal and north-eastern regions of Colombia. The bottling companies under Indega S.A. were bought out in 1995 by Panamco Beverages, Inc., with 25% of its shares held by Coca-Cola. In May 2003, Fomento Mexicano S.A. bought Panamco through the Coca-Cola Femsa S.A. franchise, with Coca-Cola retaining 31.6% of the shares. This is the company that holds the franchise in Colombia, and through which it operates in most Latin American countries.

Through this offshore legal framework, Coca-Cola produces and sells its products keeping ownership of the brands, capital control and a presence on the board of directors of the local enterprises. It also controls all the processes regarding raw materials, supplies, production, distribution and labour policy, avoiding liability for the human rights violations committed.

Coca-Cola's activities in Colombia affect the environment and health, among others. But, above all, the history of Coca-Cola in Colombia is that of a permanent attack on labour and trade union rights, including the killing of at least 10 trade unionists and links with paramilitary groups.


Working time extensions and pace-of-work increases have allowed the transnational corporation to operate with five Coca-Cola Femsa bottling plants and close 11 in 2003, laying off hundreds of workers. Members of Sinaltrainal, the national food industry union in Colombia, started a hunger strike in March 2004, in order to try to prevent wide-scale layoffs. In 2014, with the opening of a large bottling plant that the company is building in Tocancip , Cundinamarca, new bottling plant closures and layoffs are planned.

According to company documents known to Sinaltrainal union leaders, such as 'Dia D', 'Plan Pandrino' and 'el Corrientazo', Sinaltrainal is considered as an obstacle to reducing labour costs, since it opposes subcontracting, which accounts for some 70% of the over 7,000 workers involved in the company's production. Such subcontracting is carried out through front companies, many of which belong to the transnational corporation itself, including Atencom S.A.S., Imbera, OXXON, FL Colombia S.A.S. They simulate direct working contracts, thus preventing payment of benefits provided for under the collective labour contract. Sinaltrainal is opposed to the so-called positive human resources plan, which is how the company weakens the trade union (that at present has only 287 affiliated workers), in order to eliminate the collective labour contract and to put illegal pressure on the workers so as to make them give up their work contracts.

On 10 August 2004, the transnational corporation, with the consent of the Ministry of Labour, revoked Sinaltrainal's by-laws, thus hindering membership by outsourced workers. The company tried to persuade judges to declare illegal Sinaltrainal sections in Bogot , Girardot, Santa Marta, Cali and Villavicencio, among others, but it did not succeed. It has tried this several times, and now we face case No. 0240-2012 in the Bogot  Labour Court, where the Coca-Cola Villavicencio bottling plant is again requesting that the union be declared illegal. Coca-Cola has also tried - with no success - to get a permit from the judiciary to fire labour leaders.

In order to terrorise workers so they either do not join Sinaltrainal or give up membership, the company resorts to criminalising the victims: the company administration carries out systematic stigmatisation campaigns against Sinaltrainal members by publishing images of workers and their families, accusing the union members of vandalism and damage to property, or gathering workers against their will so as to show them 'graphics' accusing members of Sinaltrainal of being the guilty ones. They have caused moral and material damage, putting the lives and the integrity of several members of Sinaltrainal at stake, because they have been involved in criminal cases charging unionists with slander, calumny, damage to property, conspiracy to commit crime, rebellion and terrorism, among other things, with at least 12 leaders of Sinaltrainal unfairly imprisoned. An arrest warrant was issued against them, and the corporation took advantage of this to give them notice of dismissal for 'just cause'. But the company was compelled to rehire them when they were acquitted.

In order to hinder freedom of association, the transnational corporation militarises repression for protesting. As in many other cases, there are the events that happened in the Medell¡n bottling plant on 17 December 2010, where police entered with armoured cars to force the removal of subcontracted and Sinaltrainal affiliated workers who refused to move the distribution vehicles. Some individuals, on behalf of Coca-Cola and escorted by policemen, went to the workers' homes with dismissal notices.

The state and transnationals such as Coca-Cola use the social, political and armed conflict that continues in Colombia after more than 50 years as a pretext to carry out an anti-trade union policy, aiming to link trade union activities, workers' claims and protests with actions by outlaw organisations or organisations guilty of violent crimes. Several members of Sinaltrainal who work for Coca-Cola bottling companies have been unjustifiably accused by the Administrative Department of Security (DAS) of being a threat to national security. Coca-Cola has been implicated in having links to and supporting the war that the state security forces are carrying on. An example of this is the gathering of people from Coca-Cola bottling plants in February 2010 at the Tolemaida military base. Under the slogan 'Guided by Pride' and dressed in military uniforms, they participated in war manoeuvre training.

Killings and threats

Also worth noting are the 68 workers, members of Sinaltrainal working for Coca-Cola bottling plants since 1984, who have received death threats, those exiled and displaced with their families that the company refuses to relocate to other cities, workers imprisoned under false charges and the 11 who were killed, five of whom worked in the Carepa Antioquia bottling plant. One of them - Isidro Segundo Gil - was killed inside the premises on 5 December 1996, the day for the company to start negotiations on Sinaltrainal's list of demands. The same killers knocked down the doors of Sinaltrainal headquarters and burnt the facilities.

On 26 December 1996, another Coca-Cola worker in Carepa was forcibly removed from the bottling plant by presumed members of the paramilitary forces and was killed near the Chigorod¢ cemetary (Antioquia). In the case of the murder of Adolfo de Jes£s Munera L¢pez, a single person was convicted; in the other case the investigations resulted in no convictions.

In 2002, a criminal complaint against Coca-Cola, directed at its head office in Atlanta in the US, was filed before a judge of the Court of Miami District, for the company's supposed involvement in the killing of Colombian trade unionists.

'We want justice and want the people to know the truth about what happened in Colombia against Coca-Cola workers,' said Javier Correa, president of Sinaltrainal. The complaint was linked to the killing of Segundo Gil in 1996, not long after Richard Kirby, the North American owner of a bottling plant in Carepa, Antioquia, said that he would do anything necessary to kill and disappear workers who tried to join trade unions and who is said to have made an agreement with gunmen towards this end.

The main question, says Terry Collingsworth, a jurist of the International Labour Rights Fund, is: 'Why didn't Coca-Cola intervene to put an end to the violence?' He adds: 'Coca-Cola, like many other companies, controls the product and gathers the profits, but states that it has no liability as regards workers.'

Coca-Cola's response was to file a complaint against workers of Sinaltrainal before the public prosecutor, because they had brought the case to US courts. On 11 August 2009, a US court dismissed the case against Coca-Cola, declaring it lacked jurisdiction to hear it.

In April 2006, the Peoples Permanent Tribunal, Colombia chapter, found Coca-Cola and other transnational corporations, including Nestle, guilty of violating workers' human rights and of attempting to destroy Sinaltrainal, as well as of pillaging Colombia's natural resources, in particular water.

Owing to international pressure, the Carter Center in the United States met with representatives of Coca-Cola and Sinaltrainal and negotiations with the company started in 2007, but the company was just buying time, seeking to defuse the pressure of the claim against it and influence the conditions of any future settlement.

Sinaltrainal has addressed the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Committee on Freedom of Association with a complaint that has been expanded several times for human rights violations committed by Coca-Cola in Colombia, but the recommendations that were issued have not been respected since they are not binding.

Given the harassment that workers of Coca-Cola bottling plants are facing, and the danger to their lives and physical integrity, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has ordered precautionary measures for 26 Sinaltrainal members.

On 9 October 2012, the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and the Colectivo de Abogados Jos‚ Alvear Restrepo (CAJAR) of Colombia, with the support of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), submitted a communication to the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, requesting the opening of a criminal inquiry with  respect  to  anti-trade union violence in Colombia. Among the cases that were submitted are several of the murders of Sinaltrainal leaders.

In 2008, the ILO conducted a mission in Colombia in order to assess the situation but did not take into account past facts - killings, death threats, attacks, kidnapping attempts, attacks on the union, layoffs en masse, environmental damage - nor did it accept or consider any evidence of those facts submitted by Sinaltrainal.

The impunity that Coca-Cola continues to enjoy for the human, labour and trade union rights violations in Colombia shows the need for a legally binding international instrument to control the activities of transnational corporations and their impacts on human rights as well as to guarantee justice and redress for victims.

Only a legally binding international instrument for transnational corporations can generate the legal, social and political pressure on them to put an end to their attacks on trade unions and the increasing precariousness of work, and oblige the state of Colombia to judge and punish those liable for harassment of Colombian trade unionists.

For all the abovementioned reasons, the Europe-Third World Centre (CETIM) urges the government of the United States to comply with its duty to make sure that transnational corporations based within its territory do not violate human rights, in particular while carrying out their activities in other countries, and, should that be the case, to grant victims access to justice. We appeal in particular to the government of the United States to intervene in order to put an end to the incessant attacks by Coca-Cola on human, labour and trade union rights in Colombia, and to ensure that victims obtain justice and redress.

The CETIM also requests the Colombian government to comply with its duty to respect and protect human rights in Colombia, in particular labour and trade union rights and the freedom of peaceful association, and to take, urgently, all necessary measures so as to guarantee the security and physical integrity of Sinaltrainal's trade unionists. We appeal in particular to the government of Colombia to put an end to Coca-Cola's permanent attacks against human rights in Colombia and to guarantee justice and redress for the victims of its activities.

The CETIM requests the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions and the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association to monitor this case closely and to pay a visit to Colombia.

Further, the CETIM requests the UN Human Rights Council to create an intergovernmental working group with the mandate to develop a binding international treaty in order to monitor transnational corporations and to guarantee access to justice for the victims of their activities.     

The above is an edited version of a statement, drafted in collaboration with Sinaltrainal, presented to the 26th session of the UN Human Rights Council in June 2014 by the Europe-Third World Centre (CETIM). The full statement with endnotes is available on the CETIM's website The Geneva-based CETIM is concerned with North-South relations and promoting economic, social and cultural rights. 

*Third World Resurgence No. 290/291, October/November 2014, pp 49-51