Summary of the case: The company in conflict is the US-based Coca Cola Company, which operates in Colombia through its subsidiary Coca Cola Femsa S.A. The activities that encompass the accusation took place between 1996 and 2014 in several parts of Colombia and include, among other, the violation of the rights of the workers and in particular their trade union rights, through: death threats, judicial persecution, wrongful and/or arbitrary terminations, and defamation campaigns; as well as the complicity of the local government, the army and the paramilitary groups in order to avoid the affiliation of the workers to trade unions. This was recognized in the 2008 Permanent Peoples Tribunal session, by the Committee on Freedom of Association of the International Labour Organization in their recommendation of June, 2009 – which were not respected – and the precautionary measures dictated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. It is this sustained that the activities of the company constitute a violation of the ILO Conventions and Recommendations, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and of the Constitution and Labour Law of Colombia.
History of the conflict Coca Cola settled in the Center, North and Northeast of Colombia in 1940 through several bottling companies joint under the name Indegasa S.A. This was bought in 1995 by Panamco Beverages Inc., although Coca Cola kept 25 % of the shares. Likewise, in 2003, Panamco was acquired by Coca Cola Femsa, S.A., of which 31.6 % still belongs to The Coca Cola Company of the shares and that operated in most parts of Latin America. Through this subsidiary network, as it is common in multinationals of such size, Coca Cola keeps the property of the brand and the control of production, but avoids much of the responsibilities of their activities.
During this period, Coca Cola has been the target of a lot of criticism for the environmental impacts of their actions, among which are the waste and contamination of large quantities of water for the elaboration of their products and a high level of greenhouse gases emissions, on top of the complaints due to the high concentrations of sugar and other harmful substances in their drinks. But the biggest controversy is related to the constant violation of labour rights in the bottle companies. The workers of Coca Cola are represented by the union SINALTRAINAL, which was founded in 1982 to group the workers of several transnational corporations with presence in Colombia. By then Colombia was already considered (and it still is today) the most dangerous country for trade unions given the strong anti-unions pressure exercised from companies associated to the government.
The conflicts between the company and the trade union members were already taking place since the beginnings of the 1990s, although it was not until 1996 when violence intensified, when the paramilitary entered the headquarters of the union in Carepa and started a fire on the same day that the local General Secretary of the union was assassinated inside of the factory. The protests of the workers regarding the labour abuses, such as the extension of the workday, the forced subcontracting (by which the workers lose their trade union rights) or the massive layoff of workers, have been responded with assassinations, death threats, illegal detentions and criminalization of members of the union. In conclusion, the objective of the administration of the transnational has been to prevent union affiliation, for which they have developed campaigns for the stigmatization of the members of Sinaltrainaland and have militarized the repression to the protest.
The role of the Architecture of Impunity Coca Cola has benefited from the political instability of Colombia throughout these years. The transnational not only profits from special Free Economic Zones (FEZ) or favorable import/export accords. New laws have even been elaborated to favor their benefits. For instance, in 2004, with the consent of the Ministry of Labour, the Statutes of Sinaltrainal were revoked to impede the affiliation of new workers. As it was concluded in the session in Colombia of the Permanent Peoples Tribunal in 2006, the Constitution of Colombia been infringed by not securing the right to labour of their citizens. Furthermore, the inexistence of an effectively independent judicial power has hindered the prosecution of the crimes committed against workers. In fact, out of the eleven cases of Coca Cola workers that have lost their lives in the conflict, only in one has the author been condemned.
Moreover, the deeply rooted armed conflict in which Colombia has been immersed for the past decades has been used by the anti-union sectors, as in several instances the company and the State have collaborated to relate the workers with such illegal activities. The transnational has even been accused of supporting the State security forces. For instance, in 2010, people associated with the bottling companies were seen participating in trainings of war strategies dressing with military uniforms. However, the legal structure of Coca Cola in Colombia, who operates through a wide network of subsidiaries, allows them to control the product while avoiding the legal responsibility over the workers (1).
Attempts of access to justice The workers of Sinaltrainal have had to defend themselves against uncountable accusations, lawsuits, trials and even detentions in several instances. But given the difficulties to obtain an independent judgement in Colombia and the lack of prosecution of the crimes committed against the workers, these have had to look for alternative ways to obtain justice.
In 2001, for instance, a lawsuit against Coca Cola was presented before a judge of the District Court of Miami, US, demanding a compensation of up to $500 million dollars for the assassination of three of the workers. In principle, the Court rejected the lawsuit against The Coca Cola Company over matters of jurisdiction, although it maintained it over two of their bottling companies. In 2006, however, the same argument was used to evade these too from their liability, although in 2009 the US Court of Appeals also added a lack of relation between the allegations and the government and bottling companies (2). Soon after the initial verdict, the union launched a global campaign to boycott the company’s products.
On the other hand, both sides of the conflict attempted to involve the International Labour Organization. In 2007, Sinaltrainal presented a complaint to the Committee of Freedom of Association, who gave a series of recommendations to the Government and the company to secure the rights of the workers (3). This complaint was further developed in April 2015 to include the violation of freedom of (labour) union, as the previous recommendations, which for instance included the investigation of the fire in Carepa or the collaboration in the dialogue between company and workers, have not been tackled. Alternatively, the company itself solicited an inform to evaluate the situation of its activities in the country. This investigation, however, has been subject to much criticism for its presumed impartiality, given that, as the Coca Cola admits in their website (4), one of the representatives of the ILO is also their director of global labor relations. More recently, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) – together with the Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo (CAJAR) and the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Colombia (CUT) – submitted a Communication to the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) of the International Criminal Court (ICC) where several cases of the assassinations of members of Sinaltrainal were included (5). Furthermore, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights has dictates in numerous occasion precautionary measures to protect some of the union members, the most recent on July 2014.
What Justice could do: a say from the PPT In a hearing that was held in Geneva in June 2014, the Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT) listened to the testimony of Javier Correa, representative of Sinaltrainal. Considering the evidence brought before the judges by this witness, the Tribunal recognized the actions of the transnational corporation as another example of violations of human and people rights. In line with its full judgement of Madrid, in May 2010, and just a few months before the session that was held in Mexico in December 2014, the PPT underlined once again how transnational corporations, including Coca Cola, systematically violate human and peoples’ rights to their own profit. In the same line, the PPT recognized in this widespread practice the current shortcoming of international law, namely the impossibility of accessing justice and obtaining a remedy that is increasingly becoming an unbearable burden for affected communities, as well as for the laws that are supposed to give them shelter. In the same spirit, the PPT acknowledged the necessity to improve international legislation, including through a binding treaty on transnational corporations, and a Peoples’ treaty, in order to hold transnational corporations accountable for their actions.