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Killer Coke?

Killer Coke?

On Oct. 6, 2006, eight Bristol University students held a memorial for the seven Coca-Cola workers, and the wife of one of them, who were assassinated allegedly because of their trade union activities at Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia.

September 26, 2007 —

In the summer of 2003, Colombian trade union SinalTrainal called for an international boycott of Coca-Cola products.  They alleged that paramilitaries working on behalf of local-owned Coke bottlers intimidated, kidnapped, and even murdered workers at some of Coke’s bottling plants in order to drive down wages in Colombia. Coke has denied the allegations and in April 2005, stated that independent investigations found no evidence of such activity in Columbia. In addition, Global Exchange claimed that in 2005 in Turkey, 14 Coca-Cola truck drivers and their families were beaten severely by Turkish police hired by the company.  The victims were protesting a layoff of 1,000 workers from a local bottling plant.

How has Coke responded? The Coke website states, “As a Company, we will be working with our bottling partners as they take action to ensure that positive progress is being made to correct the findings in workplace, environment, health, and safety practices.” In 2005, Coke hired an auditing firm, Cal Safety Compliance Corporation, to conduct an investigation into these charges and the company found no evidence of wrongdoing on behalf of Coca-Cola. This investigation, however, did not alleviate the concerns of many organizations.  In 2005 and 2006, several colleges, including New York University, Rutgers University, and the University of Michigan boycotted Coke products due to inadequate third-party reviews into company practices. Labor unions also have gotten involved and Teamsters president James Hoffa stated in a press release, “Our union brothers and sisters at Coca-Cola bottling facilities in Colombia have been threatened, kidnapped, tortured and murdered. It’s long past time for Coca-Cola to negotiate a global human rights agreement that will protect the rights and safety of workers who produce, package and distribute Coca-Cola products.”

In response to Hoffa, Ed Potter, director of global labor relations for the Coca-Cola Company, stated, “I am unaware of the Teamsters ever being involved in productive discussions addressing the issues facing Colombian workers. It is clear that the Teamsters know nothing about our operations in Colombia.”

Persistent Concerns

According to an April 2006 article in the New York Times, Michigan ended its boycott and agreed to resume buying Coke products after college officials stated they were satisfied with plans for investigations into the company's labor and environmental practices in Colombia and India. According to the Times article, Coca-Cola is now supporting a review of practices in Colombia by the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, and is also in talks with the Energy and Resources Institute, a nonprofit organization, to examine practices in India.

Though many of the allegations involving Coke and its independently-owned bottling plants have not been proven in courts of law, boycotts against Coke remain intact. Questions remain if the company is taking appropriate steps to stop any abuses. What sort of responsibility does Coke have in ensuring that its contractors do not abuse human rights or even worse, engage in violence and murder?  Can the company be held responsible for the actions for local bottlers when their investigations find no foul play?  Is Coke taking appropriate action? Do the allegations make you pause before grabbing your next can of Coke?

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