Coca-Cola's new bottling plant threatens workers’ rights in Colombia
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Coca-Cola's new bottling plant threatens workers’ rights in Colombia

On June 5, Coca-Cola FEMSA – the Mexican franchise of Atlanta-headquartered multinational The Coca-Cola Company – inaugurated its seventh and newest bottling plant in Colombia, located in the municipality of Tocancipá, just north of Bogotá.

After investing more than US$200 million to build an industrial complex spanning 27 hectares, the company expects its new factory to produce 290 million liters of product each year, supplying at least 47 million consumers.

Despite promises that the new plant will provide economic growth and local jobs, many Coca-Cola labor leaders continue to criticize the effects of the multinational’s operations in Colombia. The new high-tech plant will only require about 150 workers, and many suspect that the operation in Tocancipá will lead to the closing of other bottling factories throughout the country. In a troubling sign, hundreds of workers from Bogotá’s Fontibón plant have already lost their jobs.

Union leader Diego Rodríguez, from Coca-Cola’s plant in the southwestern city of Cali, suspects that bottling facility operations there will soon transferred to Tocancipá, leaving behind a very small distribution center and dramatically reducing the number of workers needed. The Cali plant currently employs about 800 workers.

Coca-Cola FEMSA’s director John Santa María has called the new Tocancipá plant an “example of advanced industrial architecture and productivity in Latin America,” and asserted that energy-efficient technology will save between 20 and 30 percent more water.

Despite this optimistic projection, local union leaders say that the plant consumes approximately 1.68 million cubic meters of water, constituting 68.5 percent of the entire municipality’s water consumption.

Attacks on unionists

Coca-Cola FEMSA began operations in Colombia in 2003 and currently manages seven bottling plants and 25 distribution centers. Due to widespread subcontracting, the multinational corporation operates in Colombia under many other names, including Industria Nacional de Gaseosa, Nuevas Gaseosas Colombia S.A., Femsa Logistica, Imbera, Atencom and Oxxo.

Labor leaders say that Coca-Cola has demonstrated an anti-union attitude and sought to weaken the labor rights movement.

“We are qualified and treated as enemies of the company and the State; to justify repressing us they stigmatize us and every union action or complaint, despite being protected by the Constitution, the law, and international conventions, is systematically and wholly attacked with the goal of annihilating us or weakening us so much that the possibility of having strength to defend workers’ rights or collective bargaining cannot exist.” — A letter from representatives of SINALTRAINAL, Colombia’s national union of food industry workers, to the former U.S. ambassador and U.S. congressional representatives.

Affiliates of SINALTRAINAL allege that Coca-Cola has persecuted and fired workers for union affiliation, implemented collective pacts (independently negotiated agreements between a company and non-union-affiliated workers which serve to weaken unions’ ability to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement), fired injured workers after sustaining accidents on the job and supported propaganda campaigns to dissuade workers from affiliating.

Labor leaders are especially troubled by possible links between Coca-Cola and illegal armed groups.

An estimated 14 Coca-Cola labor leaders have been assassinated by paramilitary groups, 60 displaced from their homes, 100 threatened with death and five forced into exile, according to Gerardo Cajamarca, a SINALTRAINAL member in exile.

Due to death threats from paramilitary groups, Cajamarca was forced to flee Colombia 11 years ago. This April, he returned to Bogotá temporarily to accompany the five-day hunger strike of five Coca-Cola workers demanding an end to the company’s unjust firings, union persecution, failure to observe collective bargaining agreements and third-party contracting practices.

Though the corporation agreed in April to the hunger strikers’ demand in for a roundtable discussion of the violation of their labor rights, Coca-Cola FEMSA has not yet fulfilled that promise.

“The same dream for our country that has displaced, assassinated, exiled and incarcerated us so many times is the same dream that despite everything stays alive, and for that we ought to continue with the daily work of organizing, mobilizing and unifying,” said Cajamarca.

“A very precarious horizon”

Coca-Cola has located its new bottling plant in Tocancipá to take advantage of the free-trade zone there – a geographically-bound area where companies enjoy certain customs and tax benefits. In Tocancipá, companies pay an income tax of only 15 percent, compared to the national rate of 33 percent, and do not pay customs taxes for certain goods including equipment, supplies or spare parts from abroad.

Free-trade zones have been implemented throughout Colombia amid a wave of international free-trade agreements, including the U.S.-Colombia Free-Trade Agreement effective in 2012.

“It’s really beneficial because production is economical, it’s cheaper and because of that, they [Coca-Cola] are going to concentrate the production there,” said Diego Rodríguez.

He added that the new plant in Tocancipá will run almost exclusively on subcontracting, and workers without direct contracts will be unable to unionize and defend their labor rights. Some subcontracted workers have attempted to organize, but they face significant challenges in a country where only 4.5 percent of the population has successfully unionized.

“If it’s a multinational company that comes, sucks all of the water, subcontracts all of the workers and then takes all of the profits abroad, for us this isn’t real development . . . they’re leaving only a market, only a product and what we see here is a very precarious horizon for workers,” said Rodríguez.

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