colombia can be a complicatedplace for foreign firms to do business. Oil and gas companies, forced to hire private armies to guard their pipelines or pay protection money to leftist guerrillas who've been waging a 40-year insurgency, understand that fact better than most.But now Coca-Cola, which has been in Colombia since 1940 and more than any other business symbolizes good ol' American values abroad, finds its name mentioned in the same lawsuit as the alleged crimes of right-wing paramilitaries.
The company is also responding to claims in the suit that its headquarters in Bogotá, Colombia, ignored calls from unionists to intervene at several of its bottling plants in the South American hot spot -- even while right-wing paramilitaries were targeting workers for assassination.
The lawsuit filed in Florida district court by the United Steel Workers of America (USWA) and the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRB) in late July has dealt a serious public relations blow to Coke in the U.S. Officials at company headquarters in Atlanta, while pointing out its generous donations to educational, community, health and sports programs in Colombia, refers all calls about the lawsuit to spokespeople in Colombia.
Coke officials there say the suit is politically motivated, an attempt by U.S. unionists to place in U.S. courts an issue that rightly belongs in Colombia's jurisdiction. One USWA official confides that the suit is partially motivated by the millions of dollars the U.S. pledges to Colombia in military support and the fact that that aid contributes to violence against unionists there.
The 62-page suit filed by the USWA and ILRF on behalf of Sinaltrainal, the union representing workers at several Coke bottlers in Colombia, paints a frightening picture of goings-on at the facilities. All of the details contained in the suit cannot be reported here because of jurisdictional issues.
But In Bogotá, Coke Colombia spokesperson Pablo Lagarcha does not deny that some of the incidents described in the suit occurred, including the targeting for assassination of some unionists at Coke bottlers by right-wing paramilitaries.
Coke's quarrel with the suit, Lagarcha says, is its claim that the company was in a position to do something about it. Coke's position is that the targeting and harassment of unionists by paramilitaries is a complex consequence of the 40-year civil war.
And although Coke exercises strict control over the operations of its bottlers in the South American trouble spot, Lagarcha says the plants are "separate legal entities" and that the parent company has "no say" in labour and other administrative issues at the facilities. Of the four bottlers named in the suit, Coke has direct ownership of only one.
"We continue to be assured by our bottlers that such behaviours as the ones depicted in the claim have in no way been instigated, carried out or condoned by the bottling companies," Lagarcha says.
On those occasions when Coke has been made aware of union complaints about harassment by paramilitaries, Lagarcha says the company has called in the Colombian police to investigate.
"Operating in our country is very complex and very difficult," he says. "We are in the middle of this clash between irregular forces that has turned part of our country into a battleground."
A similar response is offered at Panamco, one of the Coca-Cola bottlers named in the suit. There, spokesperson Juan Carlos Dominguez says he cannot comment on specific union claims, including threats to the relatives of unionists.
"When it has had news about specific acts of violence against any of its employees," Dominguez says, Panamco "has encouraged its employees to put these things into the knowledge of Colombian authorities for these misconducts to be severely punished."
The suit says the situation at Bebidas y Alimentos, a Coke bottler in Carepa, was spiralling out of control. A letter of concern from the union was sent to Coke Colombia. Soon afterwards, Isidro Segundo Gil, a union leader, was shot dead at the plant, allegedly by paramilitaries.
Workers were herded into the manager's office at gunpoint the next day and forced to sign forms renouncing their membership in the union.
Bill McCaughan, the Miami-based lawyer representing the American owners of the plant, says there's "no question" the incidents took place.
What's totally baseless, he says, is the idea that his client, Richard Kirby, who is named in the suit, had anything to do with it.
"Any suggestion he was in a position to do anything about it is totally fictitious," says McCaughan.
Terry Collingsworth, a lawyer with the ILRF, says Coke's lawyers will argue that the U.S. has no jurisdiction in the suit. But it's precisely because Colombian authorities were taking no action on union complaints that it was filed in the U.S., he says.
He says it's difficult for him to believe that Coke in Atlanta didn't know what was going on at its bottling operations in Colombia, given the strict control it exercises over the use of the Coke name and production at the facilities.
Why would Coke in Atlanta, if it knew about what was going on at its bottling plants, risk damage to its corporate reputation by doing nothing?
"It's corporate arrogance," says Collingsworth.