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Editor's Column: Kick the Coke habit

By Samuel Narisi '07
3/27/06
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The Hawk (St. Joseph's University)

Coca-Cola's products are difficult to escape, especially here at St. Joe's because of the University's vending contract with the company. Students and consumers as a whole, however, should take a closer look at the company they give so much financial support. Coke has committed several human rights' abuses, the most well-known and most serious of which is violence committed against labor union leaders at the company's bottling plants in Colombia.

Colombia is known as the most dangerous country in the world for labor unions. Since 1986, roughly 4,000 trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia. The killing is done by paramilitary soldiers, most of whom are trained at the notorious School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga. The paramilitary groups act in cooperation with the Colombian government to make the country more profitable for foreign investors by keeping labor costs down.

This makes Colombia an appropriate place for Coke to run its bottling plants. Since 1989, seven leaders of the bottlers' union (SINALTRAINAL) and one union-friendly plant manager have been murdered. In 2003, union leader Limberto Carranza's 15-year-old son was kidnapped by the paramilitary. Other leaders and members have been harassed ad threatened. As a result, 88 percent of the plants' workers are not union members or work only part-time, dramatically decreasing their wages and benefits.

Coke has refused to acknowledge the company's connection with the violence. The company recently announced that it has requested that the International Labor Organization conduct an independent study on human rights abuses at the plants in Colombia. Sadly, though, this is an empty action designed to make Coke look like a sympathetic company while distancing itself from the violence and allowing it to continue.

It is a tactic Coke has used before. The company has repeatedly used as evidence of its innocence a 2005 study by Cal-Safety claiming that Coke had no involvement in workers' rights abuses. This was a bogus study; it was paid for by the Coca-Cola Company.

Before that, Coke was relieved of guilt by a study conducted by White & Case, a corporate law firm that has represented the Coca-Cola Company

A study done by the ILO will not be any more independent than those others. Edward Potter, Coke's Director of Global Relations and the man behind the push for the study, has also been, for the past 15 years, the U.S. employer representative to the ILO, a very influential and powerful position. The ILO has continuously refused to investigate violence against workers in Colombia, because of efforts by Potter and the Colombian government.

The murders of union leaders are only the first item on Coke's list of abuses. Because of the company's Dasani bottled water operations in India, communities throughout the country are experiencing severe water shortages, according to the Central Ground Water Board in India. What's perhaps worse is that the water Coke sells in India contains significant levels of DDT and other pesticides.

We should not let these injustices go by unchallenged. Twenty-three colleges in America, including the University of Michigan, New York University, and Rutgers University, have cancelled or suspended their vending contracts with Coke because of the company's refusal to take responsibility for these actions. SJU's Students for Workers' Rights has stated that it will push for SJU to do the same if Coke doesn't change its course. Any student who is concerned about workers' rights should lend the group their support.

More information about Coke's injustices can be found at www.KillerCoke.org.

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