Colombia: Workers Starved For Justice

Publisher Name: 
Green Left Weekly

From March 15 to March 27, workers at Colombia's Coca-Coca bottling plant went on hunger strike, in a desperate attempt to improve their working conditions. Carlene Wilson, a member of the Socialist Alliance and Workers Power, and an activist in Melbourne's Colombia Demands Justice campaign, explains why their struggle is so important.

Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist. In the last eight years, at least 2000 trade unionists have been killed, mainly by right-wing paramilitaries.

Since the 1950s, the country has been dominated by conflict between the government, supported by the right-wing paramilitary groups, and left-wing guerrilla groups such as the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia-Peoples Army (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), which now control considerable parts of the country.

The country is rich in mineral resources, including coal, and contains the second largest part of the Amazon rainforests, after Brazil. Multinational companies, particularly US-based ones, have significant interests there.

The US government is largely behind the training and funding of the murderous paramilitaries, particularly through the US Army's notorious School of the Americas, which has trained many of Latin America's worst torturers and human rights abusers.

In 1999, the US, the European Union and the Colombian government launched the $7 billion Plan Colombia, $1.3 billion of which is funded directly by the US. While dressed up with rhetoric about fighting the illegal drug trade, 80% of the funds from Plan Colombia will spent on boosting the Colombian government's military in order to crush the FARC-EP and the ELN.

More than 28,000 people have died in the 50-year war. Current figures suggest that there are three violent deaths every hour in the country. Just as shocking, one quarter of the world's internally displaced people - refugees within their own country - are in Colombia. That's 3 million displaced people.

The scale of repression of any kind of dissent is appalling. Six-thousand people have been rounded up in the last year alone.

There are 200,000 arrest warrants currently active under the government's ``anti-terrorist'' legislation - the Colombian government brands anyone who disagrees with it a terrorist.

Under the Democratic Security Program, a network of 1 million civilians spy and report on their neighbours.

But despite these terrible conditions, workers are still organising. Many social and peasant movements are fighting for better conditions and basic human rights.

Sinaltrainal, the food and beverage workers union, has been an important part of the struggle for workers and human rights. This is partially because many of its members work in the local bottling factories of the Coca-Cola Company, which has won worldwide renown for its abuses of trade unionists, local communities and the environment.

Coca-Cola has a terrible record as an employer in Colombia. Of the 100,000 workers employed, around 80% are contractors, earning an average of $120 a month. These are starvation wages. And contracting out has been the company's policy in other parts of the world as well - including the US.

Then there is the question of water. The company has been caught out in the past using contaminated run-off from a cemetery in its bottling plants. More recently, they have been able to buy water from the government at a rate well below what ordinary Colombians have to pay.

The union once had more than 7000 members, but constant harassment by the Coca-Cola Company has seen its membership drop to around 1400. Nine of its members have been killed in the last eight years - three during collective bargaining rounds. At least one, Isidro Segundo Gil, was gunned down by paramilitaries on the factory floor.

After the shooting of Gil, the paramilitaries handed out union resignation letters to the remaining workers. Not surprisingly, most of them fled for their lives. The company then employed a new, non-union workforce at a third of the previous wage rates.

The paramilitaries are unambiguous about their purpose - they say they are trying to keep Colombia safe for big business - and that means union busting on a huge scale.

Coca Cola workers have been intimidated, jailed on false charges, locked in their factories till they signed union resignations, had their family members threatened and killed and been forced into exile. Though this has decimated the union, it has not stopped its fight.

A few years ago, a court case was launched in the US, filed by supporting unions on behalf of Sinaltrainal, against the company and its largest Colombian bottler, once Panamco, now called FEMSA.

In March 2003, a US judge declared the Colombian bottlers have a case to answer, but let Coca-Cola's head office off the hook, arguing it did not control the actions of its subsidiary. The Coca-Cola Company shares several board members with Coca-Cola FEMSA and owns 46.4 % of its voting stock.

This has not defeated the campaign. In July 2003, an international year of action against Coca Cola was launched with the support of the World Social Forum, including an international day of action on July 22.

But despite the increased publicity for their cause, things have not gotten any easier for the workers in Colombia.

On September 9, 2003, FEMSA closed the production lines at 11 of their 16 bottling plants.

Since then, they've pressured more than 500 workers into "voluntarily resigning" from their contracts in exchange for a lump-sum payment.

Most of the union leaders refused to resign and the company escalated the pressure against them. On February 25, the Colombian Ministry of Social Protection (Labor) authorised FEMSA to dismiss 91 workers - 70% of whom are union leaders. This is a vicious attempt at union busting.

The workers replied with the only action they felt was left to them - a hunger strike that began outside the factory gates on March 15.

The workers involved understood the extremity of the action. Juan Carlos Galvis, vice president of the local union in Barrancabermeja, said, "If we lose the fight against Coca-Cola, we will first lose our union, next our jobs and then our lives."

The tactic had an impact. After management agreed to meet with the workers, the strike ended at 6am on March 27. The meeting was scheduled for April 2.

The current struggle of Coca-Cola workers in Colombia to retain their jobs and to be able to organise as a trade union is important - not only because the Colombian workers need it, but because workers all over the world, including in Australia, face union-busting multinational companies like Coca Cola. The tactics used by bosses in First World countries might not yet be quite as extreme, but their drive towards an ununionised, low-paid, casualised workforce is the same.

AMP Section Name:Human Rights