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Killer Coke

Nakul Vyas

The Coca-Cola Company has conspired with paramilitaries to intimidate, assault, and murder Colombian workers in a systematic effort to destroy unions, slash wages, and eradicate worker benefits. The company has a presence at MIT, dispersing its products in campus vending machines and soda fountains. These two issues — Coca-Cola’s human rights violations and MIT’s contract with Coca-Cola — present MIT with an ethical predicament. Choices must be made, but let us take a closer look at the story first.

In January of 2004, New York City Councilman Hirarm Monserrate led a fact-finding mission to investigate Colombian allegations of violence and brutality. According to this report, nine trade unionists have been murdered by Colombian paramilitaries with Coca-Cola’s complicity. Gunmen shot one man, Isidro Gil, seven times inside the Coca-Cola plant. A ten-foot iron fence encloses the compound and a guarded gate is the only access point. The report concludes that paramilitaries must have had “company knowledge and permission” to gain access to the plant. The paramilitaries returned two days later, lined up the workers, and at gunpoint forced them to sign letters forfeiting their union membership. The campaign of violence and intimidation has had its intended effects. The number of unionized workers at Coca-Cola has fallen from 1,300 to 450 over eight years. The Colombian bottling plants are operated by a Coca-Cola subsidiary, FEMSA. Coca-Cola is FEMSA’s largest shareholder, owning 46 percent of the company, and therefore it bears responsibility for crimes committed in FEMSA bottling plants.

In the Fall of 2003, Deval Patrick, Coke’s general counsel, offered to create an independent body to investigate the allegations made against Coca-Cola. Patrick made the offer at a dinner where he was being praised by Equal Justice Works — a nonprofit group that mobilizes law students to work for a more just society. Coke CEO Douglas Daft rejected the idea, and Patrick resigned. Since then, Daft has refused an independent investigation, reiterating that “objective” investigations have already taken place. These investigations — inquiries by a Colombian Court, by the Colombian Attorney General, by the U.S. District Court in Miami, and by the Cal Safety Compliance Corporation — allegedly prove that Coke has done nothing wrong.

None of these reports is convincing. The Colombian judicial proceedings are undermined by the fact that the Colombian government has only prosecuted a trifling number of the thousands of trade unionist deaths in recent years, according to a U.S. State Department human rights report. A private monitoring corporation paid by other corporations (like Coca-Cola) to conduct investigations, the Cal Safety Compliance Corporation can hardly be considered an independent organization. Methodological inadequacies plague the conduct of its investigations — Cal Safety does not release its inspection data to the public, conducts interviews with workers inside the factory instead of at a neutral location, often informs the managers beforehand about the inspection, and completes investigations in under three hours whereas a Department of Labor investigation takes 20 hours. The report also only covers the current conditions, not what they were around the time of the murders. As far as the U.S. District Court, Coca-Cola was cleared of responsibility for control over the bottling operations, but litigation is proceeding against the Coke-owned bottler, Coca-Cola FEMSA.

Allegations from other parts of the world further undermine Coca-Cola’s credibility. In India, Coke bottling facilities have drained the water table at an “alarming” rate, according to a report from the Central Ground Water Board. The loss of water has harmed the environment and is destroying the livelihood of local farmers. A BBC report found that Coca-Cola has also been disposing toxic waste products by distributing the substances to local farmers as “fertilizer.” Analysis at the University of Exeter confirmed that the sludge was useless as a fertilizer and contained dangerous levels of cadmium and lead.

Until a legitimate investigation is conducted, MIT should terminate its relationship with Coca-Cola as a matter of principle. All Coke products — including Sprite, Fanta, Minute Maid, Nestea, Powerade, Odwalla, and Dasani water — should be removed from campus and replaced by rival beverages. A product distilled in intimidation, pollution, and assassination, Coke tarnishes MIT’s reputation and taints the Institute’s integrity. Coke has no place here.

Recently, the University of Michigan became the tenth U.S. college to end its relationship with Coke, citing the fact that Coca-Cola continues to refuse an independent investigation of its human rights record. The Killer Coke campaign does not aim to cripple Coke financially because campuses constitute a small share of Coke’s market. Instead, the campaign targets Coke’s image. Coke spends over two billion dollars a year on advertising. “It is impossible to over-estimate the damage caused when a brand goes from being seen as something good to something bad,” said Tom Pirko, president of BevMark, a beverage industry consultancy, to the Financial Times.

If you would like to become more involved, speakers from SINALTRAINAL — a Colombian union representing Coca-Cola workers — and United Students Against Sweatshops will be giving a presentation on Wednesday, March 8th. In hopes that the MIT community will take action, I end on this note — a sign hangs in a Colombian union office quoting Edmund Burke: “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”