Chelmsford TUC

Labour & Trade Union Boycotts

Coca Cola

The murder and oppression of trade unionists in Colombia is widespread. This has achieved the employers’ desired results of lower trade union membership and cheap labour.

After many years of activity by Coca Cola against trade unionists in Colombia and many other countries we have a welcome piece of news. On 17 October 2008 the following was posted on the IUF website.

"IUF General Secretary Ron Oswald has welcomed the publication of the ILO study of labour relations in Coca-Cola bottlers in Colombia . The study - undertaken at the request of the IUF and The Coca-Cola Company - covers issues of labour relations, health and safety and worker access to fundamental labour rights - is the result of an investigation by an ILO team which visited the vast majority of Coca-Coca bottlers in Colombia.

Most of these are operated by Coca-Cola’s largest Latin American bottler FEMSA. In welcoming the publication of the report Oswald commented, "What we hoped for from the ILO was an objective, independent and competent examination of current labour relations practices in the Coca-Cola system in a country which remains the world’s most dangerous place trade union members to freely exercise their rights. That is exactly what the ILO has produced." Oswald thanked the ILO and their team for delivering a serious and wide-ranging report under difficult circumstances, and for recorded his thanks to all those involved and particular the ILO team that did the work on the ground.

What does the study tell us?

The IUF has always believed that there were serious labour relations issues in the Coca-Cola system in Colombia that need to be addressed. The study identifies specific areas of concern (although these are by no means unique to Coca-Cola) which need to be taken up by unions, by the IUF and by the Company and its bottlers at a country level and through the process of twice-yearly dialogue that the IUF affiliates have established with the Coca-Cola Company corporate management since 2005.

Two major areas of concern pointed to in the report point to systematic pressure on basic union rights that the IUF will be taking up with Coca-Cola.

The first is the existence of a system of dependent company-sponsored labour relations through company-established worker structures competing with union representation, often with the explicit support of plant management. This system of parallel structures - similar to the destructive "Soldarismo" system in some Central American countries - aims to deny company employees fair and full access to union rights.

The second is the extensive use of outsourcing and other forms of precarious employment prevalent throughout Colombia and increasingly in the globalized economy. The report shows how by outsourcing many activities which are core to the operations of the bottlers the companies systematically deny and restrict the ability of those workers to exercise their rights to join a union of their choice.

Looking to build on the findings of the ILO report Oswald added, "While it is encouraging to see that in one plant our affiliate SICO has secured the right to stable employment throughout the Carepa plant, precarious employment stays rampant in the majority of the system and largely unnecessary outsourcing is consciously used, not to adjust employment when needed, but to systematically impose insecurity, intimidate workers and deny them any meaningful right to join a union.

We now expect The Coca-Cola Company and FEMSA, its principle bottler in Colombia, to enter into serious discussions with unions in Colombia and the IUF to reduce the use of precarious employment relations an instrument for denying workers their rights. We also fully expect the company to ensure its bottlers end their support for the parallel system of company-dominated organizations and provide fair and full access to workers to join independent unions of their choice".

The IUF will now raise the findings of this study with the Coca-Cola Company as an issue demanding urgent attention and monitor developments through our twice-yearly meetings with the Company where IUF affiliates from around the world meet with Coca-Cola’s senior global management. "

Union-busting is a traditional management reflex at Coke Pakistan. In Central Pakistan, unions were busted in Lahore and Gujranwala and union officers have been dismissed. At Rahim Yar Khan, the union president was dismissed in 2001 and only reinstated after a tough 3-year legal battle the company continues to contest.

Where dismissals alone fail to break the union, massive casualisation has become the main management tool for maximizing insecurity and limiting union bargaining power. At the Rahim Yar Khan plant, 6-700 casual workers are employed at peak season - including 250 "seasonal" workers employed year round and some 50 who have worked at the plant for 5 or more years. To further restrict the potential union membership base, 200 permanent workers are excluded from union membership after having been reclassified as "managers" or "supervisors" - despite the fact that they work as operators and have no management authority.

At CCBPL Karachi, where operations include a bottling plant and sales/distribution center, there are 336 regular workers and 250 casual employees, who are hired directly and through labour contracting agencies. Direct hires are employed on 6- and 9-month contracts - and perform jobs previously filled by union members.

The Coca-Cola Beverages Staff and Workers Union opposed an earlier management effort to outsource the maintenance and transportation departments (where there are 29 permanent workers, all union members), and has been preparing to fight the extension of casual contracts. At both Karachi and Rahim Yar Khan, unions have made rolling back casualization through regularizing employment contracts a principal bargaining aim through coordinating their bargaining demands for 2007.

So on December 9 2006 management launched a preemptive attack by sending over 150 termination letters to CCBPL Karachi employees, informing them that their jobs were being outsourced. Among those receiving notice of termination were four union officers, including the President, Vice-President, Treasury Secretary and members of the management committee. The letters were sent to the individual workers’ homes, bypassing the union, and security at the plant - including continuous visits from the police - was beefed up in anticipation of workers’ protest.

Despite the heavy security, workers rallied at the factory gates and, at a membership meeting, voted to reject the terminations and compensation packages. After several days of protest and a sit-in at the gates, management increased the terms of compensation under the "voluntary retirement scheme" and 153 workers opted to accept the increased redundancy package.

The union informed management that it would accept no more redundancies or "voluntary" schemes, and obtained an interim court order on December 23 prohibiting management from dismissing, terminating or taking any action regarding employment until January 8, at the earliest. But Coke returned to the offensive and continued to pressure individual workers on December 24 and, keeping its office open for this purpose, the national holiday of December 25. Despite the court order, over December 24-26, another 38 employees were pressured into accepting redundancy. On December 28 - in open defiance of the court order - management posted notices informing employees that that day would be the last for processing the voluntary retirement applications, following which no applications would be accepted. Three senior managers personally met with workers to pressure them to accept the terms. The union is preparing to file a contempt of court petition in response to the company’s cynical disregard for the court order enjoining it to cease pressuring employees to accept the mass terminations.

Coke Pakistan’s massive intimidation of union members and officers is of a piece with the aggressive attacks on employment security and trade union rights which characterise their operations throughout that country. The IUF is requesting mass protests to Coca-Cola Atlanta, calling on the company to halt these attacks and enter into unconditional negotiations with the union representing CCBPL Karachi employees, the Coca-Cola Beverages Staff and Workers Union.

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