FIRST Coca-Cola got caught out bottling up tap water and flogging it back to us in posh bottles labelled Dasani. Then Coke was forced to withdraw the 'sexed up' tap water from sale because it was full of cancer-inducing chemicals.
Coke's aptly named chief executive, Douglas Daft, dreams of a world in which water is bought in bottles and Coke comes out of the tap. Coke's water empire already includes 20 brands in 100 different countries. But the Dasani affair is far from being the greatest of Coke's crimes. Its activities in Colombia rightly provoke outrage and resistance.
Colombia's paramilitaries and armed forces have a long history of murdering trade unionists, with at least 4,000 slaughtered in the last 15 years. Colombian paramilitaries deliberately target trade unionists and companies based there have long benefited from the unions' suppression.
Coca-Cola local franchise Panamco has made its own contribution to the repression by cutting salaries and firing 5,000 workers over the last few years. Now Panamco stands accused of actually hiring paramilitaries to murder, torture and kidnap Coca-Cola workers.
Eight Coca-Cola workers have been assassinated, three forced into exile, 60 are living in the shadow of death threats and 48 have been forced to flee their homes. The workers belong to the Sinaltrainal union. Union general secretary Javier Correa described conditions in one Coke bottling plant: 'The paramilitaries have graffitied threats against us on the walls.
'These plants have become like concentration camps. The army patrols the buildings. There is so much repression that workers aren't allowed to go to the toilet. One worker killed himself-in his suicide note he blamed Coca-Cola.' The company accused of this brutality suddenly sacked 91 workers a few weeks ago. The vast majority of those sacked are union organisers.
Sinaltrainal says the bottling bosses have sacked the workers 'essentially to eliminate the union'. 'If we lose against Coca-Cola, we will first lose our union, next our jobs and then our lives,' one trade unionist says. That's why 30 of its workers in the country started a hunger strike. They have already been threatened by the notorious paramilitary organisation the United Self Defence Force of Colombia.
This murderous force issued a statement saying it has 'declared war on the individuals that we have already identified as the leaders of the organisation. 'They must leave or they will become a military target and we will finish them off.'
Union leader Javier Correa is one of the hunger strikers. He has already survived two attempts on his life. Last week the hunger strikers issued this statement:
'Thirty workers at a US multinational are on hunger strike, in rejection of the corporation's collective sackings, in defence of their jobs and for the survival of their union, Sinaltrainal. After many days of fasting, the hunger strikers present a progressively more serious deterioration, emaciation and profound dehydration. We are deeply worried by the threats against the hunger strikers launched by paramilitary groups. We make Coke's bottling companies in Colombia responsible for the serious risks being run by the hunger strikers, for their brittle health and for the paramilitary threats. We ask the general population to demand from the multinational a prompt solution to the problems that generated the hunger strike.'
After 12 days the hunger strikers called off their protest on Saturday. They have won some concessions from the company. Hunger strikers will be given two weeks leave to recover their strength, and the company will pay for any medical treatment they need.
The company will also pay for an advert in a national newspaper demanding that the workers' lives and their claims be respected. The union says, 'It is only the unity, the solidarity and the strength of our just cause that got the company to commit itself to discussing with the union alternatives to the sacking of workers. It has been an important triumph for struggle and solidarity in defence of human rights, but the causes that generated the protest have not been resolved.'