Alien Tort Claims Act: Colombia

Human Rights Dialogue

By Javier Correa, SINALTRAINAL President

SINALTRAINAL is a union of workers employed in the food industry in Colombia. Members work in the factories of multinational corporations such as Coca Cola, Nestle, Burns Philps, Nabisco Royal Inc., Corn Products Corporations, Postobon, Friesland and Lechesan. The union was developed in 1982 to unite workers that were struggling in factories so that they might collectively address the human rights violations occurring in the commercial food sector. Since its formation, SINALTRAINAL has lost many of its of leaders and members—some of whom have been tortured, kidnapped and assassinated by paramilitary forces that receive financial support from transnational corporations such as Coca-Cola.

Colombian paramilitary forces have routinely entered Coca Cola bottling plants and threatened SINALTRAINAL members with death in order to force members to renounce their participation in the union. Since [year], nine Coca Cola workers have been killed, 68 workers are under death threats, 48 displaced, 15 jailed unjustly, and 5000 fired. Coca Cola officers have taken SINALTRAINAL members to court—falsely accusing them of being guerrillas, terrorists and criminals. Coca Cola has denied workers and their families their right to health care, suspended workers' contracts when found distributing the union newsletter and even kidnapped workers in order to force them to renounce their contract. The Colombian judicial system has refused to investigate or sanction these abuses, thus allowing these oppressive policies to continue.

SINALTRAINAL members have responded in several ways. We have formed the national and international campaign against impunity, "Colombia Demands Justice." This campaign is comprised of many different communities struggling to overcome the devastating effects of state-sponsored terrorism and the oppressive policies of multinational corporations. We have convened public hearings in the United States, Canada, and Colombia to discuss and publicize Coca Cola’s violations of workers rights in Colombia, and its murder of union leader, Hector Daniel Usuche Beron. In these sessions, organizations and individuals have testified to the abuses that they have suffered under Coca Cola’s leadership. A resolution calling on Coca Cola to pay reparations was passed and a plan of action to boycott Coca Cola products was endorsed. We hope that this boycott will force Coca Cola and the Colombian government to admit their responsibility for human rights abuses, negotiate reparations with the victims and to protect human rights in the future.

We are also working with the International Labor Rights Fund and the United Steel Workers Union to bring a case within the United States Court System suing Coca Cola and their bottling plants for the murder of Isidro Segundo Gil, and accounts of torture, kidnapping, and death threats.

Following the filing of the case in July, 2001, we launched an international campaign to bring attention to the abuses. The initial major participants were the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the United Steelworkers Union, the International Food and Commercial Workers Union, the U.S. Labor Education Project, the Canadian Labour Congress and the ILRF. Thereafter, the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) joined and took the lead in bringing the issue to college campuses around the country. Leaders from SINALTRAINAL went on speaking tours, and student activists are now focused on getting their campus administrators to end exclusive supply contracts with Coca-Cola. The message of our campaign is that Coca-Cola not only bears ultimate legal responsibility in this case, but that the company can and should insist that its bottlers in Colombia immediately stop any further association with the murderous paramilitaries that have been targeting union leaders at the bottling plants.

In March 2003, the federal court in Miami ruled that the case against Coca Cola could go forward. Merely filing this case has helped to stop the violence against union members, since Coca-Cola’s bottlers do not want to see any more violence while it is pending. SINALTRAINAL has drawn up a list of demands regarding changes that Coca-Cola must make in its practices if it wants to resolve the dispute. We hope that this combination of political and judicial approaches on both the national and international level will force Coca-Cola to change its practices.