Stop killing Coke

February 21, 2009

Belching Out the Devil: global adventures with Coca-Cola

By Mark Thomas

Ebury Press, 2008

363 pages, $34.95 (pb)

Things don't always go better with Coke, declares the comedian, former Coca-Cola addict and human rights campaigner, Mark Thomas, in Belching Out the Devil, the book of his global Coke-busting odyssey.

Things like, for example, staying alive if you are a trade union member working for Coca-Cola in Colombia.

In Colombia, where 2500 trade unionists have been murdered since 1986 (two a week) by military-linked right-wing paramilitary death squads, Coke has come to the profits party.

With eight Coke trade union activists killed between 1990 and 2002 (including one shot inside a bottling plant), and with union leaders in exile or in graves, Coke cut the pay of its workforce by 60%.

Coke also sacked its delivery drivers for joining a union to try to improve their casualised, low-paid, 15-hour day after their jobs were sub-contracted out.

Of 9000 Coke workers in Colombia, over 7000 have been sub-contracted and made casual and insecure. One Coke unionist was wrongfully imprisoned (and tortured) on trumped-up terrorist charges.

Wages and job security did not go down well in Turkey either, where Coke workers (five organisers and over 100 workers) were sacked for unionising, and then attacked by riot police who were chummy with management.

Coke workers in Pakistan, Indonesia, Russia and Ireland have also felt the wrath of Coke's anti-union vendettas.

Coke doesn't restrict its bad behaviour to just workers.

The town of Nejapa in El Salvador invited in a Coke bottling plant under four conditions — Coke must provide local jobs (they didn't, apart from employing one part-time gardener), pay council taxes (they didn't, until taken to the Supreme Court), respect the environment (they didn't — downstream water contamination killed fish and gave swimmers rashes) and fund the local amateur football team (they didn't — they are still talking about it).

Children cop it from Coke, too.

The illegal use of child labour in Coke's supply chain (children as young as eight are labouring and suffering in sugarcane harvesting in El Salvador) means, says Thomas, that Coke products should come with the warning, "may contain traces of child labour".

Mexico is the second most obese country in the world. The rising proportion of overweight people (from 10% to 68% of the population in the last decade) has occurred, not coincidentally (there are eight teaspoons of sugar in every can of Coke), with a 60% increase in soft drink consumption.

At the head of this stands Coke, which has a 70% market share.

Coke's Mexican riches have been enlarged by the former president of Coca-Cola Mexico who went on to become the president of Mexico (Vincente Fox, president from 2000 to 2006) who appointed another ex-Coca-Cola man to head the National Water Commission, which then handed out dirt cheap water concessions to Coke bottling plants.

India also has its own water woes as a result of Coke building water-intensive plants (it takes 3.8 litres of water to make a litre of Coke) in drought-prone areas.

Coke is drying up farm wells, drinking water and people's livelihoods.

Coke also has a stained history.One of Coke's original ingredients was cocaine (hence the "Coca" in its name).

Coke sponsored the 1936 Berlin (Nazi) Olympics, and its swastika-friendly war-time German managing director invented Fanta as the import of Coke's syrup concentrate dried up.

What a potential ad tag that could have been, says Thomas — "Fanta: The Reich Stuff".

Martin Luther King's last ever speech (in Memphis in 1968) called for a boycott of Coke (and other companies) that "haven't been fair in their hiring practices" for Black workers, and, in 2000, an employment discrimination lawsuit was brought by hundreds of Black US workers, which was settled out of court for $192 million.

The US-based giant "The Coca-Cola Company" (TCCC), however, denies any responsibility for any of its portfolio of abuses. Its stock response to bad behaviour by its overseas arms is to trot out the legal nicety that TCCC simply franchise out the production of Coke to their overseas bottlers and supply them with the syrup concentrate.

So, although Coke was quick to exploit the new union-free environment in its Colombian plants, whose managers were known to socialise with the paramilitaries, and although TCCC typically owns a controlling percentage of shares in its overseas bottling plants, TCCC argues that the ownership legality absolves them from any responsibility for the human-rights abuses that its Coke bottlers overseas may get up to.

Coke tries to keep its brand — the world's best-known brand — unblemished but, as Thomas shows, if its your brand, its your responsibility.

Thomas' investigations give him ammunition to challenge the corporate heads of Coke. He ridicules their corporate blather, their PR and the latest corporate fad (Corporate Social Responsibility — building sustainable communities) whilst pursuing his elusive quarry, Coke's global workplace rights director, for a meeting.

The likelihood of success is never high but "still I went through the process with the same grim lack of expectation with which my mum buys her lottery tickets every week — knowing it is not going to happen but still being slightly disappointed when that turns out to be the case".

But isn't this "picking on" Coke, asks an aggrieved Coke flunkey, to which Thomas is tempted to reply, "Why am I picking on a $67 billion transnational that sponsors the Olympic Games, the Football League and can summon US ambassadors to do its bidding? I guess I'm just a bully."

Thomas does acknowledge that, whilst Coke's rival, Pepsi, also has form (pesticides in their products in India, painting adverts on the Himalayas in a conservation area), Coke is a much bigger target with much more form. Or, as Thomas' partner bluntly puts it — "If they are worried about being such an easy target tell them they shouldn't be so crap".

Thomas's book takes the form of an entertaining travelogue with a high laugh quotient ("running around plantations filming child labour doesn"t make you friends" in El Salvador where "I couldn't be less popular if I were the UK entry for the Eurovision Song Contest").

But the book has the serious intent of redressing Coke's corporate crimes in solidarity with the working people and the activists he meets, people of "courage and tenacity" fighting for their human rights against the power and profits of a "brown, fizzy, sugar water … which is not something any of us really needs".

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