Not so perfect harmony

In a week where the nation is riding high on the success of the Irish Rugby team, we look at an article from 2004 where Mary questioned the appropriateness of Coca Cola (who were then one of the sponsors of the Irish Rugby team) having such a public link to Irish sports icons.

Not so perfect harmony

Thu, Apr 22, 2004

 There is something less than edifying in the sight of Irish rugby stars, usually Brian O’Driscoll, pointedly slugging down the soft drink Powerade during television interviews after matches. Powerade is made by the Coca-Cola company, and is one of the sponsors of the Irish rugby team.

This in-your-face association between rugby and Coca-Cola was sharply satirised by commentator George Hook after the recent Triple Crown success. He appeared almost glued to a bottle of “Hook’s Hooch” (hand-written on a label of a bottle of water), hilariously unable to get more than a word out from behind the bottle.

Satire aside, though, it is worth questioning the appropriateness of this very public link between Irish sports icons and Coca-Cola.

Last week, Coke became an issue at two of the teacher union conferences. The TUI voted to back an international boycott in the light of alleged human rights abuses at the company’s bottling plants in Colombia. The INTO, on the other hand, had accepted sponsorship from Coca-Cola, which had a stand at the conference, handing out information on the very popular school tours of Coke’s Dublin bottling plant.

Students of both UCD and TCD have voted to support the boycott and to ban Coca-Cola products from sale in their union shops. SIPTU, the union which represents Coca-Cola’s Irish workers, strongly opposes any boycott, saying that it will affect jobs. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has yet to adopt a position but, with SIPTU, has met the company in Ireland to raise concerns about Colombia. They argue that quiet pressure may be more effective.

Yet the reality is that few people would have become aware of the allegations against Coca-Cola had it not been for the student boycott.

There is a fascinating legal provision in the United States designed to make Americans behave themselves abroad. Called the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, it has been increasingly used over the past decade to hold US multinational companies to account.

Under this Act, the Colombian food workers’ trade union, Sinaltrainal, is suing Coca-Cola in connection with the murder and intimidation of some of its leaders in Coke’s Colombian bottling plants. Coca-Cola has repeatedly denied that it was in any way connected with these murders, which were carried out by right-wing paramilitary death squads.

The Florida District Court ruled last year that the Coca-Cola Corporation itself had no case to answer, as it was not proven that it had control over labour relations at the Colombian bottling plants. In Ireland and elsewhere around the world, the way Coke does its business is to franchise out production to separate local bottling companies. The Atlanta-based soft drinks giant is thus conveniently at one remove from anything that happens on the ground in Coke production plants.

However, the US court case continues against the individual Colombian bottling plants, and the Colombian union is also appealing the decision that it cannot proceed against Coca-Cola directly. Sinaltrainal is supported in the US by the United Steel Workers’ Union and by the International Labour Rights Fund.

Colombia is not Coca-Cola’s only problem at present. The corporation is embroiled in allegations that it has destroyed the water table and the livelihoods of thousands of farmers around its bottling plants in India. It denies this, together with accusations that it has dumped toxic sludge on the land around the plants, and that high levels of cancer-causing pesticide residues have been found in the Coke drink itself in India.

Coca-Cola has an abysmal record of labour relations in Russia, as highlighted by the International Union of Food Workers’ Associations (IUF). The company is still reeling from the disastrous revelations around its bottled water product Dasani in the UK – namely that it consisted of filtered tap water and contained high levels of the carcinogen bromate. A few years ago, Coke was forced to recall its product in several European countries after reports of illness in customers.

Trade unions in Ireland and elsewhere clearly disagree on the tactic of a boycott of Coca-Cola products to protest at human rights abuses. SIPTU’s concern over job security for the 1,000 workers at the Dublin bottling plant is real and important.

However, there are other avenues open to those concerned about Coca-Cola’s record around the world. One is certainly to shift the focus to recipients of Coke sponsorship, organisations like the Irish Rugby Football Union or even the INTO. Despite the high profile of the corporation’s association with the Irish national rugby squad, no one has yet raised the issue of the appropriateness of this sponsorship with the IRFU.

Another target could even be Sinn Féin, which last year managed the remarkable trick of condemning Coca-Cola’s human rights record while at the same time accepting donations of $15,000 from the corporation and its former president. Talk about having your Coke and eating it!

This column has been republished by the MRJF with the kind permission of The Irish Times.