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COCA COLA up to their usual tricks in Guatemala

They didn't even know their father's crime until the armed men told them: "We are going to get that son of a bitch for trade unionism and he is going to die."
- Trade unionists continue stout struggle in the face of fear and loathing -

Guatemala Letter: On a sunny afternoon in Guatemala City a number of weeks ago armed men entered the house of Josť Armando Palacios. On finding he was not at home, they tied up his nine-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son.

Holding a gun to the children's heads, they demanded to know the whereabouts of their father. The children did not know.

They didn't even know their father's crime until the armed men told them. "We are going to get that son of a bitch for trade unionism and he is going to die."

Josť Armando is a member of Sitinca, a joint trade union of workers of a Coca-Cola bottling plant in the south of Guatemala and of a coffee producer called Incasa. Since joining the union and becoming a particularly active member - convincing other workers to join and, at times, putting a stop to the production line in a factory when a worker's rights had been violated - he has been subject to threats, an attempt on his life and the visit of armed men to his house.

When this strategy of intimidation failed to dissuade him from his union activities, the company simply fired him.

When he asked for an explanation, the company told him they just did not like him. He, along with 10 other dismissed workers and union members, is currently fighting to be reappointed.

In Guatemala, only 1.7 per cent of workers are affiliated to a union. Those who are, like Josť Armando, find that in their struggle to defend workers' rights, they are putting not only their jobs at risk, but also their lives and those of their families.

Despite the signing of peace accords in 1996, which brought an end to the country's 36-year civil war in which thousands of social activists were "disappeared" and many more were forced into exile, little has changed for the trade union movement. According to some, the situation has worsened.

"On one hand the threats and persecution against us continue today and while during the civil war, when a trade unionist was killed you could blame the army and the state, now when a trade unionist is killed the government simply attributes it to common crime, allowing companies to act with total impunity," explains Juan Francisco Orellana, secretary general of Sitinca, "and then on the other hand there is the new union-bashing strategy of companies with the rise of solidarismo, which has been extremely damaging for the trade union movement."

Solidarismo is a strategy used by companies throughout Central America to weaken the union movement.

Employees are invited by the company to join a form of workers' association offering a range of facilities, including access to credit and regular parties. It does not permit them to challenge the company on issues such as wages and working conditions or allow collective bargaining.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) argues that it does not meet the requirements of free association.

In the Coca-Cola bottling plant here it has been extremely effective. The trade union which at one point had 500 members has lost 398 of them to the solidarista movement, some allegedly under threat of loss of their jobs, or of the closure of the plant if their union activities continue.

Despite the difficulties, Josť Armando and Juan Francisco remain resolute. "We are continuing our fight, because we know that without a union organisation we would lose all that we have gained in our struggle so far.

"Although our gains have been small, for us it represents a 33- year long struggle for workers' rights and dignity, and we can't afford to give it all up now because of a little bit of fear," says Juan Francisco.

And there is some hope. Earlier this year Coca-Cola issued a statement following a meeting with the International Union of Food and Allied Workers (IUF) in which it acknowledged that all Coca-Cola workers are allowed to exercise their rights to union membership without pressure or interference. The IUF is currently holding negotiations with the company to change this statement into an international covenant. While Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta may feel very far away for this small union at a bottling plant in the south of Guatemala, if the firm agrees to create such an international covenant it could change their lives.

And for Josť Armando, it could actually save his life.