Coca-Cola Paralysed by Ex-Fleet-Workers in Venezuela

June 13, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Former Coca-Cola transportation workers have totally paralyzed Coca-Cola production and distribution in Venezuela, calling for President Hugo Chávez to intervene in the six-year dispute over severance pay. Monday, Venezuela’s Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) ruled against the ex-workers’ claims and officially ended its 16-month mediation of the dispute.

Over the past five days, the ex-workers have blocked access to all four bottling plants and 26 out of 32 distribution centers run by FEMSA, the Mexican firm which holds Coca-Cola’s concessions in Venezuela.

According to Manuel Ureña, the national coordinator of the Union of Ex-Workers of Coca-Cola FEMSA, the company owes a total of 520 million bolivars ($242 million) to 11,633 former fleet-workers. “The company should assume the responsibility of fulfilling the labor rights of the ex-workers,” Ureña commented to the press this week.

FEMSA claims the protesting workers were last employed by the previous Coca-Cola concession-holder, Panamco, before FEMSA took over operations in Venezuela in 2003, so FEMSA is not responsible for the ex-workers’ grievances.

According to Coca-Cola FEMSA’s Human Resources director Ignacio Mayorca, the company lost $15 million as a result of three separate takeovers of company facilities by the ex-workers so far this year.

“These takeovers have brought consequences not only for production, but affecting the workers,” Mayorca stated. FEMSA currently employs 8,000 direct workers and 7,000 contract laborers in Venezuela. Many of these workers have lost wages due to the stoppages and have pleaded with the former workers to channel their struggle through the courts.

But the courts have not favored the former workers. According to Mayorca, FEMSA has won 27 court measures in several regions of Venezuela which rule that the ex-workers were never contracted to FEMSA.

These court measures, Mayorca argues, obligate the government to repress the protestors and protect company facilities. “It cannot be that in a state of the rule of law the authorities have not liberated the plants … we should comply with the rules of the game,” Mayorca told to the press earlier this week.

Moreover, Venezuela’s Supreme Court announced on Monday that it will respect these regional court decisions and no longer mediate the dispute, which it had done since March 2007, according to Venezuela’s Communication and Information Ministry.

The Supreme Court exhorted the workers to “Reconsider their stance, desist from the path of action, and dialogue with the company about the possibility of moving forward on the construction of a socially satisfactory solution.”

Judge Juan Rafael Perdomo, who had been in charge of the mediation, ruled that “the reclamations of the ex-transportation workers do not have a legal basis.”

“The problem is out of our hands. It now lies at the level of regional courts or direct negotiations” between the workers and the company, Perdomo added.

Venezuela’s Labor Ministry offered to assume mediation of the dispute Wednesday, calling on the ex-workers to heed the Supreme Court’s call to dialogue.

But the ex-workers hope to inspire President Chávez to intervene in the dispute. Oscar Ovalles, leader of the National Coca-Cola Ex-Workers Front (FRENEXTCO), said the former fleet workers want Chávez himself to end the conflict by deciding either for or against them.

Some of the protestors met recently with government officials who told them that Chávez supports the Supreme Court’s recent proclamations. If this is so, Ovalles declared, “We ask [the president] that by way of the media he tells us that we are wrong and this way we will remain calm.”

For two years, the former workers have counted on the support of National Assembly Deputy Iris Varela and Marcela Máspero, a national coordinator for the pro-government union federation UNT.

In the past, Varela and Máspero called on the federal government to nationalize Coca-Cola’s operations and produce “Venezuelan soft drinks instead.” Now, they stand firm in their demand that public security forces defend the protestors in their plight.

In late 2007, the company offered to contract the former workers in a transportation cooperative and pay them less than 2% of the pending severance pay they demanded. The workers rejected the offer and opted to occupy company facilities in January and February of this year.

Coca-Cola FEMSA claims to have become Latin America’s largest soft drink bottler when it acquired Venezuelan operations in 2003. The current stoppages impede the production and delivery of 700,000 beverages daily, according to Mayorca.

James Suggett writes for Venezuela Analysis.

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This post was written by James Suggett

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