Swaziland: Coca-Cola Abandons Swazi Workers

opinion

Coca-Cola has denied that it intends to take any lead in protecting the rights of workers in Swaziland from land-grabbing.

This follows global reports that the international drinks company had promised to stop all business dealings with subsidiaries that were involved in land grabs, where land is taken from poor people in developing countries without their consent.

Coca-Cola, under its Swazi subsidiary Conco, produces drinks concentrate using sugar. It makes up as much as 40 percent of the Swaziland's gross domestic product (GDP), but it is said to be exempt from paying full taxes.

In Swaziland, King Mswati III, who rules as sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch, controls all publically-owned land, and his chiefs do his bidding in ejecting people from the land they live on and cultivate if they disobey him or them in any way.

Manqoba Khumalo, General Manager of Conco Limited (trading as Coca-Cola Swaziland), told the Sunday Observer, a newspaper in Swaziland in effect owned by King Mswati, that Coca-Cola was taking a leadership role across the world in protecting land rights of farmers and communities, but this did not apply to Swaziland.

Khumalo told the newspaper that Coca-Cola was targeting 'top' markets and Swaziland has not been taken into consideration. 'Our plan to address the land rights issue starts with the assessment of our top markets and outlines concrete actions in support of sustainable agricultural practices around the world.'

Khumalo also denied that Coca-Cola influenced King Mswati and the way he ruled his kingdom.

Asked by the Observer, 'Does royalty benefit in any way from Coca-Cola's operations in Swaziland?' he responded, 'No'.

He added, 'Coca-Cola has not provided any personal gifts to either the King or his family beyond customary gifts presented at local ceremonies.'

Coca-Cola's role in Swaziland has been under scrutiny for many years. Swaziland has been indebted to Coca-Cola ever since it allowed the company to use it in its fight against workers' interests in other countries. In 2009, Coca-Cola closed its concentrate supply plant in Nigeria, citing an 'unfriendly manufacturing environment' in that country.

Coca-Cola also has an impact on the international standing of Swaziland's economy. The money generated by Coca-Cola is what largely accounts for the kingdom being classified as a 'lower-middle income developing country' (and therefore not eligible for certain types of international aid), even though seven in ten of Swaziland's one-million population live in abject poverty, earning less than US$2 a day.

Peter Kenworthy, of Africa Contact, writing in 2011, said, 'The real point, though, is that Coca-Cola is probably in Swaziland because it is a dictatorship that oppresses its unions and population. This allows wages to be kept low and unemployment high.'

Kenworthy visited one of the sugar cane fields in Eastern Swaziland, which produces sugar for Coca-Cola.

He wrote, 'The area that I visited, Vuvulane, is managed by the Vuvulane Irrigated Farms (VIF) but the sugar cane fields are under the auspices of the Swaziland Water and Agricultural Development Enterprise and the Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation who lease them to individual farmers, who in turn employ casual labourers.

'In a small village in Vuvulane, most of the adults worked in the sugar fields as casual labourers for between 400 and 550 Rand (US$40-55) per month. "This is not enough to pay for medicine, proper food or school fees for our children," one villager told me. "Sometimes we do not eat for days. We used to have our own vegetable gardens but these were confiscated by the sugar company. We sometimes fish in the nearby dam in the evening, when it is dark. If we are caught we will be arrested as the dam is owned by the sugar cane company," another villager said.

'Practically none of the children in the village, who were clad in dirty and ripped clothes and looked underfed, attended school and many of the villagers, receive food aid. In addition to this, the water supply is controlled by a privately owned company that readily closes the water supply form the village if they are not paid on time.'

In 2012, the prodemocracy group the Swaziland Democracy Campaign called on Coca-Cola to leave Swaziland immediately.

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