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Coca-cola has been accused of “propping up a notorious Swaziland dictator” whose human rights abuses and bilking of the national wealth has long been criticized by human rights activists. According to Guardian UK reporter David Smith**, Swaziland’s King Mswati III is Africa’s last absolute monarch whose personal wealth is gleaned in part from taxes paid by companies like Coca-cola while his impoverished people suffer from hunger, AIDS, TB and human rights abuses.
Calling for Coca-cola to cut ties with Swaziland, Swaziland Democracy Campaign coordinator Mary Pais Da Silva is quoted in the Guardian as saying:
“Coca-Cola must know they’re doing business with the wrong people. At the end of the day it doesn’t benefit the economy in any way. Their profits don’t help the average Swazi, while the king is getting richer by the day.” She added: “The king is milking the country. This is entrenching him more and more, giving him economic strength to crush opposition. Nobody should do business with the regime in Swaziland. They should cut ties and take their business elsewhere.”
Coca-cola’s counter to Pais Da Silva’s points to the ethical challenges of doing business across borders. Despite reports that up to 40% of the Swasi GDP comes from taxes collected from Coca-cola (via Smith), a spokeperson for the company asserts that they adhere to the “highest ethical standards” (Smith) and that the King does not directly benefit from their operations there, although the company “does not determine what the taxes paid to the governments of countries in which it does business are used for” (Smith). Furthermore, despite the fact that Coke began doing business in Swaziland when the company left apartheid South Africa for political reasons, the spokesperson stated that, “Coca-Cola is not involved with political agenda of any country in which it does business. Coca-Cola’s reputation is built on the quality of its brands, the highest standards of manufacturing practices, the welfare and safety of its employees and adherence to local and international laws as applicable in any country where Coca-Cola does business.”
Question: Can a company claim to operate at the “highest ethical standards” when money from their operations is being misappropriated to the benefit of a reportedly unscrupulous monarch? If no, then how is a company to determine which country is “moral enough” to do business with? Where is the line drawn between intercultural understanding and taking a moral and ethical stand, especially at a time when the moral high ground traditionally claimed by the US is in question?
**Read Smith’s full story in the Guardian here.