Is Coca Cola Exploiting Laborers For Its PR Campaign?

Fatimah Mazhar
May 30, 2014: People are accusing Coca Cola of expoliting the poor living conditions of South Asian construction workers in Singapore and Dubai to advertise its products – and maybe rightly so. The soft drink manufacturer has a history of questionable labor practices and has been accused of suppressing trade unions.

Earlier this month, Coca Cola initiated its “Hello Happiness” advertising campaign, releasing spots in which underpaid South Asian laborers toiling in Singapore and Dubai are shown communicating with their families after a long time via drones and phone booths.

While the ads seem to spread a positive message through the extremely emotional ads, many see it as an attempt to use the terrible working conditions in Dubai for a PR opportunity – and they could be right – especially when the company has a long history of questionable labor practices and maltreatment of trade unions.

The commercial made for Dubai starts off by stating the average income of workers, which is up to $6 a day – adding these people, hailing mostly from countries like India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and the Philippines – have to pay around $0.91 per minute to call home.

According to the ad, Coca Cola is now helping these men make cheaper calls home by using bottle caps as currency.

A bottle of Coke currently costs $0.54 in Dubai. So, by using a special phone booth provided by the carbonated beverage company, the laborers would pay $0.54 for a three-minute call rather than $2.7.

A similar video about “spreading happiness” among the workforce in Singapore was also recently released by Coke. You can watch and read about it here.

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These ads not only appear to be an attempt at exploiting labor malpractices in rich countries for advertising a brand, but also seem to be a bit too hypocritical since they are being run by a company with a shady past. Following are some of the most controversial cases:

In 2000, Coca-Cola paid out $192.5 million to settle a racial discrimination lawsuit in the U.S. In the case, the soft drink manufacturer was accused of discrimination against black salaried employees in pay, promotions and evaluations.

Three years later, trade unions around the world launched a boycott of Coca-Cola products following allegations that the company's locally owned bottlers in Colombia were involved with illegal paramilitary organizations to suppress the local unions. A lawsuit was also filed in an American court but it was dismissed because the wrongdoings did not occur in the U.S.

“The suit alleged that the bottling companies ‘contracted with or otherwise directed paramilitary security forces that utilized extreme violence and murdered, tortured, unlawfully detained or otherwise silenced trade union leaders’, and that Coca-Cola was indirectly responsible for this,” the Guardian reported.

Subsequently, in the following years, campuses in the U.S., including New York University, Rutgers University in New Jersey, Santa Clara University in California, and Michigan University, among others, suspended sales of Coke products such as Sprite, Dasani water, Minute Maid juice and Powerade sports drinks.

In 2010, Coca-Cola Co. was sued by Guatemalan workers, who cited a “campaign of violence” similar to the one faced by Colombian workers.

In Pakistan, the international beverage manufacturer has been frequently accused of using anti-labor measures and forces of repression to attack the rights of the workers.

An unconfirmed source provides the following statistics:

“In the industrial city of Gujranwala, there are more than 600 workers under a contract system. They are paid low wages and deprived of all other facilities such as overtime, medical allowances, old age benefits and profit allowances etc. They have no contract of employment despite working in Coca Cola. They do not even get a week’s holiday.”

Taking the aforementioned cases into consideration, there’s little doubt that Coca Cola’s “Hello Happiness” campaign might just turn out to be a PR gimmick.