By Mena El-Turky
As I was scrolling through my newsfeed on Facebook I came across a status that was applauding Coca-Cola for all of the good they do in the world. As it is not often that I see anyone applauding giant multi-national corporations, I thought I would take a look at what they were writing about. The post, which you can watch below, is a video called “Coca-Cola’s Happiness Machine.”
The video begins with scenes of migrant laborers in the UAE waiting to be shuttled to work in the morning. Following this are scenes of the workers living in crowded rooms, eating on the floor, and discussing how much they love and miss talking to their families. This video then reveals that the workers make 6 dollars a day, but it costs nearly 91 cents a minute to call home so the workers are unable to talk to and connect with their families often. The video carries on with moving music and scenes of workers smiling and using special phone booths installed by Coca-Cola, which accepts bottle caps instead of money so that they can call home. With each bottle cap, which costs .54 cents, the worker can talk to their family for a total of three minutes.
While watching the video, it is easy to get swayed by the motivating music and the scenes of workers connecting with family; it is even a bit emotional. Fortunately, 2 minutes and 48 seconds of propaganda did stir up my emotions, but not for the reason Coca-Cola would have liked.
Over the past few years there have been serious efforts to limit consumption of sugary soft drinks including a soda tax proposal and even an attempt to limit the size of sugary drinks sold in US cities. In 2012, the Pan American Health Organization linked sugar consumption to a rise in non-communicable diseases including obesity, pancreatitis, malnutrition, and hyper tension. In addition, the WHO states that heart disease, stroke, hypertensive heart disease, and diabetes are among the top 10 leading causes of death worldwide, all associated with sugar intake.
Although Coca-Cola appears to be doing something positive for the workers in this video, in reality it is exploitative and harmful. Coke is using low-income workers to advertise and to improve their reputation of bringing happiness to the world. In addition to this, Coke is also requiring workers to buy their product in order to use the Coca-Cola phone booths so that they can talk to their families. Although they are paying a 1/5th of the price per minute on a phone call, this would still increase their consumption of Coca-Cola and sugar, which can be addictive. This type of sugar consumption, especially after working in extreme heat for long hours, could contribute to the increase of non-communicable diseases.
While workers in the GCC are constantly faced with structural barriers that keep them in poverty and do not allow for a healthy life style, they are also targets of campaigns endorsing increased intake of unhealthy products. Coke’s efforts could easily result in this vulnerable population spending the little money they have and investing in harmful, addictive, sugary drinks.
Not only does this population need to be provided with a safe and healthy workplace, they need to be provided with access to healthy food, a healthy home, and a healthy lifestyle. Using these workers desire and need to keep in touch with loved ones to increase sales is exploitative and undermines the serious labor and human rights violations across the GCC.