The real thing?

The truth about working conditions inside Coca-Cola's "Happiness Factory": wage cuts, 12-hour shifts

Coca-Cola’s current TV ad features life inside a Coke vending machine where hundreds of weird cartoon creatures individually make a bottle of Coke.

Small fluffy white balls bounce onto the bottle to cover it with kisses and penguin scientists frost the bottle with the flakes of freshly shredded snowmen.

The bottle is sent to the delivery chute accompanied by a full marching band, cheerleaders and fireworks displays. It is essentially the cast-offs from Lord of the Rings on acid with a work ethic.

It is cute, clever and if I was a child watching it I would have the uneasy feeling that I was being “groomed” by Coke. Tellingly the commercial is called “Inside the Happiness Factory”, though in fairness it is an advert for the company, so it is hardly likely to be called “Making the bastard workers do some PR”.

In an extended version, things go a little bit Aardman animation -- “real Coca-Cola employees [in America] were interviewed and their responses used by the animated factory workers.”

Describing life inside the “Happiness Factory”, a talking potato with rotor blades on its head says, “It’s a relaxed atmosphere. It’s not like some jobs, where you’re tense when you get here. It’s a good working environment.”

So great is the life of a Coke employee that a cartoon cheerleader (possibly a pear or a parsnip), tells us that she “could not imagine leaving”. And in the piece de resistance, a female tuba player with an Hispanic accent asks the camera, “What have I given to Coca-Cola? My loyalty and my love, I give that.” then she pauses and demurely chokes “Don’t make me cry.”

So there we have it, working for Coca-Cola is brilliant! How do we know? A flying potato vouched for the company.

There are no plans to produce a similar video using the comments of Coke workers operating the canning production lines at Milton Keynes or the bottling plant at Wakefield.

Which is just as well for the company. For the first time in 30 years the workers have gone on strike; they are less than impressed with life in the “Happiness Factory”.

Perhaps in the Milton Keynes version a penguin has just finished a 12-hour shift in hot and humid conditions. “This used to be a good job once, but over the years it has changed.”

A fluffy white ball on a picket waving a union banner adds, “We have exchanged our benefits for wage increases over the years, so we have paid for our own wage increases.”

Before a tuba player says, “They are offering us below inflation pay rise, so it’s actually a pay cut.”

On the Northfield industrial estate in Milton Keynes the pickets sit in front of the plant, shut for the day, on picnic chairs. GMB and Unite placards dot the grass verge.

At the Wakefield plant, which came out earlier, banners were brandished declaring “Strike, it’s the real thing.” The strikers list the slow erosion of their benefits: substitute team leader pay cuts, average holiday pay cancelled, the 15-minute handover at the end of a shift to explain to the next team the problems and events of the production line is no longer paid time. And now a wage deal that is again below inflation.

There has been no evidence of the company treating their more famous employees in this way. No one has reported a team of WAGS heading into Wayne Rooney’s pit cottage, shouting “Colleen, cum quick lass, there’s trouble at advertising agency.”

No one has yet seen her in desperation as Wayne howls, “An advertisin’ man needs a fair day’s pay fer a fair day’s work. A million’s all I ask, it’s nowt t’ th’company but bread an’ butter to an advertisin’ man.”

And so far there have been no solidarity meetings at Labour clubs up and down the country, where speakers glance at dignified but downtrodden Colleen and the WAGS, and in anger cry out “ Sum o’ these women 'ave not ‘ad a new pair o’ shoes in hours.”

The company could be in for a difficult time, summer is the peak demand time and if the sun finally shines they could find themselves running short, if the dispute continues.

But these are ‘ifs”, the only thing for certain is that all is not well in the “Happiness Factory”.

And the company with a brand logo that is possibly more recognised around the world than the crucifix, takes another blow to it's rapidly tarnished image.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.