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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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