Monday, June 02, 2014

Does a Coca-Cola ad campaign assist or exploit Dubai laborers?

Take three minutes to watch this recent advertisement from Coca-Cola. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Did this video make you feel all warm and fuzzy? You can admit it. What a wonderful thing for Coca-Cola to do, right?

However, the realities behind this ad campaign aren't quite so warm and fuzzy, as The New Yorker's Vauhini Vara explains:
The lives of Dubai’s migrant laborers are filled with hardship. Foreigners—including thousands of migrant workers from South Asia—make up more than eighty-eight per cent of residents of the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a commercial and cultural center, according to a report this year from Human Rights Watch. The report found that recruiters in countries like India and Pakistan often charge fees of several thousand dollars to migrant laborers to facilitate their trips to the U.A.E. and their employment once they arrive. Once workers reach their destination, employers sometimes confiscate their passports, the report said, and laborers are barred from organizing or bargaining collectively.

For some people, “Hello Happiness” was a poignant reminder of those difficult circumstances. “Almost made me cry,” one person commented on YouTube. But that view was far from universal. “No offense, but ‘Happiness’ would be working conditions that don’t cause thousands of deaths, non-exploitative contracts, fair wages,” another person wrote. The question is whether Coca-Cola is shedding light on a little-known human-rights crisis and, in its own small way, helping to alleviate the troubles of the victims of that crisis, or whether it is adding to the exploitation of migrant workers in the Middle East and Asia.
I can see both sides of the argument. On one hand, this Coca-Cola ad is giving a voice and a face to the "invisible armies" of South Asian laborers who are toiling in merciless desert heat as they build Dubai's soaring skyscrapers and gleaming shopping malls. It clearly references the long days, hard work, crowded camps and low wages these men must endure, thereby eliciting compassion for their circumstances.

On the other hand, there does seem to be something unscrupulous and even cynical about this campaign, especially considering that only five of these special phone booths were made and that they were operational for only about a month while the advertisement was being produced. Afterwards, the "happiness" being provided to these laborers came to an end; the phone booths were dismantled and the laborers went back to having to pay approximately one-half of their day's wages if they wanted to make a three-minute phone call back home. Furthermore, the ad makes no reference to some of the more troubling realities of labor work in Dubai: dangerous working conditions, unethical recruiters and contractors, the inability to collectively bargain. Vara continues:
I sent links to the ads to Nicholas McGeehan, a Gulf researcher for Human Rights Watch who has studied labor conditions in Dubai. I was interested in his take on the questions of appropriateness and ethics that some viewers had raised. The videos, he said, were “odious.” For one thing, he said, Coke is not only using these low-income workers to advertise its product, it is also requiring them to buy soft drinks themselves—at nearly a tenth of their typical daily wages, he pointed out—to use the special phone booth. On top of that, he feels that the ads normalize and even glorify the hardship faced by migrant workers—at least some of whom may be working against their will. “If this was two hundred years ago, would it be appropriate for Coke to do adverts in the plantations of the Deep South, showing slaves holding cans of Coke?” he asked. “It is a normalization of a system of structural violence, of a state-sanctioned trafficking system.”
The comparison to slavery is a bit overwrought, as I've said before: these workers came to Dubai voluntarily, to earn wages that, while comparatively small, are simply not currently available in places like Sri Lanka, Kerala or Bangladesh. Yes, some of them might have been lured by underhanded recruiters, and yes, some of them might be facing unacceptable working conditions, but it's not quite the same as being captured, brought to Dubai in chains and auctioned off to big developers like Nakheel or Emaar.

That being said, I do find the ad somewhat creepy. The thing that bothers me the most is not that laborers were used in its making, or that they were required to buy a Coca-Cola product if they wanted to use the telephone booths, but that only five of these kiosks were built and that they were only operational for a month. That just seems cruel. Why not build more of them so more laborers can access them, or leave them operational for a longer period of time, if not permanently? Surely that's something that a multi-billion-dollar corporation like Coca-Cola could afford to do in the name of creating long-term goodwill as well as brand loyalty in the developing world.

"Happiness," indeed.

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