Coca-Cola might be focusing its public relations efforts on improving its health and social image in the eyes of consumers. However, on 5 May the press was more interested in the thousands of Coca-Cola workers who stopped work all over Europe to highlight Coca-Cola’s hypocrisy and condemn its recent formula of job cuts and increasingly precarious, outsourced and forcible “flexible” labour, writes Harald Wiedenhofer.
Mass demonstrations took place at the Coca-Cola headquarters in Anderlecht, Belgium, where workers from six Belgian plants congregated, as well as at the Coca-Cola Iberian Partners headquarters in Madrid, Spain. Further assemblies and press conferences were organised in France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Portugal.
Dispirited workers united under the flag of the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions (EFFAT), which represents 2.6 million workers in 38 countries, to denounce the company’s pursuit of cost reductions through the sole means of callous job cuts and weakened rights and conditions for workers, in spite of its solid financial standing.
The figures behind Coca-Cola’s systemic attack on its human capital throughout Europe over the past few years are none other than startling.
Coca-Cola Enterprises’ workforce of approximately 14,000 people in 2010 has dwindled to about 11,000.
Over the last five years, Coca-Cola Hellenic has closed around 25 to 30 per cent of its 120 plants, accounting for approximately 14,000 jobs lost.
In the face of immeasurable human suffering already taking place in Greece thanks to Troika-imposed austerity measures, only a few of the 11 former plants still operate.
Italian plants in Cagliari and Biella have closed, leaving about 580 workers unemployed.
Most recently, Coca-Cola Iberian Partners has begun slashing 1,190 jobs and will close four of 11 Spanish plants, failing to make any acceptable concessions to EFFAT members Fitag-UGT and Feagra-CCOO throughout a 30-day consultation period ending in February.
Together, these numbers are testimony to an insidious, undeclared corporate industrial strategy to reach The Coca-Cola Company’s ambitious goals set out in its 2020 vision, namely to double system-wide sales and profits, and to “streamline” the European operations that generate approximately 40 per cent of its profit.
These numbers give us every reason to fear that the ongoing destruction of jobs will be the permanent engine to maximise European profits. In stark contrast to The Coca-Cola Company’s mission “to inspire moments of optimism and happiness,” all we foresee Coca-Cola inspiring is moments of desperation and distress.
Belgian workers organised by the LBC-NVK, who have so far escaped the worst of Coca-Cola’s layoffs, and protested mainly in solidarity with their colleagues abroad, implored Coca-Cola to reinstate the “human element” in its human resources strategy.
“As long as Coca-Cola continues to dismantle the rights of its greatest assets – the employees whose daily efforts make Coca-Cola products successful worldwide – any efforts to enhance its brand and reputation are futile,” said Enrico Somaglia, EFFAT Company Policy Officer, before hundreds of protesters in Madrid.
In particular, the action day took aim at the “ambassadors program” by which Coca-Cola equips workers with tools to defend the company against health, environment and human rights criticism. It is laughable that Coca-Cola expect its workers to act in good faith as its ambassadors, while axing jobs on an ongoing basis, and consumers know better than to fall for a public relations strategy that disregards workers.
The workers demand a return to the constructive cooperation they shared with Coca-Cola in the past. They insist that Coca-Cola engages with trade unions to guarantee the long-term sustainability of the Coca-Cola system by considering alternatives proposed by workers’ representatives to avoid redundancies and outsourced labour.
The 5 May action day follows the publication of the European Manifesto for a socially sustainable Coca-Cola in March by the Coca-Cola Coordination Group overseen by EFFAT. It is part on an ongoing attempt by EFFAT to enter into a constructive and permanent dialogue with Coca-Cola management in order to agree on a shared approach to managing transition and limit the negative consequences of restructures on workers.
Harald Wiedenhofer is General Secretary of the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions (EFFAT)