How Coca Cola makes migrant laborers happy (while ignoring their plight)

Life is tough for the thousands of South Asian laborers that try to make a living in Dubai. The folks over at Coca Cola had a novel idea to make the lives of the workers a little bit better. They developed five special phone booths that allow people to deposit one Coca Cola bottle cap for a three minute call. The line of men, wearing their uniforms, are seen happily exiting the booth after making a surprise call to a loved one.

“I’ve saved one more cap, so I can talk to my wife again tomorrow,” says one of the men with excitement.

An estimated 40,000 workers made phone calls when the booths were set up in March. The New Yorker reports that they were taken down the following month. Coca Cola brought happiness, recorded its advertisement and moved on.

Hello Happiness,” as it is called, allows the major beverage maker to bring smiles to people while also prominently placing its brand. The nearly three minute advertisement feels less like an ad and more like a do-gooder viral video. Viewers are meant to connect with the men who are happier, thanks to a bottle of Coke and a phone booth.

It also glosses over the fact that the men have to travel away from home to live and work in Dubai. These labor migrants endure difficult conditions so that they can make enough money to send home to their families. They must spend months at a time living in small rooms with fellow laborers, that is when they are not performing back-breaking labor for most of the day.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), where Dubai is the economic hub, relies heavily upon migrant labor. Migrants represent roughly 90% of the country’s workforce and 88.5% of the population. Workers who come to the UAE have limited rights. They are not allowed to form labor unions

“Minimum labor standards are not respected, there are systematic complaints about poor accommodation and sanitation, salaries and medical services are withheld, and both experts and the migrants themselves report excessive police force and situations of forced labor,” said German Minister of the European Parliament Barbara Lochbihler, in December.

“This is unacceptable.”

Hello Happiness 2An investigation by The Observer in the same month found more evidence about the deplorable treatment of migrant workers in the UAE. Problems included the withholding of worker’s passports, poor living conditions and poor payment. One worker told the reporters that he lost a leg while working on the construction of luxury villas. He was denied compensation and was forced to live on the top floor of a migrant camp for a year. That was before he received a prosthetic leg.

Human Rights Watch’s report on the UAE for 2013 says that the recruiting and visa fees that most workers end up paying put them in de-facto forced labor. It cites an audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers on Saadiyat Island that found more than three-quarters of workers said they paid recruitment fees and slightly more paid for visa costs. Both are supposed to be paid for by their employers.

The random appearance of phone booths may very well have brought a bit of happiness to the lives of the migrant workers in Dubai. The video, which has more than 1 million views, may also lead people to like Coca Cola a bit more, even causing some sales. What it doesn’t do is change the reality on for the migrant workers. The conditions they face in the UAE remain extremely difficult, as are that of their families back home.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.