In July and August 2008 seven Chinese students carried out an extensive investigation into working conditions at Coca Cola bottling plants and suppliers around China. Their subsequent report claimed that the American super-brand was seriously infringing the rights of agency workers at its plants. The students' claims and the company's counter claims were widely reported in the Chinese press. China.org.cn interviewed one of the main organizers of the investigation, Yang Zhengjun, a graduate student at Beijing's Central University of Nationalities.
Before meeting Yang we had speculated that the choice of Coca Cola as the target of the investigations might have similar nationalist overtones to the Carrefour boycott that followed the Paris torch relay debacle. In fact, nothing could be wider of the mark. Yang explained that the motivation for the inquiry was concern about the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor and the plight of workers in the age of globalization.
Initially, Yang said, there was no particular intention to single out foreign companies, still less to focus on Coca Cola. The company's name came up while they were planning the investigation, when a newspaper reported that a Coca Cola plant in Shanxi Province had delayed the payment of wages. When workers complained to the local press, news reports claimed the company told the workers to go and get their back wages from the media. Yang said he was surprised by the firm's behavior.
"Coca Cola is a multinational corporation and one of the world's top brands and they have made a lot of money in China. So we expected them to pay more than average attention to their social responsibilities. It disappointed us that they failed to do so,"
Yang acknowledged that the Coca Cola brand had helped publicize their report. But he emphasized that conditions at the company were fairly typical of the working conditions experienced by agency workers in factories across China. It was that general plight that the students hoped to call attention to.
Yang Zhengjun, a student at the Central University of Nationalities and one of the organizers of a 2008 probe into working conditions at Coca Cola factories in China, told China.org.cn he was "delighted that workers have benefited from our action."
Yang was brought up in a farming household in the countryside near Chongqing. Like millions of other farmers, his parents became migrant laborers. When Yang was in middle school they left him in the care of his grandparents and set off for the faraway coastal destination of China's richest province, Zhejiang, to find work in one of its tens of thousands of factories. Yang explained that it was the only way they could pay for his education. Many of his cousins and other relatives are migrant workers and his family background has given him natural sympathy for ordinary people struggling to make a living. Yang told us that he had a bachelor's degree in engineering but had decided to pursue graduate studies in political economy.
"We just want to do something useful for society and perhaps bring about some small improvements," said Yang. He said the group had done other surveys before the investigation of Coca Cola, but this is the first time they had published their findings.
Yang said they were inspired to publish by the example of a Hong Kong student group who produced a similar report on working conditions in the Nine Dragons Paper company owned by China's billionaire "paper queen" Zhang Yin. "The Hong Kong students' action set us a very good example. Previously we just wanted to do something for society and especially for the poor but we didn't really know how to go about it. But we were inspired by their ideas and followed their lead."
By the time they completed their investigation at the end of August, Yang said the students were astonished by the extent and seriousness of Coca Cola's infringement of the rights of agency workers. They were particularly concerned by the excessive overtime being worked, with many agency staff working consecutive 12 hour shifts including weekends, and some clocking up more than 300 hours a month. They also had concerns about workplace safety, particularly around the way forklift trucks were being used. So they decided to publish the results of their investigation to exert pressure on Coca Cola to improve working conditions.
Yang said that the use of agency staff was widespread in Chinese industry, allowing employers to avoid granting staff benefits due to full-time employees and making it difficult to enforce labor laws.
Altogether seven students participated in the investigation Yang Zhengjun, two students from Zhejiang University of Technology Wang Wei and Gai Xuexue, and four others who prefer to remain anonymous because after all they are facing the world famous Coca Cola.
Yang told us that he was very happy that their investigation had produced concrete results. They wrote an open letter to the All China Federation of Trade Unions and to Coca Cola. They also wrote to the Ministry of Labor and Social Security (MLSS) which prompted the Ministry to conduct its own investigation. "At least the MLSS is investigating the issue. We hope they will take action."
"After hearing of the MLSS investigation, one Hangzhou Coca Cola factory is now trying to convert its agency workers into full time employees and is signing formal labor contracts with them," added Yang. "We are delighted that workers have benefited from our action."
In another victory, agency workers in Dongguan Coca Cola factories are now allowed to eat the same canteen as full time workers. Previously they had eaten poorer food separately, but the disclosure of the report and the resulting social pressure forced the company to change its policy. Now the company is expanding its canteens and improving the quality of meals.
Coca Cola is no stranger to controversy in China. In April 2008 the company became embroiled in a labor dispute at a Guizhou factory belonging to the Hunan-based joint-venture COFCO Coca-Cola Beverages.
Four months after a new Labor Contract Law giving additional rights to long term employees took effect on 1 January 2008, the company called the workers into a meeting and told them their jobs were being outsourced to a labor contracting company called Rongcheng, and that they would no longer be employees of Coca Cola. Following the transfer, workers said their monthly salary of 2,500 yuan (U.S. $365) was cut in half.
(China.org.cn by John Sexton and Zhang Mingai December 26, 2008)