Coca-Cola ad delivers ‘happiness’ via drones, but the world’s workers are still thirsty

The latest ad from Coca-Cola, made in collaboration with the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM), has an upbeat, random-acts-of-kindness message. But before you help the ad go viral, some critical thinking is in order.

The two and a half minute video is part of Coke’s international “Where will Happiness Strike Next” campaign. This time, it strikes on top of Singapore’s skyscrapers, as cans of Coke are delivered via drone to migrant construction workers.

The ad agency that made the video is getting rave reviews in the media for its creative use of drones. Yet, few in the media have written about the background story– the abuse of migrant workers and their quest for rights and dignity. This is my humble attempt to contextualize the debate.

 The fine print

“Singapore’s invisible people” today make up roughly 36 percent of the country’s population. They most often come from southeast Asian countries and work for as little as $1.60 per hour in the world’s third wealthiest state. Stories of employer abuse, disregard for workplace safety and default on promised salaries abound.

There is also no room for love. Marriage between a migrant worker and a local citizen or permanent resident requires a government permit. A government spokesperson claims this policy is “to discourage and prevent a large pool of unskilled or lower skilled migrant workers from settling here through marriages with Singaporeans.”

Elusive empathy

The gap between the two communities—migrant workers and local citizens—runs deep. Few migrant workers can communicate in English – Singapore’s working language – and have minimal interactions with the locals. They also typically live in crowded dormitories far away from residential areas. Coca Cola’s ad reveals this lack of interaction.The only form of communication is via photos stuck on the side of Coke cans delivered to workers. A message from a local woman reads, “We wouldn’t have roof over our heads if it weren’t for you guys.” Yet, the chances are slim that these men will ever be invited to share a meal under the roofs they are building.

They keep coming back.

Like Coke, migrant workers are present in all corners of the world. According to the International Labor Organization they are approximately 175 million strong. For many, a decision to leave home was not a choice, but a necessity. The ncreased pressure of economic globalization, championed by large multinationals like Coca-Cola, creates uneven global distribution of wealth and has pushed many communities to the margins.

A can of Coke and some online exposure will not address this structural problem. However, a concerted effort by governments across the world, including Singapore, can. Ratifying the U.N. convention on migrant workers’ right is a first step.

Ultimately, Coca-Cola’s “happiness” campaign is analogous to its products: sweet, fizzy and unable to quench thirst. It sometimes also gives us indigestion. Hence this article, with a hope that it will stir others to action. Groups such as the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) are doing impressive work to advocate on behalf of migrant workers in Singapore and deserve our support.

Note: I refrained from using the term ‘low-skilled labor’ to denote migrant workers in labor-intensive industries such as construction. The jobs these workers do typically requires dexterity, strength and knowledge that ‘high-skilled’ laborers, typing at the computer, cannot even comprehend.

Here’s the video: