Today’s spate of outrage over Pepsi cola’s newest commercial featuring Kendall Jenner caused the ad to be pulled, but the real problem with the company is its use of sweatshop labor and hoarding of drinking water
After some celebrities and the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr. tweeted mean things about Pepsi and Kendall Jenner, social media exploded with yet another misguided attempt at raising issues of social justice. Meanwhile, the arguably larger problem at hand regarding PepsiCo in my mind is not who is portrayed in their advertisements, but who is at most risk of a shorter lifespan because of their product. (Hint: it’s not Americans)
The past 15 years saw a rise of anti-cola campaigns due to their fattening content, and even a ban on the sale of large-sized soft drinks in New York City. The anger at Pepsi this time, however, was over the depictions of protest demonstrations by African American youths in their ad — this ad, the argument goes, is attempting to profit off the plight of Black America and shows the obvious disconnect between the increasing bouts of civil unrest in America over civil rights and class divides.
All of this is perfectly valid. And, after Pepsi pulled the ad, one would expect them to reconsider who is making the decisions at the ad company they hired for the spot for being so drastically off-base about what their target audience is likely to respond to. (Someone totally got fired today).
However, while racial inequality and obesity are two very real problems in America, being outraged over a 30-second commercial while completely ignoring PepsiCo’s use of slave labor in their factories and the hoarding of water in the countries they’ve moved their factories to is a typical, lazy Americans response. It’s easier to get angry about a quick clip you saw online and write a scathing 12-word review about it for everyone to like, share, and parrot than it is to research what the company actually does around the world and expose the real human rights violations they’re guilty of instead. The longer people stay asleep to these violations, the longer PepsiCo continues to fight legal battles to keep causing these problems for innocent civilians and workers while simultaneously pretending they are helping the world, and it’s no surprise why: slave labor and hoarding water makes Pepsi a butt-load of money every day.
Sucking India Dry For Profit
In the small village of Suriyur, located in the state of Tamil Nadu in south India, a PepsiCo plant is still working to resolve conflicts with residents of the region over low wages, unemployment and shortages of drinking water in the area.
The issues began a few years ago when rumors of permit violations had surfaced in 2014, one expired permit being found and seemingly never resolved, however the plant had continued to operate and drain water from the area, depleting farmers of what they need to continue growing food.
The conflict intensified in 2015 when Pepsico received police protection while taking large portions of the only clean drinking water near the village and exporting Pepsi products from the factory. A local farmer had started the Thanneer Iyakkam organization in 2013 to help residents of the area raise awareness and ended up at the forefront of the protests, telling India Resource Center, “Pepsi’s bottling plant has drained the water away from the farmers in the area, and there is a lot of suffering as a result.” PepsiCo, however, responded to this claim by saying it was actually “giving back more water than we take,” a claim which was never actually substantiated in any legal setting.
The Kaveri river is the biggest source of water in the area. Despite being at a 29-year low in 2003, the river has continued to be the primary source of irrigation in the area for multinational corporations (MNCs). Disputes over who controls the water goes back to the origins of the hydroelectric power station situated on the rivers famous water fall at Shivanasamudra city commissioned in the early 1900s, but today the control has shifted to MNCs and the politicians willing to take their money.
PepsiCo isn’t alone in this. They have their biggest competitor, Coca-cola, to thank for ruffling the feathers of thirsty Indian residents a decade prior, with people actually reporting their water being poisoned.
“Once the factory opened, the water level in the wells started going down. Initially, we did not know the reason for it. When we used that water, our eyes and skin had a burning sensation. Only then we realised that our water had been poisoned,”
says a 70-year old Kerala resident, where Coke had operated and eventually shut down over water pollution protests regarding pesticides in both the cola and the water.
Pesticides, Propaganda and Broken Promises
Recently, the Madras High Court outlawed the sale of water from the Tamirabarani river to any multinational corporation, which is a big victory for protesters in that area, however a mere bandaid fix to a much deeper issue, that of allowing both Pepsi and Coke to operate in the area in the first place. Pepsi, for example, claimed they would provide over 5000 jobs, yet to date they only employ around 500.
Aside from not helping by providing employment, the workers they do have are paid an average of what equates to $10,000 USD per year, well under the American federal poverty level and local businesses have had major problems getting enough water for their own businesses to keep them afloat.
In a case study presented by Archie B. Carroll and Ann K. Buchholtz in their textbook Business & Society: Ethics and Stakeholder Management, the authors cover most of the problems both companies faced in India over the past decade and a half, including the claims of pesticides in the two soft drinks occurring in the region. Pesticides, residents said, were found in both Coca-cola and Pepsi, and a 2006 study from the Center for Science and Environment (CSE) had indeed confirmed that out of 57 samples of Coke and Pepsi, 11 contained unsafe (read: illegal) levels of pesticides. This only resulted in partial bans of their products in 7 out of 28 Indian states after the UK’s CSE found the study “inconclusive”, and of course the ban didn’t last very long.
More importantly, the book, which focuses on how to handle a public relations crisis in myriad scenarios, shows what these companies did to try to dissuade the public from further protest:
“Based on its research findings, Coke created a TV ad campaign that featured testimonials by
well-respected celebrities. One of the ads featured Aamir Khan, a popular movie star, as he toured
one of Coke’s plants. He told the people that the product was safe and that if they wanted to see for
themselves, they could personally do so. In August and September 2006, more than four thousand
people took him up on it and toured the plants. Opening up the plants sent the message that the
company had nothing to hide, and this was very persuasive. The TV ads, which were targeted
toward the mass audience, were followed by giant posters with a picture of movie star Khan
drinking a Coke. These posters appeared in public places such as bus stops. In addition, other ads
were targeted toward adult women and housewives, who make the majority of the foodpurchasing
decisions. One teenager was especially impressed with Khan’s ads, because she knew he
was very selective about which movies he appeared in and that he wouldn’t take a position
like this if it wasn’t appropriate.”1
They go on to say that PepsiCo even lobbied the local government and worked closely with the local media around the region, providing their own data in contrast to previous studies.
Sweatshop Child Slave Labor & Union Leader Assassinations
While these water problems continue in India, PepsiCo and Coca-cola still have even more human rights violations on their hands around the world.
For example, in a 2016 report from the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), Indonesia’s palm oil giant Indofood was called out as “violating the fundamental rights of workers on its palm oil plantations,” rarely respecting the human rights of its workers, with children as young as 13 working on plantations. Pepsi has since distanced itself from Indofood publicly, but still works with them and shows no signs of progress
Coca-cola is worse.
In 2004, the organization Human Rights Watch had exposed Coca-Cola’s use of child labor in its sugar supplier in El Salvador. Among footage taken a few years later and aired as part of a UK documentary on sweatshops, child labor had clearly not ceased and was in fact running rampant on sugar cane plantations for Coke’s supplier. And it gets even more difficult to swallow.
Over the past two decades, reports of Coca-cola factories in Central America hiring paramilitary to handle worker strikes and wage protests increased to the point that union leaders began getting assassinated, covered up, rise and repeat. This began happening so often that a movement began to attempt to spread awareness, but has largely gone undisclosed in mainstream media. However, several books have been published on the subject, notably one entitled The Coke Machine by Michael Blanding which explains the problem in detail.
The unfortunate reality that people don’t want to face is that Coca-cola, arguably the world’s number 1 brand over all brands, is willing to do anything and everything to remain on top. That includes hiring CIA-trained assassins to murder union leaders who rile worker strikes too much. It may sound unbelievable to some, but the facts tell a different story.
The School of Americas (SOA) was the former name of the current Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC), a training ground in Virginia that specifically uses training tactics from the Central Intelligence Agency to train young recruits from Central America to be highly skilled assassins for hire by multinational corporations…. in Central America.
Columbia, for example, has had a series of highly publicized union leader murders which prompted the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations to reach out to President Obama in 2012 to urge the United States not to pass the Colombian Free Trade Agreement, saying “U.S. State Department is not enforcing the human rights conditions imposed upon U.S. aid to Colombia” and urging Obama to reconsider what they considered “anti-union” rhetoric. Despite this plea, the agreement passed and is now in play, and since then violence and threats have continued against union leaders working for Coca-cola.
Some documented cases have surfaced through the organizations Killer Coke and SOA Watch, but information is sparse when poverty is at play. Nevertheless, the list of human rights violations occurring from both brands of cola continue to this day while people in America tweet about a commercial they didn’t like.