South China Morning Post | 2008-12-17

By Lilian Zhang and Will Clem

Student activists have accused Coca-Cola of flouting mainland labour laws by mistreating contract workers at five bottling plants in Guangdong and Zhejiang .

While the students said they had not found any problems in the treatment of the soft-drinks giant’s directly employed staff, their report claimed there was widespread abuse of contract and other non-regular employees, who were often overworked, underpaid and underfed.

These workers are at the lowest level in the Coca-Cola Company, doing the most dangerous, toughest and most tiring work, said the online report, which was picked up by mainland media yesterday.

Their working hours are the longest but their pay is the lowest, and what’s more they are paid late and even have their pay docked.

The nine students – from the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing and other universities in Hangzhou and Guangdong – have also released an open letter to mainland sports superstars Yao Ming and Liu Xiang , both of whom have advertising contracts with the American-owned multinational.

We hope [you] can exert some pressure on the Coca-Cola Company you represent to improve the workers’ conditions, the students wrote in their letter.

If Coca-Cola does not correct its illegal actions in China, we hope [you] will immediately end your contracts with Coca-Cola and stop representing Coca-Cola’s products.

The report said the plants were using contract staff on a long-term basis – most had been at the plants for more than two years and some for as long as 10 years – in breach of the labour contract law, which states such workers should be employed only for temporary jobs.

The report claims to be based on the students’ experiences working undercover in bottling plants in Hangzhou, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Dongguan and Huizhou , and on extensive interviews with workers outside the factories.

The students also found problems with working hours and safety at four of the company’s suppliers.

The claims have been rejected by Coca-Cola’s management in four separate statements, issued late on Monday, which said the company had consistently complied with relevant labour laws.

Its statements denied other allegations in the students’ report. They include claims that contract staff had been physically abused and that the company had not given them help following workplace accidents.

A spokeswoman for the company failed to respond to a South China Morning Post reporter’s repeated requests for further information.

The students stood by their claims in a statement issued yesterday and demanded a public apology from the company for its suggestion, in a statement released by its plant in Dongguan, that they had attempted to incite a boycott of Coca-Cola’s drinks products.