Coca-Cola workers in three Chinese cities have gone on strike following the company’s announcement that it will sell off its bottling operations in the country.

The company announced that it will divest its bottling stakes in China last Thursday between Swire Beverage Holdings Ltd. and China Foods Ltd., part of state-owned COFCO.

Workers protesting at the Coca-Cola factory in Chengdu. Photo: Tianya/ty_一路上有你706.

According to the Chinese service for German broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW), workers in Chongqing, Chengdu and Jilin held protests and went on strike on Monday, causing plants to halt production. They were protesting over concerns that COFCO will cut staff after it takes over.

According to photos of protest banners on social media, workers in Jilin and Chongqing are requesting meetings with the beverage giant to communicate their concerns. They demanded that no changes be made to conditions such as regular raises, staff positions, benefits and other entitlements within two years. They also requested a buyout offer from the company.

Workers protesting at the Chengdu factory. Photo: Tianya/ty_一路上有你706.

Keegan Elmer, a researcher at Hong Kong-based NGO China Labour Bulletin (CLB), told HKFP that it was exceptional to see workers taking apparently coordinated action against a multinational company across three different cities.

Workers protesting at the factory in Jilin. Photo: Weibo.

From the common protest banners, common lists of demands and the fact that the protests occurred at roughly the same time, it is clear that they were coordinated, Elmer said.

“It’s increasingly common, actually. Workers’ organisation skills have been increasing over the years.”

Protest banners in Chongqing and Jilin. Photos: Weibo.

A post on the Tianya forum cited by DW alleged that as the workers protested in the factory area, special police turned off all the lights, took away a pregnant woman and several workers, and some of the workers were beaten. A Weibo post on Monday night claiming to be a family member of a staffer included photos of a man with injuries to his chest and face, as well as doors that seemed to have been broken down.

Temporary personnel hired by police stations entered the Chongqing factory area and started taking people away, citing reasons of maintaining order. A bloody conflict ensued as unofficial police personnel broke down doors of washrooms that workers were hiding in, a local worker told DW. Six people were taken away, they said.

A man injured in Chongqing. Photo: Weibo/天o0堂0o鸟.

Many of the workers have been with the company for many years, said Elmer, and want to settle longstanding grievances with Coca-Cola as well as make sure that they will have security when the new firm takes over.

One banner said “We worked hard for some ten years – [it] was sold in an instant. Compensate! Compensate!”

Another said: “Give my youth back, compensate my time.”

Photos appearing to show a broken door in Chongqing. Photo: Weibo/天o0堂0o鸟.

A mid-level management Coca-Cola employee in China told DW that the company has not responded to the demands of staff that the company communicate with them over resettlement and the restructuring progress, causing tensions to intensify.

Many years ago, such labour conflicts easily exploded into violence and became dangerous very quickly for the workers and others involved, but workers have become more aware of their rights and are more willing to negotiate with management in recent years, said Elmer.

A photo appearing to show scuffles between uniformed personnel and protesters in Chongqing. Photo: Weibo/天o0堂0o鸟.

“Workers are extending their hand, and if management doesn’t extend their hand of friendship in return, and look at the workers legal rights and respect them and negotiate with workers, things can turn sour very fast, as we’ve seen in this particular protest – there have been claims of violence against workers already.”

A photo appearing to show scuffles between uniformed personnel and a protester in Chongqing. Photo: Weibo/天o0堂0o鸟.

Elmer added that workers are specifically asking for the All-China Federation of Trade Unions – the only union recognised by the Chinese government – to be present at the negotiations, though it has no history of bargaining on behalf of workers. That workers recognise that the union has a responsibility to them and are asking where it is is significant, he said.

HKFP’s calls to local Coca-Cola branches went unanswered.

Catherine Lai

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.