Violeta Balhas

Human Rights Lite

In Opinion on April 1, 2012 at 1:26 pm

SumOfUs has a thank you card up on its website to thank Starbucks for standing up for gay rights.  Have you signed it yet?  While you do, I’ll just sign this thank you card to a dictator who had a nice park built for the country’s children.  Whattaguy.

According to SumOfUs, 250,000 people have signed the thank-you card, and they are now aiming for 300,000.  While they are busy going for this magic number, this organisation, which exists to keep “fighting for people over profits” is expending no unnecessary energy fighting for anything else that Starbucks may be doing or may have done.  For example, let me draw your attention to, where there’s a little petition asking Starbucks to switch to Fairtrade coffee.  Fewer than 28,000 people have signed it.

250,000 signatures for one, under 28,000 for the other.  250,000 voices supporting gay people to be symbolically united while living together (not against the law in the countries in which this is an issue, by the way).  28,000 voices asking for a fair price so that millions of people can provide food for their families as well as piffling things like shelter, clothing, health care and education.  250,000 voices for something not covered in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  28,000 voices for something that is.  250,000 voices for a First World problem.  28,000 voices for a Third World problem.  Which, you know, the Third World has got so many of anyway.  So we can drink our cup of Starbucks with a clean conscience, because yeah, gay people are being supported and that.

Starbucks will talk long and hard about their goodness.  Their ethics.  So much so, that it’s easy to believe that they pour warm-n-fuzzies into your cup along with the shot of caffeine.  That they are exemplary because, as SumOfUs said, “A big corporation did good for once”.

Did they?

Let us concentrate on human rights for a bit, because I’m assuming that people are human before they are gay, and look at Starbucks’ human rights record.

*  Despite Starbucks being the largest buyer of Fairtrade coffee, not all their coffee is Fairtrade. Only a percentage is – notably in their smaller markets outside the US – and it is a percentage that they agreed to after a great deal of pressure, just like when only after a great deal of pressure (and time – six years, in fact) did they agree to stop selling milk free of recombinant bovine growth hormone.  (Upon doing this, they also stopped selling organic milk.  The organic milk had been there, Starbucks said, as an alternative to the other milk, so the need was gone when the other milk was removed.  Do you remember ever being asked whether you wanted organic milk or milk with artificial growth hormones at Starbucks?)

*  Starbucks has set up coffee kiosks in the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

*  Starbucks actively has exercised what the US National Lawyers Guild called a “relentless and illegal anti-union campaign” and “retaliatory firing” of union organisers.

*  Starbucks has had six settlements in three years for complaints to the US National Labor Relations Board for violating workers’ rights.

*  Starbucks was accused by Oxfam of obstruction by lobbying against Ethiopia’s trademark applications for its traditional coffee varieties to boost income for some of the world’s poorest coffee growers.

*  Starbucks petitioned a US Federal Judge to allow the past sexual history of a 16 year old former employee to be revealed in court after she went public over the company’s alleged “failure to act” in a case of aggravated sexual harassment.

And the list, if you add ethical concerns to human rights ones, goes on.  Rather humorously, in fact, when to this you add the fact that their self-lauded “ethical sourcing scheme”, CAFE, is actually self-regulated.

So what is, in fact, Starbucks doing supporting same-sex marriage?  Something as light, frothy and insubstantial as one of their beverages.  It’s Human Rights Lite, where Starbucks doesn’t actually get to do anything that affects their bottom line, and where they don’t actually have to be held accountable for their own human rights violations and unethical practices because people are far too busy patting them on the back to see – or care – what they are up to.

Yes, care.  Because guilt doesn’t go down too easily.  Because we want to be able to walk into our favourite franchise and order exactly what we want, how we want it, and not think about all that stuff going on in the world somewhere.  So if Starbucks can provide us with our predictably comforting bevvie and take care of an issue for us, we’ll take it.  Grande.

Franchises take a product and standardise it so that despite the expansive, shiny lit-up menu on the wall, the choices have, in fact, already been made for us.  Someone at Starbucks has separated gay rights from human rights and decided that they are what’s going to be on offer.  And they might be a worthy addition to the menu, but are they worthy enough to completely replace the rights that precede them?

The next time a low-wage, gay Starbucks employee is forced to share his or her tips with their boss, or the next time Starbucks doubles health insurance costs, do you think he or she will nonetheless be happy and grateful because their employer company supports their right to marry?  If you do, the sweet stuff in your Frappuccino isn’t the only syrup you’re swallowing.



Hustling the hate hustlers

In Opinion on March 17, 2012 at 1:08 pm

We live in what is known as the Information Age. And yet what it’s done is facilitate untruths to the point of it being the Misinformation Age. There is a lot of crap out there. One particular piece of crap is a photograph by one “Robert Bretton” (actual identity unknown) of some totally bogus information comparing the benefits a pensioner receives from the government with what “illegal immigrants/refugees” [sic] receive. It has been doing the rounds via e-mail for some time and is now insidiously making the rounds on Facebook. Several friends – all of them lovely, normal, usually circumspect friends – have posted it. And it is particularly vile because its sole intent is to foster hate and division.

The beauty of seeing this kind of stuff in the Information Age is that you can easily check if it’s true if you care to. You don’t need your friends refuting it after you have posted it to find out it’s actually crap. And you can’t just post it without first checking that it’s true without accepting that you have just played a part in fostering hate and division.

I am not doing this to show up anyone who has spread this malicious piece of misinformation. I am doing it because sometimes one piece of crap is a piece of crap too many and someone has to point out the facts. I am doing it because Facebook is a powerful medium in which too few people practice accountability. Words are powerful. Anybody’s words. Even on Facebook.

The Australian government has actually published a rebuttal to the piece of crap (link below). Unlike the piece of crap, the author is known – it is Luke Buckmaster for the Social Policy Section of the Parliament of Australia – and it provides actual facts designed to inform you rather than push your buttons so you’ll rail at how unfair the system is. And that’s what “Robert Bretton” did. He knew that most people out there just want others to have a fair go and they will react when they see unfairness. If you reacted to his picture, you were hustled. But you can hustle him back. Get informed, and spread the TRUTH on.

Australian Government assistance to refugees: fact v fiction

(Reposted from Facebook)

Travel diary excerpt: Why I went missing

In Assorted Tripe on March 10, 2012 at 4:00 am


This trip is going to be different.  Last year, when Dani died, I said I was going to Argentina to cry for two weeks.  And I did.  And I do.  But this is a holiday.  I am excited about it because it’s a proper holiday.  I’ve even rented an apartment!  An apartment in one of my favourite streets in the world:  Hipólito Yrigoyen, a narrow, dark strip that crowds French and Italian style architecture among the shops selling fountain pens and cashmere.


It’s the single woman’s experience, except that I’m not a single woman any more.  I’ve done, and loved, solo travelling both pre- and post-Shane, but things have changed dramatically, and suddenly it’s a wrench to consider 2 1/2 piddling weeks away from the man.  I’ve told him off already for spoiling solo travel for me, but while sympathetic, he also seemed pretty smug.

Missing people is fairly new to me, and I don’t cope with it terribly well.  My daughter cottoned on a little while ago that I tend to pick fights before I go on a trip, and she forewarned Shane.  That was literally the first time I’d heard this, so with this new level of self-awareness, I was on the lookout for any impulse I may have to pick a fight, and didn’t.  That avenue of release and detachment closed to me, I had only one course left to me:  get melancholy and miserable.

I said “I love you” to Shane before he said it to me, but he said, “I miss you” first, and this revelation freaked me out fifty times more than my confession of love could ever have freaked him.  “Ummm…” I stammered, “I don’t really do the missing thing…”

I’ll make the reason simple, so that I don’t sound too maudlin.

When I first migrated, I missed everyone and everything, but as the years wore on, and memories became half-forgotten dreams, I actually started to believe that I’d never see any of it again.  It was just easier, less painful, to shut the missing function down.  Any pangs or yearnings were dealt a swift, fatal blow.  Add to this a first husband who was absent much of the time when my definition of wifely support included never complaining about such things, and yeah, I did absences really well.

When my first post-first-marriage boyfriend Nigel rang from England where he was visiting family, he also dropped the M-word.  There was an awkward, interminable pause.  “Well?” he finally asked.  I explained that I didn’t really miss people.  By that time – having returned to Argentina after a 26-year absence and reconnected with family – I was allowing myself to miss, and saw that acknowledging people’s absence in my life was a healthy, normal thing to do.  But this hadn’t worked its way to, you know, men.  He was speechless.  From memory, I think there may even have been a small sigh.

“That,” he finally said, “is pretty hard.”

I apologised, ashamed of my hardness, but at the same time resigned to it.  I shrugged.

“That’s the way it is.”

No, that’s the way it was.

Last time I saw Shane I pleaded with him that should I die while overseas, he should pretend that on our last night together I came to bed wearing something flimsy and delicious, instead of collapsing in what I’d been standing in.

“If you die, that last thing I’ll remember will be lingerie,” he scoffs.

I prod a bit.

“I’ll be thinking of your eyes, and your huge grin.  The feel of your skin.  Your laughter.  You singing around the house.”

Let’s face it:  the very least I can do is miss the guy.



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