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.



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