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Chile: Starbucks Baristas Hunger Strike for Higher Wages

Categories: Latin America, Chile, Peru, Citizen Media, Development, Economics & Business, Labor, Protest

Coffee is a high consumption export product in many Latin American countries. Consumers may be aware of the disparity between how much they pay for a cup of coffee and how much the coffee farmers in far away countries may make, but perhaps they don't realise that what they pay may be more even than their barista's [1] hourly wage, as the Chilean Starbucks workers currently on hunger strike [2] state:

Hunger strike

The hunger strike demanding better working conditions [2] started by three Starbucks workers in Chile is up to its 11th day, with Starbucks [3] refusing to negotiate due to “company policies”, according to La Fundación Sol's (@lafundacionsol [4]) [es] Twitter update:

@lafundacionsol [5]: 11días de #huelgadehambre [6] y Starbucks le dice a sus “partners” @Sindicatosbux [7] q x polít corporativa no pueden dar benef en una Neg Colectiva

@lafundacionsol [5]: 11 days into the #hungerstrike and Starbucks tells its “partners” @sindicatosbux that due to corporate policies they can't grant benefits through a collective negotiation.

The three workers on hunger strike are members of the Starbucks employee union in Chile, which through its Twitter account @Sindicatosbux [8] [es] has been reporting on their 30 day strike and latter hunger strike. As Andrés Giordano, the union's president, explains in this next video interview [9] [es], their hunger strike is their last resort after all other efforts to reach an agreement with Starbucks were met with denials:

Through their blog [10] [es], started in 2009, they have actively posted information on their union and their efforts to work with Starbucks to arrive at mutually beneficial solutions. For example, part of the Starbucks policy was to provide transportation to employees who close stores after 10 or 11pm at night in far off locations or in areas considered dangerous, as reported in this December 2009 post [11] [es]. However, many locations and “partners” were not receiving the benefit, or due to routing issues arrived at their homes as late as 2am.

Back in November 2010, Starbucks’ partners in Chile wrote a letter [12][es] to their international visitors exposing some of the company's most offensive behaviors towards their partners. Although Starbucks excused themselves due to the economic recession, to the baristas it did not make sense that their prior benefits were being cut off, their salaries were staying the same and the yearly employee company party was cancelled while the top management went for a planning retreat to the Chilean South, complete with horseback riding and hot springs.

In the letter [12] [es] they  wrote:

No es posible que un americano alto preparado en 3 minutos valga más que la hora de un barista.

It isn't possible that a tall latte prepared in 3 minutes is worth more than a barista's hourly wage.

In this next video [13],  The Timber Beast [14]plays on the guitar and sings Joe Feinberg's ‘What Shall We Do With the Starbucks Bosses?’ in front of a Starbucks in Ontario, Canada, in support of the Chilean Starbucks workers:

The Wall Street Journal [15] reports that United States baristas are also supporting [16] their Chilean partners’ strike. In the article, Starbucks spokesman Jim Olson expressed that baristas in Chile make 30% more than the industry average and made reference to some of the 24 original demands which were dropped by the union, without mentioning the four that still stand.

Industrial Workers of the World [17] explains a couple of these demands:

Their most crucial demand is earning a higher wage. Currently baristas at Starbucks in Chile make $2.50/hr. while the drinks are still sold for US prices, and they haven’t received raises in 8 years. The baristas are also asking for a lunch stipend in order to eat during their shifts, this is something managers in Chile are provided.

In addition, workers are also requiring transportation for those baristas working in remote locations and for those in dangerous neighborhoods who after 10 pm have to figure out how to return to their homes. They are also asking Starbucks to provide them with their mandatory uniforms.

Is it illegal?

Starbucks coffee. Image by Flickr user MissTurner (CC BY 2.0). [18]

Starbucks coffee. Image by Flickr user MissTurner (CC BY 2.0).

None of this makes for happy employees, but is it illegal? In this podcast interview by El Quinto Poder with Marco Kremerman [19] [es], a researcher at the Fundacion Sol, he explains how companies like Starbucks take advantage of legal loopholes in Chile, such as the possibility of hiring replacements for workers on strike, turning their strike ineffective.

According to nacion.cl [20], Starbucks Union workers will report the company to the ILO for their anti-union policies. As Giordano was quoted:

Starbucks Coffee está vulnerando nuestra legislación laboral por sus reiterativas prácticas que buscan desarticular nuestra organización sindical y el proceso de negociación colectiva.

Starbucks Coffee is violating our labor legislation through their repeated practices seeking to dismantle our labor union organization and the process of collective negotiation.

Coffee [21] is one of the top world commodities and is mostly produced in developing countries. By far the greatest consumption is in developed countries, where people pay an average of 3 USD for a cup of coffee at chains like Starbucks. But when Starbucks opens in developing coffee-producing countries and maintains their prices, well, the contrast is noticeable.

Back in 2003, when Starbucks opened in Lima, Peru, BBC reporter Hannah Hennessy [22] wrote about it:

There are some locals who can afford to pay two-thirds of Peru's minimum daily wage for a cup of coffee, but even they know it is a luxury for the privileged few.

And seven years later, the situation is not much different: although Starbucks sells fairtrade coffee, some critics at the GreenLiving blog [23] of the UK's Guardian newspaper believe it isn't enough and that anti labor union policies affect its ethical rating.

This is by no means a Starbucks problem, though: the coffee industry in general has been criticized for its exploitative behaviors. Movies like Black Gold [24], which focuses on the gap between winners and losers in the coffee industry, specifically in Ethiopia, have been met with silence from the major coffee companies, as they explain on their FAQ [25]:

We wanted to include interviews with all the major coffee multinationals: Kraft, Nestle, Proctor & Gamble, Nestle and Starbucks. But they all declined our invitations, which you could say, speaks volumes about the transparency in the industry.

In the case of Starbucks, we spent over six months trying to get an interview through their PR agencies and their HQ in Seattle. They declined all requests and went on to publicly discredit the film when it was released.

So far, Starbucks has not addressed the strike in Chile, and its local website [26] [es] makes no mention of it. Now that the strike is echoing around the world maybe it will force Starbucks to answer questions like the one @micronauta [27] [es] asked on Twitter:

Si los precios q cobra Starbucks en Chile por sus productos son similares a los de EEUU ¿por qué los sueldos son más bajos?

If the prices Starbucks charges in Chile for their products are similar to those in the USA, why are their salaries lower?