Starbucks chain sued for human rights violations in Kenya, Brazil

Starbucks' disposable coffee cup.  [iStockphoto]

Starbucks, the renowned American coffee chain, is facing a lawsuit filed by a consumer group in the United States.

The group alleges that Starbucks' public image is misleading, as it conceals numerous cases of labour and human rights abuses involved in the production of its products, including in Kenya.

A US consumer group is accusing the Seattle-based coffee chain of falsely advertising its tea and coffee as "ethically" sourced while obtaining it from farms plagued by human rights abuses in Kenya, Brazil and Guatemala.

The National Consumers League said in a lawsuit filed in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia that Starbucks "sources coffee beans and tea leaves from cooperatives and farms that have committed documented, severe human rights and labour abuses, including the use of child labour and forced labour as well as rampant and egregious sexual harassment and assault."

The lawsuit argues that in Kenya, a plantation operation that supplies tea to Starbucks has been accused of “rampant sexual abuse”, including by supervisors forcing women to have sex in return for work.

“Investigative journalists have uncovered extreme forms of worker exploitation and violence at farms supplying tea to Starbucks,” said the US group in its lawsuit.

"For example, undercover BBC reporters recently exposed rampant gender-based violence and sexual harassment at a Starbucks supplier, the James Finlay & Co. tea plantation in Kenya, where women reported being forced to engage in sexual acts in exchange for work."

James Finlays Tea Estate in Kericho County. [Kipsang Joseph,  Standard]

While the coffee giant has committed to “100 per cent ethical” sourcing, the lawsuit claims it has instead misled the public by procuring materials from farms and cooperatives that have committed various violations against workers.

However, Starbucks has strongly denied the claims laid out in the National Consumers League lawsuit.

“Please know we take these allegations very seriously, and plan to aggressively defend against claims that Starbucks has misrepresented our ethical sourcing commitments to customers,” Michelle Burns, Starbucks’ Executive Vice President of global coffee, social impact and sustainability, wrote in a public note to its partners.

Burns stated that Starbucks’ sourcing practices are “best in class”.

The Kenyan Government announced last year that local coffee farmers could soon sell directly to the world's largest coffee chain in a landmark deal that would more than double their incomes.

Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua said earlier the government was in talks with the US coffee chain for the US government-backed deal backed by American Ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman.

"We are soon meeting with Starbucks officials to fine-tune details of this deal," Mr Gachagua said.

According to the government, more than 800,000 farmers and another five million Kenyans are employed by the industry.

However, they continue to suffer low incomes due to a dysfunctional system that appears to favour middlemen and other “cartel” members.

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