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Tag: "labor"

Bought and Sold by the Nail Salons

[ 16 ] November 15, 2015 |


You may remember the big New York Times nail salon labor expose of a few months ago that made a real difference in allowing these workers, primarily women with few English skills and often here without documentation, to have some semblance of dignity in their lives. Well, the nail salon owners know how to fight back. By buying off politicians:

In a packed hall in the Bronx a few months ago, Ron Kim, a New York State assemblyman, stood clutching a ceremonial pen in his left hand, the other extended into the crowd as labor advocates, politicians and immigrant rights workers thronged to shake it. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had just used the pen to sign into law a bill protecting nail salon workers from labor abuses and potentially dangerous chemicals. It was a measure that Mr. Kim, who represents the mostly Asian enclave of Flushing, Queens, had spent a painstaking summer helping to craft.

Less than a month later, however, Mr. Kim, a Democrat, began to publicly question the law — particularly a provision designed to protect workers from wage fraud. He soon became one of the statute’s most vociferous critics.

Other elected officials and civic groups have expressed concerns about the statute, which passed the State Legislature after The New York Times published a two-part series in May on abuses in the industry. They argued the law was discriminatory and overly burdensome on immigrant-run businesses, and contended it unfairly lumped responsible nail salon owners in with those who are mistreating workers.

But Mr. Kim came to play a critical role in the owners’ battle, helping them strategize and connecting them to a lobbying firm where he used to work. Among the firm’s first tasks was to help with public relations around a lawsuit filed by the owners challenging the legality of portions of the law.

There is clearly a political upside in the nail salon fight for Mr. Kim, who in interviews covered by the Korean-language press has alluded to his hope that the issue will help mobilize Asian-American voters and in that way strengthen his position in the Assembly. More tangibly, Mr. Kim’s campaign coffers are swelling.

Give the nail salon owners credit–they may be immigrants themselves but they rapidly learn the American way of fighting against pesky reformers. A big check will do it.


Child Performers

[ 61 ] November 12, 2015 |


Child models and performers are workers too and they deserve protection, often from their own parents. Glad to see legislation introduced into Congress to given them those protections.

On-Call Scheduling

[ 30 ] November 10, 2015 |


One of the worst things about many American employers is on-call scheduling. Mercifully, several chains have backed away from it under pressure over the increased exploitation of department store workers.

J. Crew recently joined a group of several other top retail chains in dropping on-call scheduling—the system that requires workers to make themselves available for a shift with no guarantee of actually getting any clocked hours. Under on-call scheduling, workers generally must be ready to be called in for a shift just a few hours beforehand, and often that meant wasting valuable time by not being called in at all. In addition to J. Crew, Urban Outfitters, Gap, Bath & Body Works, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Victoria’s Secret, and various affiliated brands, have announced that they’re phasing out on-call nationwide.

The abandonment of on-call at these high-profile chains—affecting roughly 239,000 retail sales workers, according to the Fair Workweek Initiative (FWI)—represents growing backlash against the erosion of workers’ autonomy in low-wage service sectors. The pressure for reform has been stoked by media scrutiny, labor protests, and litigation, and an investigation into on-call scheduling in New York retail stores by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

This is only a nice first step. The exploitation of these workers can morph into one of any number of forms:

 But the fight for fair labor practices isn’t over in retail. Carrie Gleason, director of the FWI, a project of the advocacy group Center for Popular Democracy, says nominally phasing out on-call at a workplace may simply lead to a “whack-a-mole situation,” pushing managers to find other ways to drive workers into erratic and unstable schedules. Your supervisor might not call you in two hours before a shift starts, but might still abruptly cancel your pre-scheduled shift, or text on an “off” day to pressure you to sub for a coworker. Some workplaces might have a set start time for shifts, but then pile on on-call extended hours, so the workday expands unexpectedly. Across the service sectors, Gleason says, “there’s not a real commitment around standards around what workers experience as a predictable schedule.”

The entire system of unstable scheduling in the service sector is totally unacceptable and means that workers, many of whom are juggling multiple jobs and children, can have no stability in their lives. Fighting against this needs to be a major progressive goal. We are seeing a few victories here. There’s a long way to go. We need legislative solutions to this problem. Voluntary programs won’t work because they never work without a stick of enforcement. Moreover, there’s no actual reason for this form of scheduling to exist except that corporations simply don’t value their workers as people who deserve basic dignity.

The Central American Counterexample

[ 14 ] November 10, 2015 |


One of the things that drives me most crazy about the self-congratulatory rhetoric promoters of trade deals routinely use is that free trade is awesome because of the Asian economies and so we should embrace more, more, more unrestricted free trade! There are a number of problems with this. First, this narrative totally leaves out the actual workers in Asia and their own demands on the system. Second, they serve as apologies for exploitative American corporations. Even if the ultimate claim is true, that doesn’t mean that corporations should be able to recreate the American Gilded Age in Bangladesh. 1138 workers don’t actually have to die. Quit apologizing for that.

But the other obvious problem with this rhetoric is that it totally leaves Central America out of the analysis. To say the least, trade agreements have not raised living standards or created stability in Central America. In fact, they’ve been pretty bloody disastrous. Cole Stangler and Maria Gallucci on the failure of trade agreements in Guatemala:

Things were supposed to be different in Guatemala. When the country joined the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement in 2006, proponents of the deal said it would improve conditions for workers, raise wages and make it easier for laborers to organize. Seven years later, Guatemala was named the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. Critics say basic rights of workers to form unions and speak out without facing discrimination are not enforced.

Supporters of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are making many of the same promises. As they aim to shore up support in the U.S. Congress, proponents of the hotly contested trade deal say it will improve labor standards across signatory nations — especially in those countries known for mistreating workers and failing to enforce employment laws. According to U.S. officials the TPP “has the strongest protections for workers of any trade agreement in history.”

Cafta supporters struck a similar tone a decade ago. Seeking support from Congress, then-United States Trade Representative Rob Portman said the deal had the “strongest labor and environmental provisions of any trade agreement ever negotiated by the United States.”

Since the deal was signed, violence and intimidation of labor activists in Guatemala has spiked.

“Despite many years of promises by successive governments to take the steps necessary to respond to this crisis, the situation has only worsened with each passing year,” found a 2013 report from the International Trade Union Confederation, the world’s largest trade union federation.

Murder is a constant problem for workers who organize unions in Guatemala. Since 2007, more than 70 labor activists have been killed, according to the nonprofit Solidarity Center, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Kidnappings, break-ins and death threats are fairly common as well.

Export-oriented factories, or maquiladoras, have thrived under Cafta. While the facilities are supposed to respect labor law to receive generous tax breaks, Guatemalan authorities rarely enforce this requirement. Bosses regularly block efforts to organize unions, use subcontractors to avoid legal liabilities, demand uncompensated overtime and oversee hazardous working conditions.

At hospitals, workers can go weeks or months without a paycheck from their employer: the Guatemalan government. In Santa Elena, many of the nearly 500 people who work at the San Benito Hospital — from doctors and surgical assistants to janitors and administrative personnel — are awaiting two months’ pay. “It’s demoralizing,” said a surgeon, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions.

Cathy Feingold, director of international affairs with the AFL-CIO, said the structure of Cafta left little incentive for the Guatemalan government to monitor and improve labor standards. It allowed Guatemala to start reaping the rewards of the trade pact without first showing evidence it was complying with the deal’s labor standards.

Critics say TPP commits the same error. Without immediately demanding that countries comply with its labor provisions, it extends benefits to countries like Malaysia, where a recent report found nearly a third of all migrant workers in the nation’s booming electronics industry are working under forced labor conditions, and to Vietnam, which bans all unions that are independent of a top-down labor federation tied to the Communist Party dictatorship.

Guatemala also suffers from the ravages of the inter-American drug trade, sends tens of thousands of migrants north a year to try and make a better life in the United States, has enormous problems with gang violence and political corruption, etc., etc. Trade agreements like CAFTA have done nothing to protect workers or union organizers, haven’t led to a better standard of living, or done anything at all they promise. Some of these problems, like the murder of union organizers, are definitely issues in Asia as well and almost certainly will be under the TPP as well. Others may be worse in Guatemala than Bangladesh. But then again, maybe not. In any case, if promoters of free trade agreements are going to make an honest argument about their benefits, they have to take Central America as seriously as they do Asia.

The reality of course is that for different reasons depending on country that different groups benefit from these agreements and that other groups do not benefit or even suffer. And certainly said trade agreements could be applied much more fairly to help people lived dignified lives. But that’s a level of complexity you rarely see from free trade prophets who would just prefer to forget that Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras exist when making their public arguments while being very happy to remember them when seeking to move factories around for the cheapest possible labor.

UAW/GM Negotiations

[ 8 ] November 7, 2015 |


The latest in the United Auto Workers’ negotiations with the Big Three is pretty interesting. As I discussed earlier, the UAW forged an agreement with Chrysler that at least rolls back the despised two-tiered wage system instituted when the car companies were near death at the end of the last decade. The union has now negotiated a deal with General Motors. But there’s a lot of rank and file grumbling about this pact. There was at Chrysler too, and in fact the membership’s rejection of the first offer did lead to a better one.

Today ends the voting on the new contract. It looks like it will narrowly pass. UAW leaders are telling members that if they reject this, the only option is to strike. I always hate to see union leaders use the threat of a strike they don’t support as a negative. Maybe they do believe that GM won’t give a single inch more, I don’t know. But a strike led by union leadership that doesn’t want to do it in the first place is probably unlikely to succeed. In any case, it isn’t going to happen, which is probably a good thing.

Upcoming is a real bear for the UAW, with Ford opening using capital mobility as a threat against the union if it is forced to agree to the same terms as Chrysler and GM. The use of capital mobility has been a common threat against unions for decades now, and it’s real enough that labor has to take it seriously (as do those who criticize labor for not being militant enough). There’s plenty of examples of companies leaving because of unions forcing them to treat workers with dignity and respect. There’s plenty of examples of companies already choosing to leave and looking to blame it on unions. And there’s plenty of example of this sort of threat being pretty empty. With Ford, I’d guess that it’s somewhere between all three, with the company probably moving more production to Latin America anyway but certainly not all, largely because the political implications would be bad for the company.

And don’t think that workers don’t know this. One example from one of the linked pieces above:

Jennifer Sanders is a recently hired worker at GM’s Flint Truck Assembly plant.

“I’m pleased with the health care changes, but mostly I see job security as our biggest concern,” said Sanders, who was laid off earlier this year from the Orion Assembly plant because of declining sales of the Chevrolet Sonic and Buick Verano. “I’d like to get to the full Tier 1 wage right away, too, but if you give me a raise today and then send my job to Mexico next year it doesn’t matter.”

So long as unrestricted capital mobility is a threat, working-class people will never have security in this country.

Members-Only Unions

[ 13 ] November 4, 2015 |


Moshe Marvit and Leigh Anne Schriever have an outstanding essay on members-only unionism. In other words, in a corporate and political regime that seeks to destroy unions, something that will likely be significantly advanced by the Supreme Court Republicans in Friedrichs next year, it’s quite possible the near future of many labor organizations will be as voluntary organizations without collective bargaining rights. In fact, that’s pretty common now, especially in right to work a person to death states. The union I played an early role in organizing at the University of Tennessee is a members-only organization. In order to do this, you need committed union activists who are going to do a lot of work in their free time to build a democratic union that seeks collective action in order to push for worker rights. That has to be done without any hope of ever getting a contract or any kind of employer recognition. Marvit and Schriever discuss three case studies of members-only unions, with their potential and their problems. And the problems are real enough–it’s constant work for little concrete gain. Yet these unions also energize and empower workers and actually do win real gains from time to time. In the public sector, they can make alliances with friendly state legislators, conduct protest actions at state capitals and public events, and be a worker-centered gadfly against employer policies. This isn’t a glorious future, but it is a real future. Workers will never give up fighting for better lives and if the current anti-union trends continue, more and more will need a different kind of organization than they have today. Marvit’s and Schriever’s conclusion:

As a result of anti-union laws and extreme employer and governmental opposition, organizing a union and collectively bargaining with an employer are virtually impossible tasks for many workers in many regions of the country. The members-only model that has existed in this country for over a century, and continues to exist in many of these labor deserts, may provide a way forward.

Though few members-only unions have been able to get collective bargaining agreements (CBA) on behalf of their members, they do provide appreciable benefits in the workplace. They provide a structure for worker solidarity and collective action; a means of accessing some of the protections of the NLRA; an inroad for labor in inhospitable territory; a framework for workers to advocate and organize local political change; and a means of disseminating information. Additionally, though members-only unions often appear as a hybrid between more traditional exclusive-bargaining unions and worker centers, they are unions. Their goals—even if not often reached—are to organize and negotiate on behalf of their memberships. For these reasons alone, major unions should employ the model as both a path to majority and as a beachhead in hostile parts of the country.

Furthermore, a simple change in the law, or legal interpretation of the NLRA could significantly change these unions ability to get CBAs. Though many legal scholars have debated the question of whether employers must bargain with members-only unions, neither the NLRB, nor the courts, nor Congress has fully considered the issue. If the law were changed or interpreted to require bargaining, members-only unions would have a clearer path to contracts and majority.

The Low-Wage New Industrial Jobs

[ 126 ] November 2, 2015 |


When wages and working conditions in the United States get bad enough, a few industrial jobs begin returning to the U.S. But most of those jobs are hard and bad, with low wages and poor working conditions. Companies use the same strategies of employment obfuscation and opacity to protect themselves from having to treat employees with respect that they use in the global race to the bottom while the future of the American working class remains dire. Alana Semuels has a good piece about so-called “onshoring” in Tennessee and how the return of a minimal number of manufacturing jobs creates no good times for the American working class. A couple of quotes, with commentary:

One man, who works for parts supplier Magnetti Marelli, which opened its first lighting-production plant in Tennessee in 2013, told me that employees are required to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. For this, they earn $12 an hour. The man, who didn’t want his name used for fear of retribution from the company, said the job has scarred his hands because he has to work quickly with wire harnesses, but that he can’t quit because he has a family to support.

“The labor laws in the United States ought to stand up and say you can’t do this to a human being,” he told me.

A spokesman for Magnetti Marelli, which is owned by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, said that the schedule is related to a ramp-up phase ahead of new-product launches.

Magnetti Marelli, like most manufacturing plants in the South, is not unionized. And those who work at such plants likely won’t see the sort of mobility that Conklin has experienced. The compensation for these jobs is not on step with today’s economy: Wages for workers at non-union automotive plants have fallen 14 percent from 2003 to 2013, when adjusted for inflation, according to the National Employment Law Project.

The company has no reason to even deny that it’s crushing workers’ lives in an 84-hour a week job in conditions reminiscent of the Gilded Age. The idea that such a schedule is necessary is of course ridiculous because, you know, the company could hire more workers. But like U.S. Steel in 1905, forcing workers to labor 12-hours days is part of the management prerogative that employers love and they make workers suffer because of it. This is why unions are needed, but with the extreme capital mobility of the early 21st century, Magnetti Marelli may well move their factory to another non-union state or back over the border if the employees unionized. With jobs so scarce and mobility to enhanced, it’s hard to blame them for grasping to such a horrible job. Because what is the alternative?

Darius Mir grew his business 9to5 Seating, which makes office chairs, by moving manufacturing from California to China in the early 2000s. But manufacturing in China became increasingly challenging. The global slowdown shuttered dozens of plants in China, and some skilled workers went home to their villages, Mir told me, so that the company had trouble finding good employees. What’s more, as China devalued its currency, 9to5 Seating had to spend more on wages because of the unfavorable exchange rate, making it less cost-efficient to produce goods in China.

Looking for solutions, Mir did some research and realized that if he could locate a plant somewhere in the central U.S., where he could ship goods to customers in a day, and if he could automate some jobs to save labor costs, producing chairs in the U.S. could work. Thanks in part to automation, he found, a task or order that would take 22 people in China can be done at the Tennessee plant with five. With the help of generous incentives, the company started manufacturing on 100,0000 square feet in Union City, Tennessee, where Goodyear had closed a massive plant in 2011. Mir is now adding 200,000 square feet of space to ramp up manufacturing in the company. (The U.S. part of the company is called Made In America Seating). He employs 40 people, and hopes to grow to 80 by the end of the year, and 500 within five years.

The average wage, Mir told me, will be $38,000 a year, and unskilled employees will start working at $11 an hour.

“A person would be able to without much experience or skills, would be able to start work in the region where we are from $9 to $11 or $12 an hour,” he told me. “We are keeping to the middle of that range.”

$11 an hour is not really a livable wage, even in a relatively poor part of the nation, especially if you have a family. It is however the market wage. If it was a livable wage, would Mir locate his factory in Union City? Given that he has the ability, thanks to unhindered capital mobility, to move anywhere at any time, probably not. But while an $11 hour is better than abject poverty, it certainly doesn’t create a stable working class, nor is it intended to do so. A stable working class might well have the ability to raise those wages and send the jobs somewhere else, thus destabilizing said economically and socially stable workers.

Nissan has made cars in Smyrna since 1983, and the town, and even the county, grew up and prospered around the plant, adding nearly 200,000 residents since the plant opened. But Smyrna suffered during the recession when Nissan, facing huge financial losses, offered buyouts to 6,000 employees in Tennessee and eliminated a night shift. The unemployment rate in Rutherford County reached 11 percent, and did not fall below 7 percent until late 2011.

When Nissan ramped up again after the recession, they hired low-paid temporary workers through agencies such as Yates Services.

Robert Bruhn, 49, was hired by Yates to work at the Smyrna plant three years ago. It was a good job, compared to what he was doing at the time, working for an oven manufacturer for $13 an hour. Yates started him out at $14.50 an hour, although he stood on the line next to people who made $25 or $26 an hour. Other less-skilled Yates employees start out at $12.80 or so, and Yates workers never earn more than $18.50 an hour, he told me. After pushback from workers, Nissan has allowed some workers to transfer to Nissan as part of the Pathway program, though Bruhn told me that the selection of transfers seems random. (He applied a few times before he was finally accepted and transferred in September.)

Still, Bruhn gets less of a bonus and a lower wage than other full-time Nissan employees.

“There’s no way to reach the top here,” he told me. Josh Clifton, a Nissan spokesman, responded that the use of staffing agencies is “standard practice” in the automotive industry, and that Nissan employees in Smyrna receive competitive pay and benefits).

While Nissan will not disclose how many of its workers are temporary, Ed Ensley, a worker who has been at the plant for 30 years, says he thinks only about 30 percent of current full-time workers are Nissan employees. Ensley is a full-time Nissan worker, but he wants to form a union at the plant because he’s disappointed in how morale and quality have suffered since the increase in temporary workers. This is something he’s made clear at the plant, by giving speeches in the lunchroom and by approaching executives from Japan about the need for a union.

So far, he hasn’t made much progress, even as he’s seen the town of Smyrna deteriorate. Some new hires are making less than what he made in 1982, Ensley told me. Along the main drag of Smyrna, there’s been an uptick in payday-loan stores, and Nissan recently instituted a cell-phone lot for people picking up family members from work; Ensley suspects the change is because so many employees can no longer afford to be two-car families.

Meanwhile, the Smyrna plant is becoming the most productive in the nation, and last year produced 648,000 cars. Nissan made $1.57 billion in the first quarter of this year, a 58 percent increase from the previous year.

This use of long-term temporary workers is a big part of Japanese auto makers employment strategies in the South. The Toyota plant in Kentucky does the same. This causes all sorts of problems for workers who are doing the exact same job as the person next to them who works directly for Nissan or Toyota but who makes 50-60 percent of the wages and benefits (if there are any). This is the type of employment obfuscation that brings multiple employers into the same factory, makes unionization all the more difficult, and shields the parent company from financial and sometimes legal responsibility for those workers. Once again, the temporary work industry, which may have reason to exist when Macy’s needs to increase its staff for December alone, has been massively twisted into a Frankenstein that major and highly profitable employers use to increase profits on the backs of workers. Like so many of these labor arrangements such as franchising, subcontracting, outsourcing, etc., long-term temp work needs to be heavily regulated or banned outright if we want American workers to become middle-class people.

In short, American workers need good, well-paying, stable jobs. Even when work has returned, they don’t have that. No increased Earned Income Tax Credit is going to solve this problem. We have to have a jobs program that provides livable wages and dignified lives if we want a stable nation not wholly owned by corporations and if we want to fight poverty and social problems. Unfortunately, even many on the nominal left don’t take this seriously enough, preferring vague and meaningless paeans to education and useful but small policies like an expanded EITC credit as solutions to these problems. It’s not nearly enough.

For workers, the jobs are welcome because they are better than the poverty For Tennessee workers, the jobs are welcome because they are better than the poverty that gets Paul Theroux decried as a moral monster for writing about them instead of African workers. But it doesn’t mean these jobs that once could help a worker into the middle class are nearly enough to provide the stability we need to build American society.

How Employers Deal with Sexual Harassment

[ 21 ] November 2, 2015 |


Sarah Jaffe provides the details of a story that says all too much about how too many corporations deal with sexual harassment on the job. They cover it up, try to shut down the worker, and facilitate the harasser to continue exploiting women.

Not long afterward, as she waited for her carpooling colleague again, the coach came up to Agganis and began rubbing her shoulder. She pulled away. He said nothing then, but in their next weekly “coaching,” Agganis said, he told her one of her metrics was a little below target and that he could write her up for it—but he wouldn’t. “I felt threatened that if I didn’t put up with his behavior he would write me up and make trouble for me,” she said. Agganis began having panic attacks, and was prescribed anti-anxiety medication for the first time in her life.

When she went to human resources to make a complaint, though, she felt dismissed. By that time, she’d googled her coach, Gary Rochon, and according to the legal complaint she’s filed, found that he had lost his medical license in Wisconsin for having a sexual relationship with a patient. Healso lost a job in Maine following accusations of sexual harassment. Agganis questioned T-Mobile’s judgment in hiring someone with his history to manage a workplace staffing mostly young women, and asked for him to be put on suspension while the company conducted the internal investigation she was told would happen. Instead, she said, she was advised to stick it out until the next rotation, when she would be given a new supervisor.

She was asked to sign a confidentiality form, she said. Agganis asked for time to read the form, and was shocked to discover that it seemed to be telling her that if she talked to her co-workers about her sexual-harassment complaint, she could be disciplined or even fired. “I didn’t want to lose my job,” she said. “But I couldn’t stay where I was being harassed.” She was led to believe that if she didn’t sign the form, there would be no investigation. She signed it, and then she resigned from her job.

Luckily this woman knows the power of a union:

Agganis didn’t give up. Instead, she reached out to the Communications Workers of America, a union that represents many telecom workers, including some at T-Mobile, but not at the Oakland call center. The union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board on her behalf, arguing that the confidentiality agreement violated the National Labor Relations Act’s protections for workers—the act specifically allows workers to discuss “issues related to their terms and conditions of employment,” and act collectively to change those conditions. This August, an NLRB Administrative Law Judge ruled in her favor, requiring T-Mobile to rescind the confidentiality agreements and post notice to its employees at the Maine and South Carolina sites, informing them that it had violated the NLRA and informing them of their rights under the act.

And then this month, backed by CWA, Agganis went public. She’d filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Center and the Maine Human Rights Commission, which issued her a Right to Sue letter. She filed suit in the United States District Court in Maine, charging sex discrimination and wrongful discharge in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Maine Human Rights Act. On October 6, she held a news conference near the T-Mobile call center, and she and her supporters handed out flyers to T-Mobile employees informing them of her complaint.

That’s great for her and it once again shows how unions are so, so much more than just a vehicle for workers to get more money. But a lot of workers don’t have access to unions or don’t know who to reach out to for help on the job. These confidentality agreements employers make employees sign are deeply disturbing and should be illegal. When the employer prioritizes sweeping information under the rug over making sure workers are not sexually harassed (or otherwise exploited or made to labor in unsafe workplaces or whatever) they are acting in a manner that should have legal ramifications.

Halloween Candy, Brought to You by Child Labor

[ 16 ] October 31, 2015 |


On this Halloween, it’s worth asking whether the candy you are eating or handing out was produced in part by child labor.

It’s particularly troubling as a parent to know that there are now more than 2 million children harvesting cocoa in West Africa alone, according to a recent report by Tulane University — and most of those kids are doing hazardous work. And sugar isn’t any sweeter. According to the US Department of Labor, either child labour or forced labour is used to produce sugar and farm sugar cane in 17 of the world’s countries. A lot of the Halloween candy Canadian kids are consuming may contain child labour, we just don’t know for sure.

As a World Vision employee, I’ve seen the pictures and read the accounts of child labourers working on cocoa and sugar plantations in some of the world’s poorest countries. I’m familiar with the toxic pesticides to which many of these kids are exposed each day, without any safety equipment. I’m acutely aware of the machetes they swing for eight or ten hours a day to harvest cocoa pods, often on an empty stomach.

Talk about a razor blade in an apple. Imagine a machete on a bare hand or foot.

Additional information on child labor in cacao is available here and here. On child labor in the global sugar trade, see here and here.

The Most Dangerous Workplace

[ 59 ] October 27, 2015 |


The most dangerous workplaces is the family farm, which is why we need a lot more attention paid to working conditions there. This is an outstanding discussion of this easily solvable problem.

Richard Rosetter stood inside his 28-foot grain bin and smashed a shovel into the thick layer of ice that covered his corn.

He was in a foul mood. His wife and a neighbor were pestering him, upset that he was working by himself, with no spotter to rescue him if he got trapped.

He had been doing this for 50 years, Rosetter reminded them that cold day in February 2014.

Just before 3 p.m. he realized his mistake. As the corn turned to quicksand beneath Rosetter’s feet, he pulled out his cellphone to call for help. But the walls of the bin were too thick. The phone didn’t work.

It took rescuers six hours to find his body at the bottom of the bin.

“I think it was totally preventable,” said Gene Stengel, a local farm bureau leader who was hired to haul Rosetter’s corn that day. “I tear myself up. What could I have done differently?”

At nearly all workplaces in America today, regulators, insurers and workers themselves demand safeguards to make it less likely for a careless mistake to become a tragedy. Coal mines, factories and construction sites are safer as a result.

Not the family farm. Minnesota and other Midwestern states allow small farmers to rely on their own judgment and experience to decide what’s safe and what isn’t. State and federal budget cuts have slashed farm training and safety programs, even as farm machines have become more powerful and more dangerous.

Deaths are on the rise. More than 210 work-related deaths occurred on Minnesota farms from 2003 to 2013 — an increase of more than 30 percent when compared with a decade earlier. A Star Tribune review of those fatal cases shows that at least two-thirds involved practices that violate federal workplace rules.

Unlike at most work sites, state and federal regulators rarely visit farms after a fatality. There is usually no penalty for running a dangerous farm and little financial incentive to improve safety. Steps to address safety problems at the federal level have stalled, most recently in 2014 when Congress forced the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to curtail a campaign to reduce grain bin deaths.

Ah, those lovely congressional Republicans.

Focusing on Minnesota, this piece shows that farmers, their families, and their workers (often the same people) suffer from interrelated problems of consistently poor safety practices, technological innovations not paired with safety equipment, and a lack of enforcement for the laws that do exist. It’s not like we are talking about some incredibly difficult problem to solve here. It’s about regulation and enforcement, combined with safety classes, technological safety fixes, and basic safety precautions like actually making sure no one is in the grain bin when you dump grain in it. Here’s a little piece from Australia on solving farm safety problems there. It’s not hard. It’s a matter of willpower and cultural change. Of course, congressional Republicans will actually halt any attempt to make farms safer because it’s freedom to die in a grain silo, almost as much as it’s freedom to die from your college classmate’s gun. But like a lot of rural issues, progressives also don’t focus on this much, including in the labor movement. Unions aren’t going to organize most of the farms, but it’s in everyone’s interests (except maybe the employer but that changes if the nation cracks down on them enough) that we fight for safe workplaces everywhere.

Empire of Timber

[ 42 ] October 26, 2015 |


Listen people, you have two choices. You can eat this month. Or you can buy my new book Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests, published by Cambridge University Press, at the modest price of $100. Or $80 on Kindle. Don’t ask me why. Anyway, it it available and I can only say that after working on something that long (12 years since I finished my comprehensive exams and started conceptualizing it), I’m amazed that it is out and a real thing that ended up in my hands today. No words. It will be a much, much cheaper paperback in about a year. This is the description from Cambridge:

The battles to protect ancient forests and spotted owls in the Northwest splashed across the evening news in the 1980s and early 1990s. Empire of Timber re-examines this history to demonstrate that workers used their unions to fight for a healthy workplace environment and sustainable logging practices that would allow themselves and future generations the chance to both work and play in the forests. Examining labor organizations from the Industrial Workers of the World in the 1910s to unions in the 1980s, Empire of Timber shows that conventional narratives of workers opposing environmental protection are far too simplistic and often ignore the long histories of natural resource industry workers attempting to protect their health and their futures from the impact of industrial logging. Today, when workers fear that environmental restrictions threaten their jobs, learning the history of alliances between unions and environmentalists can build those conversations in the present.

That pretty much sums it up and of course is a theme I have talked about so many times here–that workers and environmentalists are not natural enemies and that an examination of the past elucidates this point again and again.

This picture also includes a union bug timber hammer an old Carpenters union activist gave me during my research, a ponderosa pine cone from Deschutes County, Oregon, and a crack in my wall which may or may not say anything about conditions at the University of Rhode Island.

Worth mentioning as well that you can still of course buy my book from earlier this year, Out of Sight, for the “let’s steal half of Mexico to expand slavery” price of $18.46.

Remind Me Why We Shouldn’t Hold CEOs Criminally Responsible for Their Supply Chains

[ 56 ] October 26, 2015 |


This story on Indian children digging mica for western cosmetics companies is distressing but also reminds us why we cannot allow corporations to escape legal responsibility for conditions in their supply chains.

Her face caked in dirt and hair matted with sweat, eight-year-old Lalita Kumari hacks away at pieces of rock containing an elusive mineral that adds a dash of sparkle to lipstick and nail polish. While taking a breather in the hollow of a shimmery sand hill, Lalita says she has not known any other way of life after toiling in the mines of India’s eastern Jharkhand state since she was aged four. “I want to go to school but there is never enough at home for us to eat. So I have to come here and work,” said the pony-tailed youngster, her blistered hands hid behind her back after laying down her pickaxe.

Lalita is among hundreds of children who help their families make ends meet by spending their day collecting mica, their stomachs often hungry while the sun beats down on their heads. Two decades ago the Jharkhand government shut down the mines over environmental concerns but tonnes of scrap left behind continue to lure impoverished villagers. The mica adds glitter to powders, mascara and lipsticks of top global brands although a complex supply chain makes pinning down the exact origin almost impossible, say activists.

The families of the children who collect the mica often sell it to small traders who in turn sell it to big suppliers. In 2009, German pharma giant Merck was accused of using mica mined by children and supplying it to brands such as L’Oreal and Revlon. Merck has since implemented several measures to make sure that “all mica used for the manufacture of our pigments comes from child labour free sources,” the company said in a statement to AFP.

Companies like Revlon might deny they have responsibility and Merck might say they aren’t buying that mica, but of course someone is buying it. Like supply chain management practices around the world, corporations use them to deflect responsibility, obscure sourcing, and in general keep the conditions of labor and procurement as far away from consumers’ sight as possible. Creating an opaque system of supplying serves corporate interests as we might well be outraged by child labor but have no idea who to hold responsible when these companies deny culpability. This is why we need a tremendous amount more transparency throughout the supply chain system, with corporate reports to governments explicitly stating who they are gathering materials from and guaranteeing decent conditions in those places because of financial or criminal implications if they do not. They will complain about all the paperwork. Companies filing paperwork should not get in the way of creating global systems of dignity that give all workers opportunities to live decent lives. This must be central to our demands of corporations now and in the future.

And if you support this current system of supply chains that obscure corporate accountability, this is what you tacitly also support:

Thirteen-year-old Seema Kumari says she can now fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher. But she is one of the lucky ones and other youngsters see no end in sight to their labours. “We know mica is used in powder and lipstick,” said Pushpa Kumari, whose weathered features belie her 13 years. “It makes women look prettier,” she said, balancing a tray full of mica on her head. “But look what it does to us.”

There may be nothing we can do if Kumari is working for Indian companies. But if that mica is going into western makeup, those looking the other way need to be held responsible.

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