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California Farmworkers Often Forced to Live in Squalor, Says Report

By: Michelle Chen Saturday March 15, 2014 4:09 am

For California’s farmworkers, toiling all day in the brutal, sun-scorched fields is hard enough; the homes they return to each night are often in even worse conditions.

Originally posted at In These Times

For California’s farmworkers, toiling all day in the brutal, sun-scorched fields is hard enough; the homes they return to each night are often in even worse conditions. Though the reforms won by previous generations have extended basic labor and safety protections to seasonal and immigrant farmworkers, many remain shut out of the right to decent accommodations.

According to a new report published by California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), the housing crisis in the agricultural workforce has worsened over the last generation. Despite the locavore fads and slow-food diets that have infused today’s farm-fresh produce with an air of glamour, as a workplace, the fields still echo the social marginalization and scandalous poverty that sparked the groundbreaking grape boycott of the late 1960s.

Don Villarejo, the longtime farmworker advocate who authored the report, tells In These Times that growers have “systematically” reduced investment in farmworker housing over the past 25 years in order to reduce overhead costs and to avoid the trouble of meeting state and federal regulations, which were established as part of a broader overhaul of agricultural labor, health and safety standards during the 1960s and 1980s. According to Villarejo, workers’ modern material circumstances are little improved from the old days of the Bracero system. That initiative—the precursor to our modern-day guestworker migrant program—became notorious for shunting laborers into spartan cabins, tents and other inhospitable dwellings on the farms themselves, beset with entrenched poverty and unhealthy, brutish conditions.

 

Sex Workers Have Labor Rights Just Like Any Other Employee, Confirms NZ Court

By: Michelle Chen Sunday March 9, 2014 2:58 pm

New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (via Facebook)

Last month, the New Zealand Human Rights Review Tribunal made a landmark ruling on the violation of a woman’s human rights in a Wellington brothel known as The Kensington Inn, run by one Aaron Montgomery. But the case didn’t involve the typical media tropes of a worker being “sold into slavery” or abused by a sadistic client. Rather, the employee filed a complaint against both Montgomery and Kensington’s owner, M &T Enterprises, after Montgomery allegedly harassed her.

In February, the Tribunal published a decision siding with the worker—thereby confirming that brothel employees have the legal right not to be harassed by their managers, just like they do in any other profession.

When it comes to debates about sex work, feminists often raise the concept that it’s a “job like any other,” as journalist and former sex worker Melissa Gira Grant has explained. Yet the exchange of sex for pay remains a curiously radical notion for many around the world. While it’s certainly true that sex work is a real career born of both necessity and ambition for many, it also comes laden with social anxiety and culture-war taboo.

In New Zealand, however, the occupation’s decriminalization over the last decade has helped push back the country’s Victorian-era morality laws to foreground human rights in the sex sector. And last month’s Tribunal ruling further affirms sex work’s legitimacy as a profession and the workers’ agency as laborers.

In her complaint, the worker claimed Montgomery regularly made intrusive inquiries during the period of harassment in 2010, such as asking “several times whether she would have anal sex with clients and whether she ‘swallowed’ when performing oral sex” and “whether she was ‘shaved’”—i.e., had gotten a Brazilian bikini wax.

The worker had, as a matter of company protocol, supplied information about waxing and which services she would provide to be kept on file, making Montgomery’s alleged questions completely unnecessary. Moreover, the information was intended for negotiations with clients in order to facilitate her business, not to sate her boss’ curiosity.

According to the worker, Montgomery also made offensive comments about her appearance—such as “you should give up your burgers”—that damaged her self-esteem and made her job experience miserable. In other words, Montgomery was reportedly acting as if expected boundaries of civil discourse and privacy in a labor-management relationship somehow did not apply in a brothel.

The Actual Brazil World Cup Scandal Isn’t About Thongs

By: Michelle Chen Thursday March 6, 2014 6:21 pm

Demonstrators in Recife, Brazil, fill the streets in the mass protests that erupted across the country last June in response to massive spending to host the World Cup. Controversies have continued over the construction. (Semilla Luz / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

The 2014 Brazil World Cup made big headlines again this week after a controversial Adidas promotional campaign that the country’s tourist board says suggests that Brazil is a lascivious pit of sexual debauchery. As part of the elite club of mega-sporting event host nations, the “emerging” economic powerhouse of Brazil is understandably concerned about its public image and was quick to condemn the thong-shaped t-shirt logos. But officials of this rising star of Latin America seem noticeably less concerned about a touchier scandal buried beneath the pageantry: systematic human rights abuses and labor exploitation.

In recent months, several workers have died on construction sites for stadiums and other huge infrastructure projects designed to accommodate this summer’s football extravaganza, and in the lead-up to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

In early February, Portuguese technician Antônio José Pita Martins died in a crane accident while working on the construction of the Arena da Amazônia football stadium in the steamy city of Manaus, the largest metropolis in the Amazon basin. The death came after two other construction worker fatalities in the same area in December: Marcleudo de Melo Ferreira, 22, plunged 115 feet to his death from the stadium rooftop. Around the same time, another worker at a nearby convention center site died of a heart attack, reportedly linked to overwork, since workers were being pressed to keep up with the scheduled construction timetable. In November, two others were killed when a crane fell at the Corinthians arena in São Paulo, which will host the World Cup’s opening match.

The fatalities, as well as other labor disputes, have led to work stoppages and threats of strikes, which have further disrupted the already-behind-schedule construction timetable and exacerbated the deadline pressure from the World Cup governing authority FIFA. The possibility of another strike was raised earlier this month after the death of Martins.

China’s Militant Workers Embrace Collective Action

By: Michelle Chen Friday February 28, 2014 8:31 pm

Originally published at In These Times

China is the big business story of the 21st century, but is it also the big labor story?

A new report on China’s labor movement, covering about 1,170 strikes and other labor actions from mid-2011 through 2013, illuminates how what is arguably the world’s biggest proletariat is growing more agitated and polarized.

Despite China’s seemingly miraculous economic boom, in many ways, its emergent labor struggles are strikingly similar to those experienced by workers in more developed economies: weak-to-zero collective bargaining rights, a lack of social and health protections, the poverty and instability facing interregional migrant labor, global economic volatility and consequent job insecurity. And of course, that’s all in a fractious atmosphere of breakneck national growth rates, greater economic ambitions among the working class and soaring inequality.

Manufacturing workers are feeling the tension between middle-class aspirations and working-class problems, and many are growing increasingly militant in asserting their labor rights. The report’s author, China Labour Bulletin (CLB) observes that the shift is driven by a deepening sense of social rights on the political and economic fronts, including “earning a living wage, creating a safe work environment and being treated with dignity and respect by the employer.”

The rising militancy (and even class consciousness) across the industrial workforce is being facilitated by the expansion of digital communications networks—as more workers begin to enjoy the tech gadgets they’ve been producing for rich countries all these years—as well as the destabilization of workers under volatile global trade flows. CLB reports: “Many worker protests were ignited by the closure, merger or relocation of factories in Guangdong as the global economic slowdown adversely affected China’s manufacturing industries. Some 40 percent of the strikes recorded by China Labour Bulletin from mid-2011 to the end of 2013 were in the manufacturing sector.”

Without a free media or independent unions, it’s hard to tell how unified China’s workers are or can be, but CLB describes bread-and-butter struggles at various multinational factories, as well as public sector workforces such as teachers battling wage arrears and sanitation workers denied social insurance.

The U.S. Military’s Assault on Overseas Labor Rights

By: Michelle Chen Tuesday February 25, 2014 6:06 pm

Patterns for clothing licensed by the U.S. Marine Corps, found at the Tazreen Fashions factory in Bangladesh (Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity)

Originally published at In These Times

A six-foot gash in the wall; charred corpses strewn amid the rubble of a collapsed building; families mourning nameless civilian casualties. Such tragic scenes are historically associated with the aftermath of military aggression, but these days, they also reflect a different kind of military assault—on labor rights. In Bangladesh, Uncle Sam is making the world less secure for workers, one sweatshirt at a time.

The U.S. military is notorious for being an ethically challenged institution, tainted by corruption and innumerable human rights violations at home and abroad. Now, a watchdog group says the military’s clothing businesses are aiding and abetting massive labor exploitation overseas.

As we reported in January, major branches of the armed forces run an extensive apparel manufacturing network that contracts with U.S. firms and overseas factories through its procurement system—business deals with private companies to produce military-branded goods, such as Marines-logo sportswear. These patriotic-themed fashions are then sold through military-run retail outlets known as exchanges, which operate as mostly self-funded businesses and are therefore considered outside of the standard Defense Department budget (though, as a Pentagon operation, they are also taxpayer-supported).

These exchanges have established basic labor codes for contracted overseas producers, covering issues such as child labor, wages, hours, collective bargaining rights and safety. But as research by the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) shows, the military has displayed malign neglect when it comes to enforcing those codes, particularly in the garment manufacturing hotbed of Bangladesh, where sweatshops are rife.

The report, which ILRF released in mid-February, documents an epidemic of safety threats at factories that have supplied apparel to military exchanges: missing fire extinguishers, combustible materials kept near hot machines, a massively cracked factory ceiling, underpayment of wages and forced labor conditions. Physical or verbal abuse is commonly heaped upon workers, many of whom are women who have migrated to urban areas from rural communities. Workweeks at one factory lasted up to 80 hours.

At Citadel—a known producer for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) that employs about 700 people in its factory near Dhaka— a “social compliance” audit conducted by a specialized industry auditing organization found that half of workers did not wear protective dust masks. About two-thirds did not even wear shoes. ILRF investigators found that although the exchanges claimed to have verified the labor code compliance of these factories, they repeatedly left issues like these unaddressed.

In some cases, according to the ILRF, the exchanges blatantly ignored third-party accounts of the conditions in their supplier factories. For instance, the report states, “in several cases in this report, the Marine Corps Exchange requires only a factory self-attestation that it is ‘in compliance with all applicable labor laws’ with no substantiating evidence to support this claim.” And even when the exchanges took the time to actually review third-party factory audits, the ILRF continues, the auditors themselves had often overlooked safety hazards and other workplace problems.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who follows the various scandals in the fashion industry over big-name brands that profit off of sweatshop labor. In the past, activist and media investigations have revealed that factories supplying Western fashion brands, both private and military, have repeatedly received passing audit grades despite clear evidence of substandard working conditions.

Return to Lender

By: Michelle Chen Thursday February 20, 2014 5:44 pm

Representatives of the American Postal Workers Union, pictured here at a 2011 protest, have rallied in support of a postal banking system. (Mark Taylor / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

Your friendly local post office may have an honorable history, but it’s facing tough times, including a fiscal crisis and, more generally, a struggle to keep pace with growing digital communication technologies. Conservatives have increasingly dismissed the United States Postal Service as a clunky relic of old-fashioned America, with right-wing lawmakers seeking to phase it out through service cuts and privatization. Now, some progressives are trying to save the USPS by rebranding it as a financial vehicle: a place for you to pick up your mail and deposit a paycheck in one stop.

Some officials have pitched the idea of the postal service expanding into “non-bank” financial services, carefully designed to complement rather than directly compete with Wall Street. In a recent white paper, the USPS Inspector General’s office suggested that local post offices could offer products such as international money transfers, small short-term loans, and prepaid debit cards for bills or everyday purchases. To fulfill needs unmet by big banks, these financial services would ideally be targeted toward “low-income areas like rural communities and inner cities.”

Ultimately, though, many advocates want to see the postal service be bolder and actually delve into full-scale banking services. Labor and consumer advocacy groups like AppleSeed say the USPS is excellently positioned as a government-supported, publicly accountable institution to fill a longstanding gap in the financial system by offering interest-bearing accounts and other basic banking services. In addition, branching into the affordable finance business would offer the USPS a steady revenue stream.

For free-marketers who fear the USPS would steal big banks’ customers, advocates point out that low-income groups that stand to gain the most from postal banking have already been marginalized as a bad business prospect. Some 68 million Americans are considered “underbanked”: In other words, they lack access to mainstream banks and essential services like savings accounts. “Banking desert” neighborhoods are typically full of people of color, immigrants and unemployed workers—and there may be no full-service bank in sight for them, because massive firms like Merrill Lynch do not see those areas as “profitable.”

Court Okays Labor Department Rule: Guestworkers Must Earn Prevailing Wages

By: Michelle Chen Friday February 14, 2014 4:53 pm

(National Guestworker Alliance)

Originally published at In these Times

Each year, tens of thousands of immigrant “guestworkers” come to the United States on special employer-sponsored visas to work temporary jobs in landscaping, hotel housekeeping and other low-wage sectors. But for decades, these workers have been demonized and scapegoated, accused of hurting “native” U.S. workers by driving down wages. At the same time, the immigrants themselves have spoken out about their poor wages and working conditions, and have even gone on strike and organized independent labor movements to demand the same rights and wages as that of their American counterparts. It seems the only people who like this system, in fact, are the bosses who rely on a surplus army of imported temporary labor, denied the labor protections and legal rights of citizens.

In 2011, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued major reforms to a flagship guestworker program known as H-2B, which funnels tens of thousands of migrants annually into low-wage jobs in workplaces from Florida hotel chains to crabmeat canneries. Business groups, predictably, sued to block the regulations—but last week, an appeals court finally put their arguments to rest.

The reforms, which the DOL based upon an assessment of wage rates and labor market conditions for U.S. workers, mandate pay high enough to maintain prevailing wages in sectors that recruit guestworkers, and thus sustain current working conditions. The wage rules are part of a package of guestworker program reforms proposed by the DOL, that has long been stalled by Congress and court challenges but, with this court victory, can finally be implemented.

In Louisiana Forestry Association v. Secretary, U.S. Department of Labor, business associations representing the forestry, seafood processing and hotel industries, among others, argued that the Labor Department lacked the legal authority to impose the reforms and was impinging upon employers’ control over wages.

However, Meredith Stewart, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which represented the workers’ groups that joined the Labor Department in fighting the suit in court, points out that employers supported the previous, laxer regulations that made it easy to pay substandard wages. “It really wasn’t until the Department of Labor issued a wage rule that would lead to substantial increases for workers that employers decided to challenge their authority to issue any regulations for the program,” she tells Working In These Times. The new rules, she says, simply mandate that “to the extent that employers are going to employ foreign workers, those foreign workers and U.S. workers need to be treated equally and fairly.”

In court, the Labor Department and workers’ advocates cited the agency’s legal mandate, which explicitly directs regulators to protect workers from wage suppression and displacement by unscrupulous bosses. On February 4, the Third Circuit Appeals Court unanimously agreed that the Labor Department had the authority to make the reforms, rejecting the employers’ arguments.

Workers Can ‘Don and Doff’ Off the Clock, Says Court

By: Michelle Chen Wednesday February 12, 2014 9:18 pm

(Bill Jacobus / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

For workers in dangerous industries, safety should be non-negotiable. But the Supreme Court may have just given employers a little more leeway to put critical protections for workers on the table when bargaining over labor contracts.

In a unanimous decision issued last month in Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation, the Supreme Court ruled against a group of steelworkers who argued that they should be compensated for the time they spend suiting up before and after their workdays, or “donning and doffing” protective gear including hard hats and safety glasses. Workers at U.S. Steel’s Gary Works in Indiana had sought compensation for what they believed were unpaid overtime wages, earned during their time spent changing into and out of their work clothes, which they argued was not properly clocked.

But the justices ultimately ruled that the steel company’s labor contract did not require the company to count the “donning and doffing” of workers’ clothes as paid overtime labor under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), meaning that the workers will lose their claim to back pay for the time spent putting on and taking off their gear.

The Sandifer ruling is limited from a legal standpoint, as it applies only to section 203(o), an obscure provision of the FLSA governing wage negotiations in collectively-bargained union contracts. According to an analysis in legal news outlet SCOTUS Blog, section 203(o), a 1949 amendment to the FLSA, “allows collective-bargaining agreements to exclude time spent ‘changing clothes’ from the work time subject to the statute.”