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A New Day, A New Danger: Temporary Workers Face Safety Hazards at Work

3:19 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Representatives from the advocacy group Chicago Workers’ Collaborative are taking OSHA to task for historically failing to protect temporary low-wage workers. (Chicago Workers’ Collaborative)

Originally published at In These Times

Rosa Ramirez, a 49-year-old Mexican immigrant and mother in Illinois, knew something was odd about the plastics factory where her temporary-labor agency had sent her. “From the minute one walks into that factory, one is hit by this incredible odor of [chemical] thinner … It just goes right through you,” she recalled through an interpreter in an interview with Working In These Times.

But soon, the noxious smell was the least of her concerns. While making plastic molds on her first—and last—day in April, Ramirez suffered a searingly painful burn on her hand. When she tried to report the injury to her temp-work agency, Staffing Network, she says dispatchers laughed at her and called the wound minor, pressuring her to drop the issue.

Looking back now, she remembers seeing several other people at the plastics factory with burns on their arms and hands. But as Ramirez points out, many temporary workers don’t report injuries to avoid potential employer retaliation. “[We're] very afraid of saying anything for fear of losing our jobs,” she says, who notes that she hasn’t been called back to work by Staffing Network since she, as she puts it, “stood up for [her] rights.”

Temporary workers, or “temps,” often go into work every day without even knowing what their job will entail, let alone what safety precautions they should take. These “contingent laborers” form a growing share of the workforce that is increasingly anonymous, dispersed, disorganized and, sometimes, in dire danger.

Temps occupy nearly every sector today, including day-labor builders, office staffers and food-processing workers. They may be stepping in as you vacation this holiday season, running Big Box retail warehouses on Black Friday or fulfilling your gift mail-order. The one thing all these positions all have in common, though, is their high “cost-efficiency.” This labor pool is usually indirectly hired by companies through subcontractors, allowing the company to generally avoid dealing with contracts, pensions, unions or organizing by workers—and to have an additional buffer against liability when workers fall at a construction site or faint from chemical fumes. And the temps who fill these roles–who comprise an estimated 2.8 percent or more of the workforce—are disproportionately female and of color, further reinforcing the systemic gender and racial inequalities present in the American job market.

According to the worker advocacy group Chicago Workers’ Collaborative (CWC), of which Ramirez is now a member, the group’s temp members earn just $11,000 per year on average and “labor for minimum wages during short periods of time without any benefits such as sick days, holidays, vacations, or health insurance.” Whether they’re just trying to make ends meet this month or have become long-term “permatemps,” they form part of a seldom-regarded workforce that provides contracted manpower and logistics services for some of the largest and most prominent commercial brands, such as Wal-Mart and Nike. Read the rest of this entry →

Bullet-proof Jobs: Summer Employment May Help Stem Youth Violence

3:38 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

A 2011 installation outside of Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church displayed 77 t-shirts, representing the 77 Chicago youth who were killed by violence during the 2010-2011 school year. (Photo by Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar via Flickr)

Originally published at In These Times

It’s conventional wisdom: Kids get into trouble when they have nothing better to do. Now, research reveals that a summer youth employment program might reduce violence, apparently bearing out the adage that “nothing stops a bullet like a job.”

A new study by researchers at the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab think tank shows that youth who participated in the city’s One Summer Plus employment program had a much better chance of avoiding arrests for violent crime than those who did not have the same opportunities.

Researchers tracked a sample of 730 youth who were selected through an open, lottery-based application process to participate in the jobs program. They ranged in age 14 to 21 and attended schools in low-income communities with high rates of violence. In the year prior to the program, they had missed an average of six weeks of school, and about one in five had been arrested. In short, they represented the youth most vulnerable to Chicago’s epidemic of gun violence, as well as to a general decline in youth employment—both problems that disproportionately affectblack teens.

The One Summer Plus teens were matched with private, nonprofit and faith-based workplaces, in entry-level, minimum-wage positions such as child care, clerical work and landscaping. The program is financed by foundation and government funding.

Researchers found that the “at-risk youth” who had engaged in the summer work “experienced a 51 percent drop in arrests for violent crime” in the seven months after the program’s conclusion when compared to a peer control group. Though researchers say more data is needed to comprehensively assess the impact on schooling and long-term development, the positive findings so far suggest that the money invested in the program (about $3,000 per youth) pays economic and social dividends down the line.

The study parallels other research showing the social benefits of teen employment, including a recent study on a similar program in Boston that linked summer jobs to “positive changes in risky, deviant, delinquent, and violent behaviors” among urban youth.

Though the University of Chicago researchers provided rare empirical insight into the benefits of youth employment, for kids like Devontae Banks, the cost-benefit analysis is more straightforward. One Summer got him a job as a peer health educator with a local HIV/AIDS prevention campaign. That summer job, which involved giving presentations to other youth on sexual health and HIV prevention, has since grown into a long-term position. He now plans to study medicine after graduating—an aspiration he would never have picked up in his old summer job, helping harvest crops at a farm in Sterling. For Banks, the real reward of the program was access to a job that was more stimulating and made him feel invested in his community, rather than just manual labor for pocket money.

“In the previous job, it was just no skill required, just all hard work,” he says. The challenge of the One Summer job was daunting at first, he recalls: “I was nervous, because I didn’t know as much as I know now about HIV and STDs. But now it’s like a walk through a park. It’s actually kind of fun.”

Researchers note that the effects of summer employment continue long after the six-to-seven-week work period, which suggests it does more for youth than just occupy idle time. University of Chicago researcher Sara Heller, one of the authors of the study, tells In These Times via email that she sees a long-term behavioral shift: Read the rest of this entry →

On Both Sides of the Border, Teachers Fight Corporatization

9:49 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

The Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación has been fighting for greater respect for Mexican teachers, often against the country's teachers union itself. (Saúl Arroyo Morales / CNTE)

Originally posted at In These Times

Last month, the success of the Chicago teachers’ strike forced the mainstream media to present a rare picture of public school teachers: as organized, defiant and victorious. But prior to the Chicago teachers winning a major deal, there was no shortage of dismissive, condescending and misleading coverage of teachers unions.

Recently, that disdainful media gaze has turned southward. Various outlets–public radioUSA TodayMcClatchythe Economist and Washington Post–have depicted the Mexican teachers union as a sinister force in the national struggle over public education policy. The reports generally focus on Mexico’s poor academic performance in international rankings and zero in on the “boss” of the National Education Workers’ Union (SNTE), Elba Esther Gordillo, who is cartoonishly portrayed as an authoritarian collector of fancy handbags.

A June Washington Post report on Mexico’s crumbling schools, published on the eve of a landmark national election, said, “Twenty percent of the country’s budget goes to education, about $30 billion a year. More than 90 percent goes to salaries–negotiated by the teachers union, which dictates policy.” The piece quotes education scholar Carlos Ornelos of the Autonomous Metropolitan University about the alleged black market in teaching jobs: “The group Mexicans First estimates that 40 percent of the teaching jobs are still sold, or inherited, or exchanged for political or even sexual favors.” Yikes.

The source Ornelos cites, Mexicanos Primero, is a think tank that seems to closely align its politics (and name) with high-power U.S. reform groups like Students First. In the vein of “Won’t Back Down”, Mexicanos Primero has sponsored its own cinematic screed on teachers, “¡de Panzazo!” (“barely passing”), depicting corruption and incompetence throughout Mexico’s education system.

Both ¡de Panzazo!’s claims and the American press’s disdain for Mexico’s teachers show only one sliver of a complex, often misrepresented political context. Yes, there is documented evidence of rampant corruption as well as [certain] persistent cronyistic practices in the Mexican teachers union, such as reserving teaching positions for family members. But that’s not the whole story.

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Labor Day Showdown: Can Advocates Stop ‘NAFTA of the Pacific’?

4:27 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from Colorlines.com

This Labor Day, the Pacific Rim will wash into the Midwest’s flagship city, and activists will confront the tides of global commerce with a demand for global economic justice.

At trade talks in Chicago, the Obama administration will work with other officials to develop a trade agreement that will incorporate Vietnam, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Peru. Labor, environmental and human rights groups will gather in the city to warn that the structure, and guiding ideology, of the emerging trade deal could expand a model of free-marketeering that has displaced masses of workers across the globe and granted multinationals unprecedented powers to flout national and international laws.

The provisions of the Trans-Pacific Free Trade Agreement or Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are still under wraps. But the general outline seems to mimic the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and similar pacts that have brought political and economic turmoil to rich and poor countries alike. The new negotiations are also taking place amid political friction over pending trade deals with South Korea and Colombia, which have run into opposition over concerns about labor abuses abroad and offshoring of U.S. jobs. Yet the White House continues to push free trade as a path toward the country’s economic revitalization.

So on Monday, activists with Stand Up! Chicago and other groups hope to get ahead of political deal-making by demanding that any new trade deal give greater priority to environmental, labor, and health concerns. The ongoing trade talks offer a tiny opening for advocates to put forward ideas for making trade less hostile to ordinary people. In a way, they’re taking the Obama administration on its own word, because the TPP has been billed as a “21st century” trade pact that will presumably improve on previous trade agreements.

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