You are browsing the archive for labor rights.

When Federal Contracts Turn Into Corporate Welfare

7:30 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Image: AFL-CIO’s Executive Paywatch

Originally published at In These Times

Where does the corporate bottom line end and the public interest begin? Through the voodoo economics of federal contracting, Washington’s “partnerships” with private corporations have drained the public trust straight into the pockets of top corporate executives.

The progressive think tank Demos calculates in a new research report that private contractors have funneled up to $24 billion in federal funds into executive salaries. Yet, according to the analysis, the same system of contracted firms—from defense manufacturers to concession stands at national tourist sites—also employs hundreds of thousands of poverty-wage workers at the bottom.

Federal contractors are currently subject to a very loose limit on the amount of an executive’s salary that can come directly from federal subsidies: about $763,000. Extrapolating from survey data on the top contractor executive salaries fromthe Government Accountability Office, Demos estimates the aggregate share of public money that is ultimately funneled into executive pay at $23.9 billion.

Besides taxpayers, those who stand to lose most from these skewed CEO pay schemes may be the low-wage laborers carrying out the actual work of the contract projects, such as repairing a school or building a bridge. These are the workers featured in another recent Demos analysis of contractors, showing that “an estimated 560,000 Americans employed by federal contractors were paid $12 an hour or less.”

Demos points out that the government could save taxpayers a hefty sum by simply shrinking the CEO portion of contractor payments. For example, by capping it at the level of the U.S. vice presidential salary, taxpayers could save “$6.97 to $7.65 billion.” Theoretically, under a more equitable pay distribution, that sum would be enough to significantly lift the lowest tier of worker wages:

If taxpayer-funded payouts for these executives were capped at $230,700—the salary of the U.S. Vice President—the pay of hundreds of thousands of low-wage federal contract workers could be raised by as much as $6.69 per hour or $13,902 per year for a full-time worker, without costing taxpayers an additional dime.

Demos notes that these are “conservative estimates” based on extrapolated data. Researchers based the analysis on a representative sample of defense contractors evaluated by the Government Accountability Office, with some adjustments for civilian contractors. The takeaway is that while legions of workers struggle to survive on the wages paid through federal contracts, the same grants are fattening the wallets of some of the wealthiest executives in the country. Read the rest of this entry →

Ban Ki-Moon Accused of Union-Busting at UN

1:49 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

An UN security officer stands at a cell entrance of a jail in Bunia in the DRC. A new policy by Ban Ki-Moon would curtail security officers’ ability to negotiate safer working conditions, even though their work brings them to high-risk areas. (UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti)

Originally published at In These Times

United Nations workers spend their time on the front lines of the global struggle for human rights, but now they are battling for rights in their own workplace. The UN has come under fire for union-busting, and the labor standoff could undermine its ability to uphold the rights of others around the globe.

All summer, the United Nations’ staff unions have been clashing with management over a new policy aimed at curtailing the staff’s collective bargaining rights. The Staff Coordinating Council, the union leading the opposition campaign, contends that the loss of this negotiating power, enacted by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, would deal an unprecedented blow to the union’s power to negotiate contracts and working conditions.

The dismantling of union power, in turn, may signal a gradual shift away from democracy and toward neoliberalism throughout the institution often hailed as the world’s watchdog.

The conflict began last spring, after the General Assembly issued a general order for the secretary general to revise rules for the Staff-Management Coordinating Committee, the current forum for collective bargaining talks. Ban then issued reforms that reduce the committee’s role in the negotiations to, essentially, an advisor—which the Council says is tantamount to “removing the right of staff unions to negotiate.”

According to the unions, when they declared the reforms unacceptable, management broke off talks. In July, the UN went ahead and enacted the rules. According to the Staff Coordinating Council, Ban had made far more drastic policy revisions than what the General Assembly had mandated. They say the order simply serves as a pretext for Ban to undermine the union’s influence, and that he has operated outside of the UN legal framework, which would require him to “seek mediation before consolidating this mandate.”

Now, UN employees—from office staff to peacekeepers to humanitarian aid workers—are waiting anxiously to see how the reforms will affect their power to determine the conditions of their work in a massive global governing structure.

Prior to the new policy, UN staff’s contract negotiations were similar to that of civil service unions in many member states, though the negotiations were not completely binding since the General Assembly could technically override the labor agreements. The loss of these collective bargaining rights has provoked international outcry from labor advocates, including the International Trades Union Congress.

Collective bargaining: A human right?

Union advocates say cutting collective bargaining will impact workers’ ability to respond effectively to crises, especially in war and disaster zones, where the UN is often the most dependable source of relief:

Read the rest of this entry →

Mexico City Erupts Over Neoliberal Education Bill

1:34 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Teachers have gathered en masse in Mexico City to protest President Nieto’s new education reform legislation. (Eneas De Troya/Flickr)

Originally posted at In These Times

In Mexico City, school teachers are meting out some serious discipline to a government gone awry.

For the past several weeks, the metropolis has pulsed with a labor insurrection. There have beenfierce union-led rallies, clashes with police, and mass demonstrations that have paralyzed the city, climaxing with an estimated 12,000 teachers storming the streets on Wednesday. The catalyst is Mexico’s new education reform legislationchampioned by President Enrique Peña Nieto and his PRI party, which teachers union activists blast as a thinly veiled attack on organized labor.

After lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to implement the reforms last week, demonstrations flared across the capital, blocking traffic and drawing crowds around the French, Spanish and U.S. embassies. The National Education Workers Coordinating Committee (CNTE), a radical union faction representing a third of Mexico’s public school teachers, has mobilized tens of thousands of protesters. The conflict is now widely seen as as a principle test of Peña Nieto’s political strength, symbolizing the class and ideological tensions between Nieto’s center-right PRI party and Mexico’s embattled leftist movements.

The government maintains that the law, which amends articles of Mexico’s constitution that guarantee the right to public secular education, is necessary for improving management of Mexico’s school system and raising the quality of teaching. Reflecting the same neoliberal “reform” impulse that politicians have pushed in the United States with charter schools and draconian testing systems, the idea is to tighten controls on educators and students by imposing standardized tests and evaluations. The reforms would also ease the process for firing teachers, aiming to dismantle traditional union control and cronyism in employment decisions. As in the U.S., the “reformers” are pushing “merit-based” performance measures other market-oriented reforms.

Teachers see this as an assault on a sacrosanct public institution and view the law as a union-busting campaign masquerading as public-minded reform. In a Labor Notes report last December, Dan La Botz quoted Rubén Núñez Ginés of SNTE Local 22 in Oaxaca:

Read the rest of this entry →

Your ‘Distressed’ Jeans Are Wearing Out Workers’ Lungs

5:39 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Image: SACOM

“Distressed” jeans are designed to make that wear-and-tear look seem oh-so-effortless, but it can be the result of someone’s body taking a real beating.

According to a recent investigation by the advocacy groups Clean Clothes Campaign, War on Want, and Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), several manufacturers in Guangdong, China—which supply global brands such as Levi Strauss, Lee and Wrangler—have used patently unsafe sandblasting techniques on their denim.

Sandblasting usually involves spraying chemicals and mineral dust against textiles to create a weathered look. It is commonly done by hand, using an air gun, though some manufacturers use mechanical sandblasting performed inside special cabinets. Without adequate ventilation and other protections, either technique can expose workers to damaging particles that increase the risk of silicosis, pulmonary fibrosis and other lung and respiratory problems.

Researchers found that while safety conditions varied across the different facilities, “none of the factories where sandblasting was still reported to be taking place provided sandblasters with adequate safety equipment.” From the report:

Workers were not provided with adequate protective wear (e.g. face masks, eye masks and gloves) when they undertook procedures like hand-sanding, polishing, water-based treatment, and chemical spraying (e.g. potassium permanganate). They received no proper training and were not equipped with enough occupational health and safety knowledge to understand the risk of the materials they use every day.

Some workers reported alarming exposures to potassium permaganate, a lightening chemical linked to skin and respiratory irritation. But, they said, “supervisors often dismissed their health concerns, declaring that the chemicals were not harmful in any way.

On top of the sandblasting hazards, researchers also found that workers reported suffering from fatigue and chronic pain under the strenuous working conditions.

The report indicates that socioeconomic pressures lead struggling migrant garment workers to accept unhealthy conditions as just part of the job. At the Conshing factory, for instance, “although they were aware of the health risks associated with their jobs, they were willing to take the risk for the higher salaries that Conshing offered sandblasters.”

Choking on the dust of prosperity

Silicosis is just one of a set of work-induced respiratory diseases, collectively called pneumoconiosis, that have exploded in China over the past two decades of breakneck “modernization.” According to a major new analysis by China Labour Bulletin (CLB), there is no clear data on the scale of the epidemic, in large part because Beijing refuses to fully acknowledge it as a rising occupational health crisis. The actual number of cases nationwide could be as high as six million. Fully covering the healthcare costs of pneumoconiosis patients would cost 120 billion to 250 billion yuan (US $19.6 to $40.7 billion), CLB estimates.

Rates are highest among migrant workers (unofficial local residents) who tend to be poor and from rural areas. Since medicines can cost as much as 1000 yuan (US $162) per month, untold numbers of migrants are priced out of treatment.

Read the rest of this entry →

Boss-napped: What We Can Learn From China’s Labor Banditry

7:34 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

Many workers struggle to hold onto their job, but when you’re feeling especially insecure about your employment situation, you might want to try to hold onto your boss instead. Last month, a worker-led siege at a factory near Beijing gave the world a dramatic glimpse into the workplace dynamics of Chinese capitalism.

When workers at Specialty Medical Supplies confronted their American boss, Chip Starnes, over concerns about wages and layoffs, the dispute escalated into a tense—but nonviolent—hostage situation. Starnes was held under lockdown at the facility for six days. The conflict was resolved,CNN reported, when “Starnes reached an agreement with the workers after a pay dispute. Officials said 97 employees signed a new compensation agreement.” Starnes later claimed he was forcibly held for ransom.

Though there have been other incidents of workers in China holding bosses captive in labor disputes, the captivity of a U.S. executive attracted worldwide media attention and drew some commentary on the “risks” of foreign investment in China’s restive workforce.

However, the standoff actually speaks to another kind of risk: the deep job insecurity faced by millions of Chinese workers on the wild frontier of globalization. And despite appearances, there was more method than madness to the hostage taking.

According to news reports, the clash began when the company moved to shutter one sector of the plant and ship jobs to India. Some workers were reportedly offered transfers to other divisions; others could leave their job with severance packages. The official story was that conflict arose when some who were slated for transfer also demanded compensatory payment.

But workers claimed the protest was actually about wage arrears, and that when they saw that “no new materials had entered the factory,” they also feared Starnes was actually planning a mass layoff. While confusion over the terms of severance might have been a factor, workers had justifiable fears of getting shafted.

After all, in 2012, millions of workers were involved in complaints about unpaid back wages and business shutdowns. The estimated number of unemployed is approaching 920 thousand. Read the rest of this entry →

Why the Dubai Strike Matters

11:22 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Dubai's prosperity has been powered by an exploited foreign labor force. (Shwetasarvesh, Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

From a distance, Dubai shines like an oasis of modernity in in the desert, with its glass towers and opulent hotels. Beneath the glittering surface, however, lies an underbelly of indentured servitude. The city-state’s brutal labor system was abruptly exposed last month when workers finally threw down their tools to demand fair pay and working conditions.

Thousands of employees at the United Arab Emirates-based construction firm Arabtec went on strike on May 19, calling for wage increases in an unprecedented act of rebellion under a notoriously authoritarian government. According to Reuters, the UAE Labor Ministry announced that it was working closely with Arabtec to suppress the protests. Some 200 protesters were taken into custody in response to the four-day strike, and many were reportedly threatened with deportation or arbitrarily terminated.

The illegal work stoppage was a rare demonstration of outrage by the migrant workers lured by the UAE’s mirage of prosperity.

The Gulf region’s renowned economic growth model runs on the sweat of workers from India, Bangladesh and other Asian countries, who do construction and domestic work in virtually unregulated workplaces without real human-rights or labor protections. The migrant contract laborers in the Emirates and other Gulf States are subjected routinely to exploitation and brutality at the hands of employers. According to Human Rights Watch, labor abuses in the UAE include ”unsafe work environments, the withholding of travel documents, and low pay or nonpayment of wages,” as well as physical and sexual violence.

Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, a global labor coalition that has long criticized the UAE’s labor policies, tells In These Times via email:

The Gulf states are slave states for workers. There is no freedom of association and therefor workers cannot join a union. It is beyond belief that in the 21st century that a nation can believe it is ok to treat migrant workers as less than human. The conditions are extreme with long hours, dreadful heat, poverty wages and shocking mental and at times physical abuse.

With typical monthly earnings of less than $200—compared to a UAE mean monthly income of nearly $5,000—many Arabtec workers had little to lose by striking. The strike was also a measure of how desperate workers have become in recent years as Dubai’s breakneck construction boom has declined, but not the hopes of masses of migrants who flock to construction sites to earn relatively high wages to remit to their families back home. Many have been taken in by shady labor agencies that load them with heavy debt and false promises.

Syed Khaled, a construction worker from Bangladeshi who says he worked without a raise for nine years and was denied annual leave for three, told Al Jazeera:

Read the rest of this entry →

Farmworkers Dig Into the New ‘Blue Card’ Plan

1:03 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

A child rallies in support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Tampa, Fla., highlighting undocumented farm workers' critical role in food production. (National Farm Worker Ministry / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Last week, immigrants’ rights groups finally got the papers they’ve been waiting for, an 844-page whopper of a bill that attempts to “fix” the immigration system by promising a little bit to everyone: businesses get workers, workers get jobs and millions of undocumented people get an opportunity to gain citizenship.

One section of the bill sums up the political calculus underlying the legislation: In the plan to overhaul the guestworker system on U.S. farms—the seedbed of the oldest and roughest forms of migrant labor—we can see the strained balance between the interests of profit and the interests of people in determining who gets to become “American.”

Under the current legislative proposal, undocumented farmworkers would receive a new kind of labor visa—called a “Blue Card”—which would enable them to work legally with certain minimum wage guarantees and federal entitlements, like workers’ compensation. These visas, capped at 112,000 annually (a fraction of the undocumented farmworker population of roughly 500,000 to 900,000) would also grant “portability” to workers—i.e., autonomy to switch employers so they’re not chained to a single workplace.

There are additional provisions to protect workers who report labor violations and to make it easier for them to qualify for immigration relief as victims of crime if they’ve been abused or exploited. International labor recruitment—the use of private “middle man” agencies to arrange work visas and job placements—would be more tightly regulated, closing some of the loopholes in the current system that allow recruiters to saddle migrants with exorbitant fees or tie them to abusive, unregulated employers. And the centerpiece of the plan is the “path to citizenship,” which would theoretically allow immigrant workers who are currently undocumented to “legalize.”

But the path to citizenship is fraught with some impossibly high hurdles: The process to gain permanent residency could take about 10 years (the bill provides a shorter timeframe for farmworkers, who are viewed as a special labor category because of their role in the food production system), and an even longer wait to officially naturalize. Activists fear that the various eligibility requirements, from background checks to heavy fees, may end up pricing hundreds of thousands of people out of a green card.

Daniel Sheehan, executive director of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP), tells In These Times via email that the legalization process might prove prohibitively costly for farmworkers in particular. “Because they are often paid poverty wages and suffer wage theft and other abuses, they may not be able to pay high fines required to secure citizenship,” he says.

Additionally, labor activists note that even if they’re granted legal status, immigrants will continue to face draconian restrictions on public health care benefits, which bar access to Medicaid programs for their first several years of legal residency.

In other words, many migrant farmworkers would have a right to collect a paycheck but lack the right to basic medical care, even when their job gives them a repetitive stress injury or poisons them with pesticide sprays.

Read the rest of this entry →

Domestic Workers Sow a New Global Movement

2:28 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Members of the International Domestic Workers' Network show support for the groundbreaking International Labor Organization's Convention 189, signed in 2011. (Courtesy of WIEGO)

Originally posted at In These Times

In Argentina and Brazil, a sector of workers that has long labored invisibly is moving out of the shadows and gaining legal protections. Their counterparts in Jamaica and Uruguay are sparking a new political consciousness from the friction between tradition and globalization. Around the world, private homes are becoming labor’s latest battleground as domestic workers stake out their rights.

Despite stretching into every region of the world, domestic work has historically been excluded from conventional labor laws, regardedly merely as “women’s work.” A breakthrough came in 2011 with the passage of the groundbreaking Convention 189 on domestic workers’ rights by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the UN special agency for labor rights. The convention lays out principles for fair treatment at work, including the right to a fair labor contract and a safe work environment, freedom from exploitation and coercion, and legal recourse against abusive employers.

The Convention was adopted in 2011. Since its establishment on an international level, domestic workers have been organizing more comprehensively on the ground. Advocates in various countries have been building up national frameworks for codifying the rights of domestic workers. The ILO reported this month that “Since the Convention’s adoption, a total of nine countries have passed new laws or regulations improving domestic workers’ labour and social rights, including Venezuela, Bahrain, the Philippines, Thailand, Spain and Singapore.”

In Brazil, new legislation enshrines the ILO Convention’s principles, including an 8-hour workday and overtime. Significantly, the legislation targets a sector that has historically been dominated by black women, building on the government’s other recent efforts to dismantle racial barriers in the economy. The measure has been hailed by activists as an extension of the nation’s abolition of slavery in the 19th century.

In Argentina, where 17 percent of working women are domestic workers, the legislature passed an act in March granting domestic workers standard labor protections, including limits on working hours. In the official announcement of the bill’s passage, Labor Minister Carlos Tomada described it as a corrective for an entrenched social imbalance:

Read the rest of this entry →

How the Poultry Industry Is Grinding Up Workers’ Health and Rights

3:04 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

Juan (not his real name) was instructed to get back to work after falling while lifting an 80-pound box of chicken. X-rays later showed two fractured vertebrae. He was fired, and the employer has not paid any of his medical bills.

Walk through any supermarket poultry section and you can marvel at the wonders of the modern food processing industry: antiseptic aisles packed with gleaming, plump shrink-wrapped chickens, sold at bargain prices under the labels of trusted agribusiness brands like Tyson and Pilgrim’s. But all that quality meat doesn’t come cheap: it’s paid for dearly by factory workers who brave injury, abuse and coercion every day on assembly lines running at increasingly deadly speeds.

According to newly published research on Alabama poultry workers by the civil rights group Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the business model of the sector has sacrificed health and safety on the factory floor for the Tayloristic efficiency demanded by American appetites.

The supersized industry, which churns out about 50 pounds of chicken per American stomach annually, dominates many struggling towns in Alabama, a mostly non-union state, supporting about 10 percent of the local economy and some 75,000 jobsBut according to the SPLC’s researchers, the production line is butchering workers’ health:

Nearly three-quarters of the poultry workers interviewed for this report described suffering some type of significant work-related injury or illness. In spite of many factors that lead to undercounting of injuries in poultry plants, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported an injury rate of 5.9 percent for poultry processing workers in 2010, a rate that is more than 50 percent higher than the 3.8 percent injury rate for all U.S. workers.

Alabama workers interviewed by the SPLC reported being routinely subjected to unsafe working conditions that led to severe health threats, from repetitive stress injuries to respiratory issues to chemical burns. Adding insult to injury, employers often ignored workers’ debilitating problems or punished them for asserting their rights. Evoking images reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s century-old expose on the meat-packing industry The Jungle, workers reported that problems like crippling hand pain would be diverted to the company nurse, rather than more intensive care by an outside doctor. Others were fired before they could become more of a liability.

One worker, a black woman in her 30s, recounted in an interview being pressured to shield her company from responsibility for her injury:

Read the rest of this entry →

Day Laborers Defend Their Right to Public Space in Court

4:16 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen


(Flickr, Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

Looking to hire someone for a little landscaping work or a construction job? There might be a local agency that can offer free security services to ensure that workers will work as hard as possible for as little as you’re willing to pay: the local police department.

Across the country, the undocumented day laborers who build, paint and pave many communities are locked into a low-wage regime that is de facto enforced by state power, which can threaten to round them up just for trying to work–in the name of protecting “public safety.”

Arizona was once a model for this form of anti-worker bullying. But a federal court has just struck down one of the harshest provisions of the infamous anti-immigrant law known as SB 1070, which enabled police to arrest people for soliciting work in public.

The law, enacted in 2010, targeted workers who could be characterized as obstructing traffic as they seek work. The underlying logic was that such restrictions make immigrants’ lives so unbearable they will ultimately “self deport” (a notion that ignores the myriad social factors and family commitments that compel migrants to stay at all costs).

A product of Arizona’s ferocious xenophobia and an inspiration for other states’ anti-immigrant policies, SB 1070 is best known for its “papers, please” provisions, which explicitly encouraged police to profile Latinos suspected of being undocumented. (Last year the Supreme Court upheld that provision while striking down others in the law as overly broad.) But in some ways the more obscure provisions on day laborers are more nefarious because they directly attack workers’ rights to pursue a livelihood.

So following a challenge led by civil rights groups, a Phoenix federal district court called the law what it was: not a traffic safety measure but a backhanded assault on constitutional rights.

Upholding the lower court ruling against the provision based on free-speech grounds, a three-judge appeals court panel wrote that “an injunction is in the public interest because the day labor provisions, if enforced, would infringe the First Amendment rights of many persons who are not parties to this lawsuit.”

Read the rest of this entry →