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California Farmworkers Often Forced to Live in Squalor, Says Report

4:09 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

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. Read the rest of this entry →

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

2:58 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

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. Read the rest of this entry →

China’s Militant Workers Embrace Collective Action

8:31 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

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. Read the rest of this entry →

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

6:06 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

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.

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Court Okays Labor Department Rule: Guestworkers Must Earn Prevailing Wages

4:53 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(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.

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

9:18 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(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.”  Read the rest of this entry →

Who’s Really To Blame for Unemployment?

4:54 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Though some protesters at an ‘Unemployment Olympics’ event in Tompkins Square Park, N.Y. blamed joblessness on ‘the boss,’ a new report suggests that the economic climate is more at fault. (Clementine Gallot / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

Guided by the mythology of the “American dream”—the idea that, given the opportunity, the deserving will excel and rise above their peers—politicians often attribute unemployment to a mystical “skills gap.” If people can’t find a job, the logic goes, they clearly weren’t fit to be hired. As a consequence, many legislators tout specialized training programs or education reforms as possible solutions to America’s seemingly intractable jobs crisis. But a new study shows that blaming the “skills gap” for unemployment makes about as much sense as blaming a mass famine on “excess hunger.”

A recent analysis by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute shows that elevated unemployment is due to a general lack of demand in the job market, fueled by overarching economic decline. In other words, this is not a problem that can merely be addressed by retraining workers or revamping the education system.

In the report, economist Heidi Shierholz outlines this economic imbalance by comparing unemployment at different levels of education. Her results reveal that workers are suffering across the board:

Workers with a college degree or more still have unemployment rates that are more than one-and-a-half times as high as they were before the recession began. In other words, demand for workers at all levels of education is significantly weaker now than it was before the recession started. There is no evidence of workers at any level of education facing tight labor markets relative to 2007.

Moreover, the report continues, there are no specific job sectors that appear to be especially “tight.” So it’s not that the economy especially favors, for example, radiologists or software engineers; bosses seem to be shutting the door on workers of all sorts:

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A House Is Not a Home Without Rights for Care Workers

6:43 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Caregivers and clients gather in Washington, D.C. to support workers’ right to organize. (SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana via Facebook)

Originally published at In These Times

Does a public union belong in the most private of workplaces? Thousands of personal care workers in Illinois who tend to elders and people with disabilities at home wouldn’t have it any other way. For years, they’ve relied on the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to negotiate their contracts. But a radical anti-union movement has gone to the Supreme Court to challenge care providers’ right to organize—putting hard-won labor gains in serious danger.

The case now before the court, Harris v. Quinn, started with a class-action lawsuit filed in 2010 by several care providers in a state Medicaid-financed program for people with disabilities. The plaintiffs argue that their automatic incorporation into a public sector union—with the requirement to pay dues—violates their free speech and free association rights.

The litigation, which lost first in a federal district court and later in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, stems from the political agenda of the anti-union National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, whose representatives are arguing on behalf of the plaintiffs. In the past, the group has led campaigns in various states to push “right to work” legislation that undermines the dues obligations unions rely on to finance their operations. This time, it’s attempting through the judiciary system to weaken the collective bargaining authority of public-sector unions.

In 1977, a Supreme Court decision mandated that unions named as the bargaining agent for a group of workers must represent all of them. In turn, those who benefit from unions’ negotiations with employers must pay their “fair share” of the cost in the form of dues. If the Defense Foundation’s challenge succeeds, it could nationally damage this “fair share” precedent, thereby eviscerating unions’ financial resources. And on a statewide level, home care workers would be left with less protection in the workplace and less leverage to negotiate as a group.

The workers at the heart of Harris are an unusual group of public servants: They’re based in private homes as hands-on caregivers, yet they’re supported by taxpayer dollars. As state employees, they also enjoy working conditions that are a cut above a home healthcare typically industry characterized by low wages, high turnover and sparse benefits. Unlike many nannies, housekeepers and privately employed home aides, some 20,000 SEIU-represented workers have a steady contract with the state of Illinois. And during the past decade, SEIU has enabled its care providers to gain access to professional training, a new healthcare fund and a 65 percent wage hike.

But Flora Johnson, a home care provider and chair of SEIU Healthcare Illinois’s Executive Board, testified recently that a Legal Defense Foundation victory could threaten those advancements.

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Coal Spill Puts Spotlight on Colombia’s Labor and Environmental Struggles

12:40 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

A miner sits in front of the Cerrejón coal mine in Guajira, Colombia. Cerrejón is one of the major coal companies in the country who have come under fire for human rights and environmental violations. (Santiago la Rotta / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

The Alabama-based Drummond Company’s recent coal spill in Colombia has combined with its record of labor abuse to place the coal giant at the intersection of the country’s political struggles and environmental crises.

In 2007, Colombia issued a mandate for coal exporters requiring Drummond Company to update its loading facilities at a key port in Cienaga by installing closed conveyor belts, a cleaner system than the traditional barges and cranes used to load coal. But Drummond has continuously failed to retool its operations. After a wrecked barge spilled hundreds of tons of coal into the port waters in 2013, Colombia imposed a $3.6 million fine on the company—and now, in a rare regulatory confrontation from the usually business-oriented regime, the government has suspended its port license to induce Drummond’s compliance.

The move seems aimed at demonstrating President Juan Manuel Santos’s commitment to environmental protection—perhaps as part of a broader campaign to strengthen ecological protections for politically tumultuous, resource-rich areas. Colombia has for years courted energy companies to use its mineral resources, and Drummond, a major exporter to Europe, is an established foreign investor.

Though the coal spill reportedly did not result in major long-term environmental damage, it became a sensation when a watchdog photographer, local attorney Alejandro Arias, widely publicized images of a crane hauling up coal and water from the barge and dropping it into the sea. In an interview with Bloomberg, Arias stated, “I want people in Europe to know that they’re heating themselves with coal that has caused pollution [in Colombia] … Royalties paid by mining companies here don’t nearly cover the costs of all this.”

Drummond vehemently defended the environmental soundness of its operations in an official statement, blaming its compliance failure in part on construction delays tied to last year’s mineworker strike. But the unrest that led to that labor action arguably stems from the same situation environmentalists blame for the dumping: the notorious impunity of many multinationals in the Global South, particularly in the energy sectors, which exploit poor countries’ resources and workers to feed carbon-burning industries abroad.

Colombia ranks among the world’s deadliest places to be a trade unionist, with thousands of union members murdered and brutalized over the past two decades. In 2013, union slayings did decline somewhat while the number of strikes increased—potentially suggesting a less oppressive climate for labor in the future. Whatever this year’s body count, however, violence continues to stalk workers who dare to organize. Last week, United Steel Workers and the international labor group IndustriALL issued letters condemning Colombia for its repeated failure to address anti-union assaults, citing the recent murder of Ever Luis Marin Rolong, an electrician and local leader of the SINALTRACEBA union.

And Drummond’s union workers have remained defiant despite the risks. Though it was hardly the first labor clash Drummond has had to deal with, the strike that started last summer made waves in global energy markets because it lasted for months and forced a partial suspension of Drummond’s export contracts. In a dispute over wages and layoffs, workers struck for more than 50 days. Eventually, the Labor Ministry intervened, and workers voted to end the strike under pressure (though one of the largest unions, Sintramienergetica, remained opposed).

But Drummond reportedly has a more sinister history when it comes to worker repression. Human rights groups have long accused the company of complicity in vicious anti-union hostilities, citing evidence gathered from union sources and Wikileaks documents. A major civil lawsuit in the U.S. courts was denied last year, but volumes of potentially damning testimony remain part of the public record.

In one testimony issued in October 2011, a witness who worked with Drummond in the 1990s and early 2000s claimed to have aided Drummond in brutalizing unionists:

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Despite Violence, Cambodian Workers Vow To Continue Their Fight

12:49 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Rashif Sheikh, All Voices (creative commons)

Originally published at In These Times

Though Cambodia’s days of colonialization, war and genocide may be over, the country is still wrestling with political turmoil. At the start of the new year, when workers massed in Phnom Penh to demand a fair minimum wage, the government responded with a spray of bullets.

A major garment worker strike in December capped a recent groundswell of protest in the country’s capital. After deeming insufficient the government’s proposed hike of the minimum wage to $95, labor leaders aligned with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party to shutter factories and bring large crowds into the streets, concluding a year of labor agitation that saw more than 130 strikes.

Newly reelected Prime Minister Hun Sen—a former Khmer Rouge official whose legitimacy has been questioned amid accusations of rigging last summer’s election—took the protests as an opportunity to suppress both the pro-democracy and labor movements with one fierce blow. On January 3, police responded to protesters’ bottles and petrol bombs with live ammunition, killing five and injuring dozens. More than twenty were detained, and some are reportedly still being held incommunicado.

On January 4, the government then forcibly cleared a major protest encampment in the city center; many workers have since returned to their jobs. Factories have also started to reopen after temporarily shutting down out of safety concerns. In the wake of the unrest, a coalition of rights groups, including Clean Clothes Campaign and International Labor Rights Forum, has called for an “immediate end to all violence and intimidation against workers and their representatives,” release of detained protesters and no charges against the strikers. Meanwhile, activists are continuing to push for the minimum wage to be raised to $160 a month.

Cambodian garment and shoe producers employ roughly 600,000 people in about 800 factories, and their business is eased by neoliberal trade policies with Western nations, particularly the United States. Yet these fashion powerhouses pay workers a pittance—generally as low as about $80 a month—compared to the profits they reap.

David Welsh, a Phnom Penh-based organizer with AFL-CIO’s international arm, the Solidarity Center, says the $160 minimum wage demand is the very least the garment industry could offer, especially considering some advocacy groups estimate that a living wage would be more than triple workers’ current pay. The Solidarity Center has been facilitating talks with the Labor Ministry and campaigning with local civil society groups for the detained activists. Along with other labor groups, the Solidarity Center has also raised concerns about a trend toward placing workers on so-called fixed-duration or short-term contracts, which tend to restrict job security for workers who came to factories seeking steady livelihoods.

According to Welsh, big retail brands foster a common media narrative that claims labor costs must be kept low to meet market demand. He explains that companies use the threat of pulling out of Cambodia if unions demand too much as a way to “discourage workers, to sort of say, ‘Do this or you’ll be out of the job.’”

Realistically, though, Welsh says, “The amount of work that is being put into creating an incredible supply chain internationally … with foreign investors that are getting off like bandits, frankly, off the backs of impoverished Cambodian workers—the dynamic cannot continue.”

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