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Dignitary’s Maid Reveals Indignities of Domestic Work

8:05 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

National Domestic Workers Alliance, Anannya Bhattacharjee — via Facebook

Originally published at In These Times

A certain romance colors our image of the house servant of yore. In fare from Downton Abbeyto Hollywood’s The Butler, they’re depicted as spectacles of starched traditionalism, deference and obsessive manners, even as they navigate unspoken class and racial faultlines. Though household labor has evolved from its rigid historical forms, a new chapter of the period drama for the era of globalization has emerged in New York’s rarefied diplomatic scene, with curious case of Sangeeta Richard, the domestic worker of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade.

Richard unleashed a diplomatic firestorm last month with her accusations of labor abuse: She claims that when she entered the United States on a special A-3 visa for diplomatic personal employees, her contract stated she would earn $4,500 per month as a live-in domestic worker beginning in November 2012. She ended up with less than $600 monthly, just over $3 per hour, a fraction of the federal minimum wage. A petition circulated in support of Richard states that she was kept in “slave-like conditions.” Her husband reportedly filed a petition in a New Delhi court complaining that his wife was being forced to work each day from 6a.m. to 11p.m.

Her employer, Khobragade, was subsequently charged with labor violations and visa fraud, and suddenly became the center of the story. Indian officials and elites protested the arrest as a political affront as well as a cultural misunderstanding. In a country strafed by class divides, the nationalist logic goes, the tradition of keeping a maid is a sign of status and integral to a middle-class lifestyle.

But the Richard affair is not simply a diplomatic spat. Rather, it underscores deep issues of labor, gender and class that cut across hemispheres.

Domestic work is not a cultural peculiarity of India’s, but an expanding globalized sector of more than 50 million people, flowing between regions and across borders, generally from poor to rich areas. Sometimes these people are placed in systems that meet the legal definition of indenture, enslavement or human trafficking. More typically, these workers, mostly women—and in urban areas like New York, overwhelmingly immigrants and women of color—are employed individually or through an agency, and work in a system with virtually no oversight that lacks even basic worker protections.

Many household servants are “imported” to accompany wealthy expatriate households. For specialized employees of diplomats, like Richard, their right to work is linked to their employer’s sponsorship, which in turn opens the door for coercion. This may mean outright abuse or more insidious oppressions, such as holding workers hostage by confiscating their papers and confining them to the house. Read the rest of this entry →

Angry Workers Swarm Seoul’s Streets, Demand President Resign

10:49 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Korean Confederation of Trade Unions via Facebook

Originally published at In These Times

South Korea may best be known for slick electronics and saccharine pop tunes, but less of that stereotypical effervescence was present in Seoul in December. Instead, the streets were filled with throngs of angry union workers, facing down riot police in a show of defiance against a government plan that they say would lead to layoffs and privatization.

On December 28, workers staged a one-day general strike that capped about three weeks of intense smaller protests involving thousands of workers and activists and causing sharp service reductions. The establishment of a parliamentary committee to resolve the railway dispute has paused the demonstrations for now. But unions, who see the fight as a broader labor struggle beyond the rail issue, are not giving up and have vowed to keep protesting. On Friday, theydemanded the president’s resignation.

In recent months, the government has proposed subdividing and commercializing the national railway, Korail—supposedly a cost-saving measure to deal with the railway’s debt burden and financial losses. Recently, tensions escalated when the government announced plans to split Korail services into separate segments and to create a subsidiary to run part of the high-speed rail service under a separate corporation, which would purportedly stay primarily state-controlled.

Labor activists suspect the claims of financial concerns mask the government’s underlying aim to incrementally privatize the vital public institution, in turn triggering job losses and pay cuts. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and the Korean Railway Workers’ Union (KRWU) have also argued President Park Guenhye’s administration pushed through the plan without adequate public or opposition consultation. In response to the government’s railway proposal, rail union workers voted to go on strike on November 22, launching a wave of public rallies and pickets that grew to flood the streets of downtown Seoul. In mid-December, after the Prime Minister declared the strike “illegal,” police began clamping down on union leadershipby issuing arrest warrants and confiscating equipment and documents from several local union offices.

When police then moved on to targeting the headquarters of the umbrella labor organization KCTU, which represents a multi-sector membership of more than 690,000 workers, union activists struck back. Eric Lee of LabourStart reported at OpenSecurity that the activists “formed a defensive cordon but eventually riot police charged the building, smashing down glass doors and firing pepper gas, causing several injuries. There were reports that some of the trade unionists responded with improvised water cannons.”

After the blockade of the KCTU building resulted in 138 arrests of protesters, as Lee put it, “An enraged KCTU leadership issued a call for a million-worker strong general strike.” Internationally, meanwhile, labor activists garnered about 14,500 signatures online on astatement of solidarity.

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The U.S. Government Uses Sweatshops, Too

10:48 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Sharat Chowdhury / Wikimedia Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh last April exposed the cruel link between abusive Global South factories and the Western brands they supply. But while consumers may have been shocked to learn of the Gap or Benetton‘s latest designs strewn amid the wreckage of “death trap” factories, they might have missed another bit of debris: the label of the U.S. government. In fact, much of the clothing churned out by overseas sweatshops is custom-made for Uncle Sam.

In an extensive investigative report, New York Times details how the federal government’s contracts with overseas factories to make uniforms and other apparel are connected to egregious human rights violations, including child labor and union suppression.

A recent audit by labor monitoring authorities found workers as young as 15 at a factory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia that produces clothes to be sold by the Army and Air Force. Some workers spoke to the Times of having to work long shifts without breaks, forcing them to soil themselves while sewing. Read the rest of this entry →

Advice for Young Women: Get a Union Job

11:11 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally published at In These Times

Back in the days before modern feminism, a young woman looking for work might typically be advised, politely, to “learn a trade,” with the implication that she wasn’t bound for college or an elite career, but a humbler job as, say, a secretary or seamstress. Such a phrase might sound condescending today. Yet working in a trade might still be sound career goal for a woman, if she gets the right kind of job—in a union.

According to a new paper on women and unionization by progressive think tank the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), “Even after controlling for factors such as age, race, industry, educational attainment and state of residence, the data show a substantial boost in pay and benefits for female workers in unions relative to their non-union counterparts. The effect is particularly strong for women with lower levels of formal education.”

In other words, all other things being equal, unions are good for working women, yielding higher wages and better job benefits. Specifically, “unionized women workers on average make 12.9 percent more than their non-union counterparts, are 36.8 percent more likely to have employer-provided health insurance and 53.4 percent more likely to have participated in an employer-sponsored retirement plan.”

Of course, unions are good for men, too. Across the unionized workforce—which includes higher-paying, male-dominated sectors like construction—men actually see a bigger wage boost from union membership than women do. But for women, who still face a gendered pay gap, the gains that unions provide can be critical. CEPR notes, “All else equal, being in a union raises a woman’s pay as much as a full year of college does.”

The study concludes, “Considering the great boost to pay and benefits that unions bring, it’s important that anyone who cares about the well-being of women workers also care about unions.”

Even though it materially enhances many aspects of their working lives, the value of union membership for women tends to get overlooked. Media narratives and neoliberal feminist advice tracts like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In tend to stress higher education, networking and climbing the corporate ladder as ways for women to get ahead. But the report’s findings suggest that “good union work”—an idea that’s culturally more associated with rough-hewn longshoremen than single moms—may be an overlooked path to social advancement for women. Read the rest of this entry →

‘From Bean to Cup,’ Starbucks Labor Action Heats Up

4:16 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

As part of workers’ Week of Action, a protester distributes leaflets outside of a Starbucks in Cambridge, Mass. (Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers)

Originally posted at In These Times

The Starbucks cup, with its iconic green mermaid logo and smart cardboard sleeve, seems to embody the essence of the urbane yuppie lifestyle. But the carefully constructed cool of the coffee mega-brand belies some serious anger percolating beneath the surface of Starbucks’ supply chain.

That cup means something different to Ray Allen, a machine operator at a paper goods plant run by Pactiv, a major Starbucks supplier. Allen got his first full-time job at the Stockton, Calif. factory; now, more than a decade later, the steady employment has allowed him to own a home and raise a family. But it hasn’t come without cost.

“I have given [Pactiv] my blood, sweat, and tears throughout the years,” said Allen in a recent testimonial. “I have missed many events in my children’s lives for this job with no regrets. All I ask for in return is a fair contract to preserve our well-deserved and hard-earned middle-class way of life.”

Since the Stockton factory’s parent company, Dopaco, was taken over by Lake Forest, Ill.-based Pactiv in 2011, Allen’s union, Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers Local 83, has been fighting for such a fair contract. The union says that management is pushing for unreasonable cutbacks on benefits and trying to allow temporary agency workers, hired outside the union, into the plant—a major departure from the old contract terms. They also claim the company wants to take away paid mealtimes, which they fear would significantly cut wages for a standard workweek.

The Stockton employees represent one of the last bastions of unionization in Pactiv’s workforce—just nine of its 55 facilities worldwide are union, PlasticsNews reported last year. Union representative Greg Jones says Pactiv’s proposal of hiring more temp workers, in particular, “really weakens our bargaining potential” and “only gives Pactiv the incentive to try to use more and more temp workers, at lower wages with no benefits … it eventually could be the demise of the union.” And Pactiv has a reputation for labor antagonism. In Kearny, N.J. last year, Pactiv shuttered a plant producing Reynolds-brand packaging products following months of labor clashes. The workers-—mostly Latina and Chinese women—launched a campaign accusing the company of imposing harsh working conditions, unfair layoffs and trying to bust their unionization efforts.

In Stockton, labor conditions have also declined in the last year, say workers. Ever since Pactiv’s takeover, they claim, the workload has gotten more stressful and management has gotten harsher.

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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 →

Qatar’s World Cup Spectacle Brought to You by Slavery

6:10 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Migrants laboring in Qatar. Most are underpaid and face torture or abuse. (Photo by WBUR/ Flickr)

Originally published at In These Times

The big controversies surrounding Qatar as the site of the 2022 World Cup have been the shady bidding process and fears that the desert heat will ruin the soccer games. But in the past few days, the spotlight has finally begun to move to longstanding concerns over the treatment of the migrant workers who will be building the physical infrastructure for the sporting bonanza.

Throughout the summer, according to an investigation by Amnesty International [PDF] released this week, the future site of the sporting spectacle became a death trap for the Asian workers brought in by Qatar and its booming construction industry to work on the building sites of the planned World Cup facilities, including commercial areas and transportation infrastructure.

Amnesty found that the workers were encamped in sweltering heat, fell from precarious heights and suffered heart failure under the strenuous labor conditions. One Nepalese official described the entire system of indenture as an “open prison,” according to Der Spiegel. In light of dozens of reported deaths, union activists predict that up to 4,000 may die on the sites between now and the 2022 games.

Through interviews with the World Cup construction workers, the Amnesty investigators gathered horrific stories of an array of abuses, including “not being paid for six or nine months; not being able to get out of the country; not having enough—or any—food; and being housed in very poor accommodation with poor sanitation, or no electricity.”

Workers testified that migrants were frequently forced to work for poverty-level wages or sometimes none at all. Often, they said, employers confiscated their identification documents, effectively holding them hostage out of fear of being detained for lacking papers. Read the rest of this entry →

How Sandy Clean-Up Brought Day Laborers Out of the Shadows

6:34 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(El Centro de Immigrante)

Originally published at In These Times

When Sandy hit last October, the Northeast shoreline seemed to freeze: people were stranded in flooded homes, businesses shuttered, downtown Manhattan’s lights went eerily dark. But the paralysis wasn’t total—the area began buzzing immediately with invisible workers. The day after Sandy was just another day of honest work for the “casual” manual laborers who would spent months cleaning, gutting and rebuilding homes and businesses across the stricken area, often in grueling conditions with little protection from collapsing walls, toxic mold and other hazards.

A study published late last month by researchers with the City University of New York’s Baruch College reports that after Sandy, many of these day laborers—a workforce that is typically dominated by Latino immigrants and considered a “casual” or irregular part of the construction trade—were unnecessarily put in harm’s way amidst the haphazard recovery process.

Based on interviews with workers and advocacy groups in New York and surrounding areas, the researchers found that while demand for day laborers spiked post-Sandy, working conditions sank even lower than usual. Flooded areas were quickly awash in contractors and desperate homeowners seeking quick, cheap labor to fix their property damage, which led to a perfect storm of risks, ranging from injuries and toxic exposures to wage theft by crooked subcontractors.

The researchers note that many day labor sites belied major safety threats, such as “industrial cleanups involving warehouses that stored pharmaceuticals and in hospitals.” And in many cases, homeowners who informally hired day laborers for immediate clean-up did not understand the complex hazards involved with clean-up, demolition and rebuilding, leaving workers even more vulnerable. Read the rest of this entry →

Exploitation Remains the Name of the Game at Dell’s Chinese Factories

4:34 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Electronics assemblers in Shenzhen, China, where a recent report detailed substandard conditions at a Dell factory. (Steve Jurvetson / Wikimedia Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

There is nothing newsworthy in the latest investigative report on working conditions in Chinese electronics factories—just the same old story, really: Once again, there’s evidence of systematic exploitation of workers, suppression of labor organizing, poor living conditions and chronic economic insecurity for young workers. What has changed is the intensity of the industry’s resistance to cleaning up the worst labor practices of China’s global manufacturing model. Even as a rising generation of young workers are increasingly disillusioned with harsh working conditions and dismal job prospects, high tech manufacturers are still taking the low road on their rights.

The report, authored by the Denmark-based DanWatch, with support from U.S.-based China Labor Watch and in collaboration with other European consumer advocacy organizations, describes disturbing workplace troubles at factories that supply the computer giant Dell.

It turns out that the chips and motherboards that bring modern efficiency to western offices are made under pretty backward conditions. Through site visits and personal interviews with workers at four factories that supply Dell (all managed by Taiwan-based companies) in Jiangsu and Guangdong, researchers uncovered evidence of numerous violations. At all four of the facilities, employees reported working long hours that sometimes totaled more than 60 a week or exceeded the legal overtime cap of 36 hours per month. In some cases, workers reported working seven days straight, without a day off. This non-stop schedule violates the voluntary standards Dell agreed to under the framework of the Electronic Industry Citizen Coalition (EICC), an industry consortium that promotes ethical sourcing.

The report quotes one worker, Zhao Lili of Guangxi Province, describing physical exhaustion and seemingly toxic conditions on the shop floor:

“Because of the welding, the temperature is uncomfortably high and the smell is toxic. We don’t get mouth protection and I get skin irritation if I touch my face at work,” she says.

Zhao explains the work is exhausting because of the repetitive movements and long hours. “We have to stand up the entire 12 hour shift; to sit down, you have to ask for permission.”

Many, according to investigator interviews and observations, were living in cramped dormitories, with poor quality food and a single toilet for as many as 50 people. Often, employers hired “student interns” to do essentially the same work as regular full-time employees, but with less pay and job security. China Labor Watch Program Coordinator Kevin Slaten tells Working In These Times that this is common practice in an industry bent on squeezing every last drop of profit from its workforce:

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A Halloween Nightmare in Juárez

3:03 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally published at In These Times


On October 24 in Ciudad Juárez, the Dulces Blueberry maquiladora, a low-wage manufacturing plant that specializes in American Halloween candy, turned into a real-life house of horrors when an industrial explosion killed four workers, injured several dozens more and showered the area with a cloud of dust.

According to the border-based outlet Frontera Norte Sur (FNS), as a result of the blast, “Fire broke out on the plant’s premises, fueled by spilled chemicals and sugar, and windows of homes in an adjacent residential district were reportedly shattered.” FNS has also revealed that the factory struck by the Halloween blast was known for producing gimmicky trick-or-treat candies like Real Annoying Orange and Plants vs. Zombies gummies.

Though the site of the collapsed factory is now under investigation by government authorities, officials reportedly left grieving family members in the dark for days and there is still little information available on the exact cause of the explosion. Texas-based WFAA initially quoted Rosario de la Torre Mesa, the mother of 20-year-old worker and father of two Miguel Angel, as saying: “Since yesterday at five in the morning when [Miguel] left for work, I haven’t seen him. I haven’t heard anything.”

By Saturday, WFAA reports, she’d only identified her son’s remains “after standing vigil outside the factory for two days.”

According to FNS Editor Kent Paterson, this disaster primarily “exposed the almost non-existent infrastructure in place [in Juárez] to respond to health and environmental emergencies.” The faulty organization was highlighted, he says, by the city’s halting emergency response to the explosion in the hours following the disaster. The chaotic aftermath was exacerbated, he continues, by longstanding resource gaps–hospitals that lacked the capacity to care for the injured and ambulances that “were not working or lacked gasoline.”]

As horrifying as the city’s lack of emergency response is, however, perhaps more chilling has been the dead silence from the American side of the border about the labor conditions in the factory itself. The Blueberry factory is associated with U.S. brand Sunrise Confections, a division of the El Paso-based Mount Franklin Foods. The company has yet to respond to employees’ families claims that workplace hazards directly contributed to the tragedy. As of Wednesday afternoon, Mount Franklin had also declined to answer inquiries from Working In These Times.

El Paso’s KTSM reports:

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