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Wage Wars: Bangladeshi Workers Reach a Boiling Point

9:16 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(International Labor Rights Forum / National Garment Workers’ Federation)

Originally published at In These Times

Workers in Bangladesh have been perishing in tragic, preventable factory accidents for years. Now, in mass uprisings that portend both more violent labor struggles on the horizon and a new dawn for a nascent labor movement, the workers are starting to strike at the factories themselves.

Tens of thousands of workers took to the streets earlier this week, turning some of their anger at the factories by hurling broken bricks at the authorities. About 300 factories were shuttered “to contain the violence,” according to Al Jazeeraand police cracked down on protesters with “tear gas and rubber bullets.” In lashing out at the physical workplaces, the workers were responding to symbols of a power structure that has done far greater violence to them: Just this spring, more than 1,100 people died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza industrial complex, and before that, scores of lives were claimed in a blaze at the Tazreen garment factory.

While the Rana disaster was a catalyst for the uprising, the workers’ primary demand appeared to be for higher wages.

After similar protests broke out a few years ago, the government was compelled to increase the minimum wage, roughly doubling it in 2010 to about $38 per month. Now workers are seeking to raise the monthly minimum wage to $100. That might be a large jump percentage-wise, but the big ask is a testament to the unconscionably low income levels of Bangladeshi garment workers compared to other garment-exporting countries. According to a recent study cited in a Bloomberg News report, “The annual total [compensation] for a Bangladesh worker amounted to $1,478, compared with $4,577 in neighboring India.”

The new unrest reflects the frustration that has mounted in the wake of the industrial tragedies. International labor advocates have been working for months with Bangladeshi activists to push for compensation for thousands of survivors and family members of those affected by the recent factory disasters. With the garment sector serving as a main engine of development in one of the region’s poorest countries, the Rana collapse wiped out a livelihood that allowed thousands to barely scrape by. Al Jazeera recently reported that many of the affected workers were women breadwinners:

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The Supervisor From Hell Gets a Pass From SCOTUS

10:01 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

Wikimedia Commons

The petty tyranny of middle management is practically a modern workplace institution. We’ve all experienced—or heard stories of—the despised supervisor who makes every workday miserable with verbal jabs and insults, sexual harassment, racial epithets or outright discrimination. And if that describes your workplace, your life may get just a little more nightmarish, since the Supreme Court has made it harder to wage a civil rights challenge against the supervisor from hell.

While the media has focused on the court’s big decisions this week on voting rights and marriage equality, the court also issued a major 5-4 decision on Monday limiting the scope of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The court ruled that when a supervisor engages in discriminatory harassment, the employer can be held strictly legally liable only if the supervisor working under the employer has authority over “tangible” employment decisions, namely the power to “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline.” The decision could sharply limit employer liability for supervisor harassment in many cases.

The theoretical distinction between employer and supervisor didn’t mean much to Maetta Vance, a black catering worker at Ball State University who complained to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) about her white supervisor’s alleged harassment and threats against her. According to the allegations, Vance’s co-worker “gave her a hard time at work by glaring at her, slamming pots and pans around her, and intimidating her.” The day-to-day experience of bias was what drove Vance’s civil rights claim. The case illustrates how, even without hiring or firing power, a higher-up’s power to shape the social environment of a workplace can be abused, especially when abetted by institutionalized racism and socially ingrained inequality.

A direct supervisor has other means of control that fall short of hiring-or-firing-power—for instance, the ability to monitor employees, assess them or assign daily duties. The potential to abuse such powers was made evident in one of the cases cited in the decisionRhodes v. Illinois Department of Transportation.

Donna Rhodes, a highway maintenance worker, complained that two of her more senior male coworkers subjected her to a discriminatory work environment through various forms of harassment. In addition to complaints of being barraged with “sex-based invectives” and finding a pornographic image taped to her locker, Rhodes alleged that her harasser “forced her to wash her truck in sub-zero temperatures, assigned her undesirable yard work instead of road crew work, and prohibited another employee from fixing the malfunctioning heating system in her truck.” Though her employer, the Department of Transportation, admitted “Rhodes had been subjected to a sex-based hostile work environment,” the department avoided liability under Title VII by arguing that technically, the harassers “were not Rhodes’s supervisors because they lacked authority to take tangible employment actions against her.”

In Vance, the Supreme Court majority similarly ruled that Title VII did not allow direct liability for the employer, Ball State, but reasoned that victims like Vance could still “prevail [in court] simply by showing that the employer was negligent in permitting the harassment to occur.” But this would still stymie efforts to hold a corporation directly accountable for the actions of lower-level direct supervisors.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued in the dissenting opinion that that in limiting Title VII recourse, the majority “embraces a position that relieves scores of employers of responsibility for the behavior of the supervisors they employ.” She notes that:

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Recruitment Abuses Emerge in Immigration Reform Debate

12:19 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

National Guestworker Alliance supporters protested McDonald’s exploitation of the State Department’s “J-1″ Visa program in Philadelphia. (Courtesy of National Guestworker Alliance)

Originally posted at In These Times

Archiel Buagas thought she was doing everything right. The young Filipina nurse secured a special work visa to come to the United States and arranged a job at a New York nursing home with the help of a recruiting agency. Things started to feel wrong when they refused to give her a copy of her contract. She and the other nurses in her group soon found themselves working frantically to care for 30 to 60 patients per shift, without regular breaks, and she was soon driven to exhaustion by the indecent pay and relentless stress.

 “I was so scared of going to work that before my shift,” she later testified to labor advocates. “I would be crying, I’d be [vomiting] because of anxiety and nervousness. I would have diarrhea…. [T]he only thing that made me sleep was the fact that I’m so tired …. I wanted to go home.”

Buagas learned the hard way that her path to American prosperity would be fraught with betrayal. It wasn’t because she didn’t have the right papers, it was because her papers offered her no protection against an industry that preys on the hopes of migrants seeking a better life abroad. As Congress debates immigration reform, most of the public focus has been on “legalizing” the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living “underground,” and on the expansion of labor-based visas to bring more immigrants into the workforce on a “legal” basis. But beyond the question of who gets a shot at that vaguely defined “path to citizenship,” labor advocates are pushing lawmakers to give meaningful protections and rights to workers who are disenfranchised by legal, social, and economic marginalization.

In many cases, many immigrant workers with visas (that is, those who are technically legally authorized to work in the United States) are at least as vulnerable as their undocumented counterparts to abuses such as wage theft, labor trafficking and employer intimidation. In arecent report on labor recruitment abuses, the International Labor Recruitment Working Group (ILRWG) explained that under the current poorly regulated visa structure:

employers are able to exploit an essentially captive workforce, and workers are deterred from asserting their rights under U.S. law. Workers who complain routinely are blacklisted, threatened or physically intimidated by recruiters. Additionally, many internationally recruited workers face language barriers, racism, xenophobia, sexism and the pressures of poverty in both the United States and their home countries.

The immigration reform bill now advancing in the Senate might help close some of the regulatory gaps. One section would bar recruitment fees imposed by foreign labor contractors, including the predatory charges imposed for job placement, legal processing and transportation. These fees have often been used to impose a modern form of indentured servitude.

In one particularly egregious case, teachers brought to the United States from the Philippines using employment-based visas, were charged $16,000 to secure jobs and then forced into a contract that skimmed 10 percent of their wages for the next two years. Read the rest of this entry →

As Death Toll in Bangladesh Collapse Climbs Past 1,000, Another Factory Fire Claims 8 Lives

9:00 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Photo: IndustriAll Global Union)

Originally posted at In These Times

Bodies continue to pile up at Rana Plaza, once a powerhouse of Bangladesh’s garment industry, where more than 1,000 corpses have been unearthed since a factory collapse two weeks ago (and today, another survivor was discovered). Meanwhile, yet another disaster, a May 8 fire at the Tung Hai Sweater Factory in Dhaka’s Mirpur district, claimed eight additional lives. In total, the death toll since 2005 from fires and other preventable incidents at factories in Bangladesh now exceeds 1,500, according to garment-industry watchdogs—including more than 110 killed by a fire at the Wal-Mart-affiliated Tazreen factory in November.

In a strange twist, the casualties in the latest fire appear not to have been ordinary workers. According to a New York Times summary of Bangladesh news reports, “The victims included the police deputy inspector general, Z. M. Monzur Morshed, as well as the factory’s managing director, Mahbubur Rahman. Mr. Rahman was also a director of the country’s most powerful industry trade group, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.” The fact that prominent industrialists were meeting with a police official in the factory after hours exposes the tight nexus between commerce and the state that has drawn public scrutiny in the wake of Rana. The powerful businessman behind the huge factory complex, Sohel Rana, was notorious for exploiting cozy political connections to bolster his manufacturing empire.

Tragically, it took the scale of the carnage at Rana Plaza to shine light on a barely regulated industry known for treating its Global South workforce—which profits from vast numbers of rural migrant women workers with few other job options—as disposable tools. Lower-grade accidents that attract less media attention have also inflicted day-to-day harm. According to the International Business Timessince the Tazreen fire, “40 more factory incidents have led to the deaths of 10 people, with 650 workers injured.” In a country where low-wage workers often toil to support families on less than $40 per month, work-related injuries can prove financially fatal. 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.

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Corporate-Approved State Bills Kick Low-Wage Workers While They’re Down

4:17 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally published at In These Times

President Obama called for a modest raise in the federal minimum wage to $9 in his State of the Union Address, and several Democratic legislators have upped his bid with a proposed increase to $10.10.

But an insidious effort to lower the wage floor is already underway much closer to the ground—in the state legislatures where right-wing lobbyists have been greasing the skids for years for an onslaught of anti-worker policies.

An extensive analysis recently published by labor advocacy organization the National Employment Law Project tracks more than 100 bills introduced in 31 states since January 2011 that “aim to repeal or weaken core wage standards at the state or local level.” Each bears the fingerprint of notorious super-lobbying organization the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which acts as a forum for “private sector leaders” to advise public officials. Most of the anti-worker bills were proposed by lawmakers directly linked to ALEC and include language that echoes that of “model legislation” developed by ALEC. Among the proposals are measures to undercut minimum wages for teenage workers, restrict overtime pay and repeal or ban local laws to improve working conditions.

ALEC has been called out by activists for pushing legislation that advances a classic right-wing agenda, from school privatization to rolling back healthcare reform. But the “wage suppression” tactics are a particularly callous attempt by ALEC-affiliated legislators to feed corporate profits by starving workers. 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.”

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Toxic Train Wreck Exposes Weakness in Federal Chemical Policy

11:21 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

The August 6, 2012, fire at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, California, caused by a release of flammable vapor, was one of several recent accidents in an industry with little to no government oversight. (D.H. Parks / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

In late November, while other parts of New Jersey were recovering from the superstorm, the quiet town of Paulsboro was blindsided by a very unnatural disaster. A train derailed while crossing a local bridge, sending freight cars tumbling into the water below and releasing a toxic swirl of the flammable gas known as vinyl chloride, used to make PVC plastics. In the following days, chaos ensued as residents hurriedly evacuated. Authorities struggled to manage the emergency respons, leaving people confused and frustrated by a lack of official communicationabout hazards.

Though the derailment came as a shock to residents, this was an accident waiting to happen, environmental advocates say. Paulsboro is just one of the latest in a spate of recent disasters(including others involving vinyl chloride) in industries that handle massive amounts of toxins with minimal oversight.

At a recent community meeting about the aftermath of the incident, residents expressed exasperation at the government’s disaster-response team, accusing officials of keeping them in the dark about toxic risks, reports the South Jersey Times:

“How much is all of our lives worth to you?” Michael Hamilton, a Pine Street resident, asked. “What if somewhere down the line we develop cancer? Who is responsible, and when will you take responsibility?”

Community activists and officials are seeking accountability for the chemical fallout as well. There are immediate concerns—that residents were not adequately informed about the exposure risks, or that in the initial emergency response, workers may not have received appropriate protective gear. Read the rest of this entry →

Immigrant Supply-Chain Labor Struggles Galvanize Walmart Activism

4:38 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Young Polish and Romanian workers on "J-1" guest visas who protested their treatment at a Pennsylvania Hershey plant last year recently won back pay from the subcontractor that runs the facility. (Roman Surzhko/National Guestworker Alliance)

Originally posted on In These Times

On Black Friday, as Walmart workers across the country stand up against the retail giant’s labor regime, they’ll be in part standing on the shoulders of smaller uprisings that have popped up in low-wage workplaces. Alongside the disgruntled store employees, various subcontracted warehouse workers have helped lead the wave of protests.

The interconnected campaigns reveal that what makes Wal-Mart so powerful–its hegemonic size and market domination–is also what makes it a solid target for an increasingly militant solidarity movement of precarious workers across the supply chain.

As labor activists brace for Black Friday, federal authorities have vindicated a previous labor struggle involving a major Walmart warehouse subcontractor. Back in 2011, immigrant guestworkers at Exel, a logistics subcontractor, protested against abusive working conditions at a Hershey plant in Palmyra, Penn. As we’ve reported previously, the guestworkers were “invited” to a hard labor stint through a special “J-1″ visa administered by the State Department. As with other labor-based visa programs, lax regulation had turned J-1 into a gateway for the importation of low-wage young workers under the pretext of “educational” summer work experience.

The young Hershey hires quickly saw their resume-building aspirations dissolve into a nightmare of abusive work schedules and workplace safety violations. As one disillusioned young worker told the New York Times. “We are supposed to be here for cultural exchange and education, but we are just cheap laborers.” Read the rest of this entry →

Looking for a Good Job? Don’t Get Your Hopes Up

4:51 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

CEPR / In These Times

 

Originally posted at In These Times

 

If you think your job stinks, you’re not alone. And if you’re still looking for a decent job, don’t expect to find one anytime soon, or ever.

A new analysis of job quality, assessing various measures of benefits and wages, confirms what many of us already suspected: Good jobs are vanishing from the United States, with global trade and social disinvestment leaving workers stranded on a barren economic landscape.

The report, published by John Schmitt and Janelle Jones from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), shows that the downward spiral began long before the recent economic crisis. It notes that since 1979, the “good job” (one that “pays at least $18.50 an hour, has employer provided health insurance, and some kind of retirement plan”) has become an endangered species:

[T]he economy has lost about one-third (28 to 38 percent) of its capacity to generate good jobs. The data show only minor differences between 2007, before the Great Recession began, and 2010, the low point for the labor market.

In 2010, “less than one-fourth (24.6 percent) of the workforce” possessed those precious good jobs. And the clincher is this downturn is beginning to look like a sad plateau:

The deterioration in the economy’s ability to generate good jobs reflects long-run changes in the U.S. economy, not short-run factors related to the recession or recent economic policy.

While workers around the world have witnessed massive economic volatility in the recent boom-bust cycles, food crises and political upheavals, the trend line of labor hardship holds steady. The societal impacts of unemployment crises parallel the effect of long-term effects on individual workers, especially young ones–a self-perpetuating sense of despair and isolation, and perhaps entrenched, long-term suffering. Read the rest of this entry →