Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

The best of the week’s news by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

Toy Maker for Wal-Mart, Disney, and Mattel Accused of Child Labor

A factory that cranks out cheerful plastic tchotchkes for Mattel, Wal-Mart, and Disney uses child labor and gruelling mandatory overtime, according to a new report by human rights activists. Gethin Chamberlain writes in the Guardian

Disney’s best-selling Cars toys are being made in a factory in China that uses child labour and forces staff to do three times the amount of overtime allowed by law, according to an investigation.

One worker reportedly killed herself after being repeatedly shouted at by bosses. Others cited worries over poisonous chemicals. Disney has now launched its own investigation.

It is claimed some of the 6,000 employees have to work an extra 120 hours every month to meet demand from western shops for the latest toys.

The factory, called Sturdy Products, makes toys for the giant Mattel company, which last month announced quarterly profits of £48m on the back of strong sales of Barbie dolls and Cars 2 toys. Sturdy Products, in the city of Shenzhen, also makes toys for US superstore chain Walmart. Among the brands produced are the Thomas the Tank Engine range, Matchbox cars, Cars, Toy Story, Barbie and Fisher Price products, Scrabble and the Hot Wheels sets. 

The undercover investigation of Sturdy Products was carried out with the help of Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), a Hong Kong-based non-profit that helped expose abuses at Apple’s Foxconn plant.

This isn’t the first time Sturdy Products has been cited for violating workers’ rights. A 2007 investigation found that workers were being forced to work six to seven days a week and that the company was violating local minimum wage laws.

[Photo credit: galactic_ac, Creative Commons.]

$120 Million MLK Monument Finished By Chinese Laborers, Despite Promise to Union

The dedication ceremony for the monument to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the National Mall has been postponed as the East Coast braces for Hurricane Irene. Alex Seitz-Wald of Think Progress notes that the $120 million monument to one of the greatest champions of workers’ rights in American history was assembled by Chinese laborers. The American union whose membership has helped to assemble every major monument erected in Washington since the Civil War watched from the sidelines, despite a promise to hire union labor to complete the King monument.

The foundation that built the monument promised in writing to hire members of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers (BAC) to assemble the 159 blocks of granite that comprise the two sculptures at the site. However, the foundation reneged, though it apparently hired BAC members do to other work on the project.

The sculptor of record, Master Lei Yixin, who won the blinded international competition to design the monument, brought over nearly a dozen workers from China to help him finish the project on site.

It has been reported that the Chinese workers were unpaid. BAC investigator Francis Jacobberger and Washington Post reporter Annys Shin learned in the fall of 2010 that the men were working for “national honor.” In other words, they weren’t getting paid while they were in the United States, working on Dr. King. They expected to get paid at least something when they got back to China, but they didn’t know how much. It’s not clear whether they ever got paid.

Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis while preparing to lead a march of unionized sanitation workers striking for higher wages and better working conditions. Displacing union workers with cheap labor from China is a betrayal of his legacy.

[Photo credit: Black History Album, Creative Commons.]

What's Next for Hillman Award Winner Tim Noah?

The media world was shocked Wednesday to learn that had laid off four high-profile writers: Tim Noah, Jack Shafer, Juliet Lapidos, and June Thomas.

Noah won the 2011 Hillman Award for Magazine Journalism for “The Great Divergence,” a series he wrote for Slate on inequality in America. Since April, Noah has been on leave, expanding his story into a book. Noah is the first web-based writer to win a Hillman Award for magazine journalism.

I emailed Noah to find out what’s next for him. He replied, “My main focus for the moment is on finishing the book, which Bloomsbury will publish in the spring. I will remain at Slate as a contributing writer. As for my other professional plans: Stay tuned!”

[Photo credit: Lindsay Beyerstein, all rights reserved.]

Bye Bye, Bycatch?

This month’s Sidney Award winner, Tom Gogola, wrote about how dysfunctional fishing regulations force commercial fishermen to waste tons of edible bycatch and how new technology is helping to reduce bycatch.

Bycatch is any creature a fisher catches while fishing for something else, edible or not.

In other bycatch news, Cornelia Dean of the New York Times delves deeper into the burgeoning field of anti-bycatch technology.

Dean reports on the work of the Consortium for Wildlife Bycatch Reduction, a research center administered by the New England Aquarium where fishers and scientists work together to refine fishing gear to reduce bycatch:

The new efforts focus on modifications to fishing gear. They include relatively simple steps, like changes in hook design, and more complex ones: making fishing lines more visible to whales, changing noise levels on fishing boats and impregnating metal gear with substances meant to repel “bycatch species” like sharks.

Engineered bycatch reduction goes back to the 1990s in the Gulf of Maine, where harbor porpoises were turning up in fishermen’s nets. On the theory that porpoises are sensitive to noise, engineers and biologists developed beer-can-size devices that emitted pinging noises underwater. Within weeks of attaching the pingers to their nets, fishermen saw porpoise bycatch drop by 90 percent.

Historically, fishers have suspected that scientists are out of touch with the practical realities of fishing and scientists have countered that fishers are uninterested in conservation and resistant to change. Dean suggests that, in addition to saving innocent sea creatures, joint research efforts like these may ultimately help bridge the cultural gap between the two groups.


[Photo credit: Chris Vees, Creative Commons.]

Taibbi: SEC Illegally Shredded Bankster Dossiers

“Is the SEC Covering Up Wall Street Crimes?” asks Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone. Taibbi reports that the Securities and Exchange Commission has illegally destroyed thousands of preliminary investigation files, including early investigations of Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff and probes of suspected fraudsters at Lehman Brothers on the eve of the institution’s collapse.

Felix Salmon of Reuters wrote, “Matt Taibbi’s 5,000-word exposé of the SEC’s document-shredding is a magnificent piece of journalism, and is the first and last place that you should look to understand what’s going on here.” 

Here’s Taibbi’s remarkable scoop in a nutshell: From 1993 to 2010, the SEC destroyed the records of preliminary investigations as soon as they were closed, even though the agency had a deal with the National Archives and Records Administration to keep those materials for at least 25 years. These files, known as “Matters Under Inquiry” or “MUIs,” are the first step towards a full-fledged investigation. An MUI may contain newspaper clippings, brokerage reports, and interview notes. Darcy Flynn, an 13-year SEC veteran who is now suing as a whistleblower, alleges that SEC officials lied about unauthorized document destruction and tried to cover it up. 

Taibbi argues that these files could have been crucial in identifying criminals before their misdeeds cost investors and taxpayers untold trillions of dollars.

Last week, NARA stated that the SEC has no authority to destroy MUIs and that NARA has been working with the SEC for a year to put a stop it.

The SEC maintains that it wasn’t required to keep MUIs in the first place. Even if federal law allowed the SEC to dispose of these records, the larger question would by why the agency would want to do something so reckless and shortsighted. Other law enforcement agencies don’t routinely trash their closed cases. These weren’t decades-old files, either. The SEC’s policy was to destroy MUIs as soon as they were closed.

The SEC’s defenders are claiming that these records were unimportant, but as Taibbi points out in an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, SEC investigators like Darcy Flynn complained at the time that all the shredding was getting in the way of ongoing investigations.

The fact that the SEC was so determined to destroy evidence raises suspicions that the agency was more interested in coddling the financial sector than regulating it.

[Photo credit: dorena-wm, Creative Commons.]

Unlicensed "pumpers" prey on transwomen in New York

Back-alley cosmetologists prey on transwomen in New York City, peddling black market silicone injections, which temporarily enhance feminine curves at great risk to the clients’ health, Laura Rena Murray reports in the New York Times. In February, a young woman died shortly after receiving black market silicone injections in Philadelphia. In July a young transwoman* named Gabrielle Aguilar died in a Queens hospital shortly after visiting a unlicensed “pumper,” as these practitioners are known.

Why would anyone seek out an unlicensed operator to pump industrial grade silicone into her buttocks and plug the holes with Krazy Glue, as one of Murray’s subjects did? With great compassion, Murray captures the yearning that these women have for something that most of us take for granted, a body that fits with our sense of ourselves:

Zaira Quispe, 42, said she knew as a child that she was a girl, though she had been born male. She picked up a photo that she kept on the windowsill above her bed and held it out as proof. It’s a picture of herself as a smiling baby, naked and with legs crossed, concealing genitals. “Look,” she said, “even then I was trying to hide it.”

Ms. Quispe, an Ecuadorean immigrant who came to New York at age 9, was determined to get the curves that would make her look more feminine. But she lacked health insurance or the money to pay for surgical procedures that would provide them; they can cost as much as $70,000. So she tried something else: she went to a so-called pumper, a person who illegally injects silicone to modify the body.

Ms. Quispe was initially delighted with the results, but over time the liquid calcified and spread, causing infection, disfigurement, and constant pain. In 2002, a doctor told her that the liquid she thought was silicone was actually industrial oil. He said the oil had insinuated itself so deeply into her flesh that there was no way to surgically remove it without cutting out huge chunks of her hip and buttocks muscles. Fearing the treatment would be more debilitating than the disease, he told her to go home and take painkillers instead.

So, Ms. Quispe returned to her tiny apartment in Brooklyn’s Farragut Houses to live as a virtual shut-in. She’s bedridden for most of the day. Besides, she says, she’d rather stay indoors than endure the stares of her neighbors. But she may not be able to avoid surgery forever. The oil has riled her body into a constant state of inflammation. This summer she was hospitalized for bloodthinner injections to dissolve potentially lethal blood clots before they could travel to her heart.

Murray contrasts Ms. Quispe’s hardships with the opulant lifestyle of S, a New York City pumper who says she brings in $10,000 a week injecting clients with medical grade silicone she acquires on the black market:

The evidence of her success crowds the spacious two-bedroom apartment she rents in Brooklyn. The exterior of her building fits in with the dilapidated neighborhood. The front door is missing a doorknob, and the windows are boarded up and painted a mud brown, concealing the opulent interior. Inside her apartment, gold candleholders, ceramic vases, crystal and gleaming white cherubic angels sparkle under elaborate chandeliers. Thirteen Tiffany-style lamps clutter her shelves, and dozens of porcelain plates hang in rows on her walls.

One corner of her dining room contains 10 bird cages stacked in two columns from floor to ceiling, the sides of the cages covered in tin foil and each cage holding three to six canaries, finches and other small birds.

The living room is crammed with stacks of boxes containing items that she plans to move to a house she said she recently bought in Puerto Rico.

S, a transwoman whose face bears pumping, says that she’s helping her clients, unlike some of the 50 or so illegal pumpers she estimates to be operating in the city. Not everyone is willing to make fine-grained distinctions based on craftsmanship:

Pumpers are preying on desperate people who are poor,” said Pauline Park, president of Queens Pride House, an organization that provides services to lesbian, gay and transgender people. “They’re basically killing people and profiting from it.”

Murray notes that many pumping clients are underage. For some transgenderd youth, pumping is a quick and relatively cheap way to look more feminine. Many see it as stopgap measure on the road to a more expensive sex reassignment surgery. Ms. Quispe ruefully estimates that if she’d saved the money she spent on silicone injections, she could have afforded her surgery by now.

A lesser reporter might have focused exclusively on the sensational details of pumping, whereas Murray is careful to explain the connection between this disturbing phenomenon and the widespread discrimination and social dislocation that transgender people face:

Transgender youth cannot be treated by a doctor without parental consent, and many of them are estranged from their families because of their gender identities. According to a 2011 discrimination report released by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 19 percent of transgender people experienced homelessness because of their gender identity, 57 percent were rejected by their families, and 41 percent had attempted suicide.

Murray resists the temptation to demonize the pumpers or scold their clients. She consults experts who explain that the black market is a symptom of a larger problem, namely, transwomen being shut out of the medical system because of poverty, bad insurance, family breakdown, and other systemic factors. Hers is an excellent story that deserves to be widely read.

*Terminological note: “Transgender“ describes a person whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. A transwoman, short for “transgender woman,” is someone who was labelled as male at birth but who identifies as female. “Transgender” is a synonym for the outdated term “transsexual.”

[Photo credit: Photo of a generic syringe, for illustration, by ZaldyImg, Creative Commons.]

Corporations Seeking "Job Creation" Tax Breaks Hide Outsourcing Stats with Government Help

Multi-national corporations are begging for U.S. tax breaks in the name of job creation, but refusing to reveal how many of those jobs are created overseas, Jia Lynn Yang reports for the Washington Post:

Some of the country’s best-known multinationals closely guard a number they don’t want anyone to know: the breakdown between their jobs here and abroad.

So secretive are these companies that they hand the figure over to government statisticians on the condition that officials will release only an aggregate number. The latest data show that multinationals cut 2.9 million jobs in the United States and added 2.4 million overseas between 2000 and 2009.

Some of the same companies that do not report their jobs breakdown, including Apple and Pfizer, are pushing lawmakers to cut their tax bills in the name of job creation in the United States.

But experts say that without details on which companies are contributing to job growth and which are not, policymakers risk flying blind as they try to jump-start the hiring of American workers.

All U.S. multinationals are required to report their overseas hiring data to the Commerce Department, but the government promises not to disclose these figures to the general public.

Asked by the Post why the government agrees to keep this information secret, a researcher at the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis gave the official equivalent of a shoulder shrug: “I don’t think it’s a question of companies feeling like they’re hiding dirty laundry by not giving this information out,” Ray Mataloni said. “I don’t think they really have anything to hide, but I don’t really know the logic of why that’s something they don’t just put in their annual report.”

Others see the government as complicit in concealing politically volatile facts about job creation, or lack thereof.

Outsourcing has become a lightning rod, and the media coverage they’re likely to get is unfavorable,” Scott N. Paul, the executive director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, told the Post.

The federal government is spending taxpayer dollars to keep track of outsourcing statistics from major multinational corporations and promising to keep that information secret, even though it bears on critical public policy decisions.

For example, Apple and Pfizer, two companies that stopped disclosing their overseas job numbers, are part of a corporate lobbying coalition clamoring for a massive temporary tax cut on profits earned overseas but repatriated to the United States. These gains would ordinarily be taxed at 35%, but if the lobbyists get their way, there would be a 1-year window to bring home the money at a tax rate of 5.25%.

Not to be outdone, Republican presidential hopeful Gov. Rick Perry suggested at a campaign event in New Hampshire last week that corporations should be allowed to bring home the fruits of offshoring at an even lower rate:

And here’s another issue from my perspective. Corporate profits that are offshore, that we tax at 35 percent. We know for a fact that money’s not coming back. They’re going to leave that offshore. So why not look at, and talk about, how you repatriate those dollars and have those dollars focused on job creation, but allow them to come back in at a substantially lower rate than 35 percent. Say, something like, if it’s clearly going for job creation, like zero, to get this economy working again.

The corporate lobbying coalition claims that what looks like a blatant giveaway to multinationals actually serves the greater good because the companies will use the money to create jobs. Of course, there’s no guarantee that companies will spend their tax windfall on hiring. In all likelihood, they won’t. Multinationals got a similar tax holiday in 2004, but subsequent analysis showed that very little of the money went to job creation, most of it went to pay higher returns to shareholders. Many firms that cashed in in 2004 went on to lay off thousands of workers. Pfizer, for example, repatriated $37 billion in 2004 and laid off 10,000 employees in 2005-2006.

If we can’t trust corporations to be honest about outsourcing statistics, we shouldn’t trust them with a massive tax giveaway predicated on their unverifiable promise to create jobs at home.

 [Photo credit: Dan Brady, Creative Commons.]

Jon Stewart on "World of Class Warfare"

Some links on jobs and the economy:

-Daily Show host Jon Stewart mocked conservative pundits for accusing investor Warren Buffet of engaging in “class warfare” with an op/ed suggesting that the rich should pay their fair share of taxes.

-The Department of Labor announced Friday that the unemployment rate for July rose in 28 states, fell in 9, and remained unchanged in 13.

-Thousands of unemployed African Americans braved sweltering temperatures to attend a job fair sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in Atlanta on Thursday. Several people were treated for heat exhaustion. As Andy Kroll reported in Tom Dispatch last month, unemployment is high for everyone, but especially for black men. The overall unemployment rate is 9.1% but the jobless rate for blacks is 15.9%.

-In a wide-ranging interview on job creation, race, and the economy, Time Magazine asked former CBC chair Rep. Maxine Waters (D-MI) how the how the machinations of the new 12-member “Super Committee” are likely to affect poor and minority citizens. The veteran legislator didn’t mince words, “I hate the idea of the ‘super committee.’ It undermines the ability of elected officials in this country to be truly representative of the people who sent them there. The way this is forged, we lose any way we go. They have the mandate to cut $1.5 trillion. And if they don’t get it done, you get $1.2 trillion across the board. It’s the worst kind of legislating that could be dreamed of. These cuts are going to dig deeply into these cities. We’re in for some hard times.”

-The unemployment rate in Texas is at a 24-year high, according to the latest statistics from the Texas Employment Commission. So much for Gov. Rick Perry’s “economic miracle.”


Defending the Social Safety Net: Not the Democrats' Best Option, Their Only Option

Historian Rick Perlstein debunks a central myth of American politics; namely, that a vigorous defense of our social safety net is too “divisive” to be politically palatable.

Perlstein argues that U.S. presidential elections are usually decided on one of two basic sets of issues: culture war anxiety or middle class economic insecurity. Historically, Republicans are more likely to win culture war slugfests and Democrats are more likely to win elections where economic issues are front-and-center, provided they define themselves as protectors of the middle class against the vaguaries of the market and the apathy of Republicans.

President Obama is reportedly reading Perlstein’s book “Nixonland.” Perlstein offers the president a cautionary fable. George McGovern lost in 49 states because he assumed that the middle class was prosperous enough to take care of itself and that labor unions were no longer relevant. 

Here’s what LBJ knew that ­McGovern didn’t: There are few or no historical instances in which saying clearly what you are for and what you are against makes Americans less divided. But there is plenty of evidence that attacking the wealthy has not made them more divided. After all, the man who said of his own day’s plutocrats, “I welcome their hatred,” also assembled the most enduring political coalition in U.S. history.

The Republicans will call it “class warfare.” Let them. Done right, economic populism cools the political climate. Just knowing that the people in power are willing to lie down on the tracks for them can make the middle much less frantic. Which makes America a better place. And incidentally makes Democrats win. [TIME]

This is Perlstein’s first contribution to TIME and I hope it will be the first of many.

[Photo credit: “ILGWU workers meet Lyndon B. Johnson,” Kheel Center, Cornell University, Creative Commons.]

Tuna Trouble: Greenpeace Sets its Sights on Bycatch

This week, the Hillman Foundation gave the August Sidney Award to Tom Gogola for his story “Bycatch 22,” which reveals how dysfunctional fishing regulations force fishermen to throw tons of perfectly good “bycatch” fish overboard. Bycatch is anything a fisher catches while fishing for something else. Gogola explains how misguided regulations force fishermen to waste fish in the name of conservation. He also describes innovative new government-funded research to reduce bycatch of fish, turtles, and seabirds.

In other bycatch news, Greenpeace launched a major new campaign against bycatch in the tuna industry this week. The centerpiece of the campaign is a satirical video entitled, “The Tuna Industry’s Dirty Little Secret,” featuring artwork by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore. The campaign takes aim at Starkist, Chicken of the Sea, and Bumble Bee–major suppliers of supermarket tuna.

In a post about the campaign at Lawyers Guns and Money, Eric Loomis chides pescetarians (vegetarians who make exceptions for fish), arguing that eating large marine fish in this day and age is the equivalent of chowing down on passenger pigeons in 1850. That’s hyperbole. Not all marine fisheries are mismanaged.

However, as Greenpeace reveals, the fishers who supply canned tuna to supermarkets have a lot to answer for. One of the main offenders is a simple technology known as a fish aggregating device, or FAD. To you and me, an FAD is a buoy; but to sea creatures, an FAD is an irresistable marine block party. Fish are instinctively attracted to floating debris. Unfortunately, it’s not just tuna that are drawn to these floats, according to the Greenpeace website:

FADs increase bycatch in the skipjack tuna industry by between 500% and 1000% when compared to nets set on free-swimming schools (FAD-free seining.) To make matters worse, between 15 percent and 20 percent of the total catch of a FAD-associated skipjack seine is actually juvenile yellowfin and bigeye – two species of tuna that are in serious trouble and cannot afford to have their young purloined before they ever have a chance to breed. The total content of bigeye and yellowfin in FAD-free skipjack seines is less than 1 percent.


Sashimi-lovers take note. The canned tuna industry is strangling yellowfins and bigeyes in their infancy.

[Photo credit: John Kratz, Creative Commons.]