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Working In These Times

Friday, Aug 9, 2013, 4:57 pm

Blame Bangladesh’s Middlemen; Public Defenders Get Sequestered; A Mag Just for Interns

BY Mike Elk

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A New York Times exposé shows that middlemen between U.S. retailers and Bangladeshi factories worsen work conditions by driving down prices. From the Times:

As the world’s largest sourcing and logistics company, Li & Fung plays matchmaker between poor countries’ factories and affluent countries’ vendors, finding the lowest-cost workers, haggling over prices and handling the logistics for roughly a third of the retailers found in the typical American shopping mall, including Sears, Macy’s, JCPenney and Kohl’s.

Based in Hong Kong, the merchandiser owns no clothing factories, no sewing machines and no fabric mills. Its chief asset is the 15,000 suppliers in over 60 countries that make up a network so sprawling that an order for 500,000 bubble skirts that once took six months from drawing board to store shelf now takes six weeks at a sliver of the price.

That scale gives Li & Fung tremendous clout. “They are considered the Walmart of purchasing,” said Edward Hertzman, publisher of Sourcing Journal.

But in pioneering and perfecting the global hunt for ways to produce clothing more quickly and cheaply, Li & Fung, which had $20 billion in revenue last year, has been described by critics as the garment industry’s “sweatshop locator.”

Ari Melber at MSNBC has an interesting piece out this week on how the sequester has hurt public defenders. From MSNBC:

The details vary by region, but in many federal districts, public defenders are facing cuts that are double to quadruple the size of their opponents across the court room. According to reports by defenders and government officials, that’s the case from Texas to Arizona and New Jersey to Massachusetts, where federal defenders are laboring under a $51 million shortfall.

One big reason for the inequity is arcane: prosecutors are funded through the Department of Justice, a $27 billion agency which has great leeway to absorb cuts. Defenders are funded through a slice of the federal courts’ $7 billion budget. Since that fund is largely devoted to staff, the cuts have forced more furloughs and layoffs of attorneys–the last line of defense for most Americans accused of a crime.  (At the state level, about eight out of ten defendants cannot afford to purchase legal services.)

With less time and fewer attorneys, defender offices are forced to choose between cutting essential services and rejecting those clients in need. The cost is especially acute for some of the most sensitive cases, such as capital crimes and trials requiring experts or translators. These cases are increasingly compromised or seriously delay.

Yet another problem of companies shifting from workers to interns: Interns are denied some basic rights that other workers have. From ProPublica:

In 1994, Bridget O’Connor began an internship at Rockland Psychiatric Center, where one of the doctors allegedly began to refer to her as Miss Sexual Harassment, told her that she should participate in an orgy, and suggested that she remove her clothing before meeting with him. Other women in the office made similar claims.

Yet when O’Connor filed a lawsuit, her sexual harassment claims were dismissed because she was an unpaid intern. A federal appeals court affirmed the decision to throw out the claim.

Unpaid interns miss out on wages and employment benefits, but they can also find themselves in “legal limbo” when it comes to civil rights, according to law professor and intern labor rights advocate David Yamada. The O’Connor decision (the leading ruling on the matter, according to Yamada) held that because they don’t get a paycheck, unpaid interns are not “employees” under the Civil Rights Act -- and thus, they’re not protected.

And with the growing realization that interns are a separate class of employees, a new magazine has launched just for interns. From the Columbia Journalism Review:

29-year-old former photographer [Alec Dudson], who lives in Manchester, England, did two unpaid internships over the course of 2012, after which he found himself “no closer to getting a paid job,” than before he began working for free. Fed up with the cycle of unpaid positions, he has created Intern magazine, a Kickstarter-funded project whose campaign closes on Wednesday.

Intern is meant to act both as a commentary on issues surrounding unpaid internships and as a showcase for the otherwise-unpaid interns whose work Dudson will commission for the magazine. (Dudson plans to pay all the artists, writers, and photographers whose work appears on the magazine’s pages.)

The magazine’s Kickstarter reached its £5,500 funding goal on July 30, and a couple more days of fundraising remain. Dudson has printed a promotional newspaper for the project—which he’s calling “Issue Zero”—to distribute to Kickstarter backers while issue one is still in the works. He hopes to release the first issue in October or November, though he is realistic about the many challenges he may face as the magazine makes its debut.

A profile in the Dallas Morning News highlights the role of Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) in getting the federal government to act in the wake of the West, Texas explosion. From the Dallas Morning News:

Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the U.S. Senate’s environment and public works committee, sat visibly frustrated in a June congressional hearing. She finally told the Environmental Protection Agency official that “lives are being lost” while the agency failed to better safeguard the fertilizer chemical that blew up West.

Weeks later, Boxer wrote to the nation’s governors. She implored them to do what they could to improve the security of ammonium nitrate. Finally, the California Democrat turned to the White House. The results of her efforts became public last week when President Barack Obama issued an executive order directing the federal government to improve safety at chemical facilities.

“For me, it’s a game-changer,” Boxer said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News. “I saw the intransigence of some of the agencies. I saw them arguing and not committing. … We asked the president to help make sure this [type of disaster] never happens again.”


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Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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