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

Mike Elk

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.”




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.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH