Federal Workers Encouraged To Spy on Each Other; Wins in NYC and Kentucky; Obama Censures Bangladesh

Mike Elk

A mural in Belfast, Ireland pays homage to George Orwell's 1984; in the book's dystopia, government workers closely monitored each other for any sign of dissidence (Albert Bridge/< a href="http://www.geograph.ie/photo/269716"'>Geograph Britain and Ireland/Creative Commons).

A new federal program adopted in the wake of high profile leaks has millions of federal government employees in non-intelligence programs snooping on other employees for signs of stress, marital problems or financial hardship. From McClatchy Newspapers:

President Barack Obama’s unprecedented initiative, known as the Insider Threat Program, is sweeping in its reach. It has received scant public attention even though it extends beyond the U.S. national security bureaucracies to most federal departments and agencies nationwide, including the Peace Corps, the Social Security Administration and the Education and Agriculture departments. It emphasizes leaks of classified material, but catch-all definitions of insider threat” give agencies latitude to pursue and penalize a range of other conduct.

Government documents reviewed by McClatchy illustrate how some agencies are using that latitude to pursue unauthorized disclosures of any information, not just classified material. They also show how millions of federal employees and contractors must watch for high-risk persons or behaviors” among co-workers and could face penalties, including criminal charges, for failing to report them. Leaks to the media are equated with espionage.

On Thursday, the United States made the symbolic move of suspending Bangladesh’s Generalized Standard Preference trade status due to its poor record on workers’ rights. From MSNBC​.com:

It’s only symbolic. It’s not very much money,” said Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights executive director Charles Kernaghan. But someone had to put the line down and say enough is enough.”

Kernaghan estimated that the Obama administration’s move would only cost Bangladeshi industry about $40 million a year; practically nothing compared to the country’s annual $5 billion in exports to the United States. Nonetheless, Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity’s Kalpona Akter said that eliminating Bangladesh’s trade privileges could produce an immense crisis” if it inspires the European Union to take similar measures

This will help the workers to get their rights, because the government will feel the heat now,” Akter, a former sweatshop worker, told MSNBC​.com.

The American labor federation AFL-CIO first petitioned [PDF] the United States to eliminate Bangladesh’s trading privileges in 2007, in response to what they said was a spate of anti-union harassment and intimidation in the country. Democratic lawmakers revived the call after the Rana Plaza factory collapse in late April. Kernaghan, who recently returned from a visit to Bangladesh, said that the local government has been dragging its feet in response to the worst industrial accident in the history of the garment industry.

New York City became the largest city in the United States to pass paid sick-day legislation. From the AP:

Under the new law steered by Councilwoman Gale Brewer, employees of businesses with 20 or more workers would get up to five paid sick days a year beginning in April 2014; the benefit would kick in by October 2015 at enterprises with 15 to 19 workers. All others would have to provide five unpaid sick days per year, meaning that workers couldn’t get fired for using those days.

The requirements could be postponed if the city’s economy takes a major dive.

Employees could choose to work extra hours instead of taking sick time, a provision aimed at those who would rather swap shifts than stay home sick. That provision could be attractive to restaurant servers, for example, since the paid sick time wouldn’t include tips.

Meanwhile, in California, a new study shows that only 17 percent of court-ordered back pay to remedy wage theft is actually paid to workers. From the Los Angeles Times:

From 2008 to 2011, only 17% of court-ordered claims for back pay and labor law penalties were collected, according to the report by the National Employment Law Project and theUCLA Labor Center titled Hollow Victories: The Crisis in Collecting Unpaid Wages for California’s Workers.”

Just 42% — $165 million out of $390 million — was recovered after being verified by government regulators, even after judges signed orders and employers signed settlement agreements.

Meanwhile, companies representing three-fifths of unpaid-wage judgments legally vanished, the report said.

A landmark civil-court ruling in Kentucky will protect miners from frivolous countersuits when they file discrimination claims against their employers. From the Huffington Post:

As HuffPost reported in January, Armstrong Coal took miner Reuben Shemwell to civil court after Shemwell said he was wrongfully dismissed from his job for raising safety concerns in his mine. It appeared to be the first time that a coal company sued an employee for filing a safety discrimination complaint, and Shemwell’s lawyers warned that the threat of legal fees would have a chilling effect on whistleblowers throughout the mining industry.

In their suit filed in Kentucky state court in August, Armstrong lawyers claimed that Shemwell’s filing of a discrimination complaint with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) amounted to wrongful use of civil proceedings” – essentially, a frivolous lawsuit – after government officials declined to pursue Shemwell’s discrimination claim against the company. The Labor Department then turned around and filed a fresh discrimination complaint against Armstrong, arguing that the civil lawsuit in itself was a form of retaliation against the miner.

In his ruling on the latter case issued Wednesday, Administrative Law Judge Jerold Feldman sided with Shemwell. Armstrong lawyers had argued that the company’s civil lawsuit was a First Amendment right, but Feldman didn’t buy it, noting that Armstrong’s right to free speech shouldn’t preempt mine safety law. Their lawsuit, he wrote, was a violation of whistleblower protections, interfering with Shemwell’s right to file a safety complaint.

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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