February 2012 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

February 2012

Poetic Justice in Japan: Goldman Sachs Workers Unionize

Threatened with layoffs, employees at Goldman Sachs in Japan formed what is believed to be the first ever union at Goldman, James McCrostie reports in the Japan Times:

At Goldman Sachs Japan, things became so unusual that some of its staff even took the remarkable step of unionizing after the firm’s attempts to force workers to voluntarily resign — and thus sidestep the notoriously tough restrictions on layoffs under Japanese labor law — apparently backfired. Instead of quitting, the company’s actions spurred some employees to heed the call for workers of the world to unite, and they formed what’s believed to be Goldman Sachs’ first-ever employee union. 

[Photo credit: BW Jones, Creative Commons.]

Are You Eating Fish Caught By Slaves?

Last March, Yusril, a 28-year-old expectant father from Indonesia signed up to work on a commercial fishing vessel of the New Zealand coast, a major source of seafood for the U.S. market. The recruiter rushed Yusril through the paperwork so quickly that he didn’t notice that the fine print made him a de facto prisoner aboard a South Korean fishing boat.

The contract was set up to trap him: The company reserved the right to send him home and bill him $1000 if they found his work unsatisfactory. He wouldn’t get paid for the first three months, so there was little chance he could cover the fine. If he jumped ship, his family would have to pay $3500, a sum that exceeded their net worth. Yusril had already mortgaged their land to post the $1000 bond.

E. Benjamin Skinner reports for Bloomberg Businessweek:

What followed, according to Yusril and several shipmates who corroborated his story, was an eight-month ordeal aboard the Melilla 203, during which Indonesian fishermen were subjected to physical and sexual abuse by the ship’s operators. Their overlords told them not to complain or fight back, or they would be sent home, where the agents would take their due. Yusril and 23 others walked off in protest when the trawler docked in Lyttelton, New Zealand. The men have seen little if any of what they say they are owed. Such coerced labor is modern-day slavery, as the United Nations defines the crime. (The South Korean owners of the Melilla ships did not respond to requests for comment.)

The experiences of the fishermen on the Melilla 203 were not unique. In a six-month investigation, Bloomberg Businessweek found cases of debt bondage on the Melilla 203 and at least nine other ships that have operated in New Zealand’s waters. As recently as November 2011, fish from the Melilla 203 and other suspect vessels were bought and processed by United Fisheries, New Zealand’s eighth-largest seafood company, which has sold the same kinds of fish in the same period to distributors operating in the U.S. (The U.S. imports 86 percent of its seafood.) The distributors in turn have sold the fish to major U.S. companies. Those companies—which include some of the country’s biggest retailers and restaurants—have sold the seafood to American consumers.

If you’ve ordered squid at a P.F. Chang’s Bistro, there’s a good chance that you’ve eaten fish harvested by indentured laborers. The chain buys it squid from United Fisheries, a giant New Zealand-based seafood company that bought and processed the catch from the Melilla 203 and other boats using indentured labor, as recently as November, 2011.

Skinner, a fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, spent months investigating indentured labor on commercial fishing vessels off of New Zealand for Bloomberg Business Week.

Hat tip to E.J. Graff.

[Photo credit: Hit thatswitch, Creative Commons.]


Oligarchy in the USA

This is the best intro to a magazine story I’ve seen in ages. These three paragraphs by Jeffrey A. Winters have real stopping power:

In 2005, Citigroup offered its high net-worth clients in the United States a concise statement of the threats they and their money faced.

The report told them they were the leaders of a “plutonomy,” an economy driven by the spending of its ultra-rich citizens. “At the heart of plutonomy is income inequality,” which is made possible by “capitalist-friendly governments and tax regimes.”

The danger, according to Citigroup’s analysts, is that “personal taxation rates could rise – dividends, capital gains, and inheritance taxes would hurt the plutonomy.” [In These Times]

How is it possible, Winters wonders, that our society has made such strides towards equality on race, gender, sexual orientation and disability, yet has fallen so far behind in income equality? The answer, Winters argues, is oligarchy.

[Photo credit: Lee Bailey, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Pelosi on Colbert; A Little Help from "The Help"; Glenn Beck's Gold

Sidney picks the best of the week’s news:


  • Nancy Pelosi keeps her Lenten promise to be kind to Republicans by appearing on the Colbert Report to discuss why SuperPACs are ruining democracy.
  • It’s not a schlocky movie, it’s a political opportunity! How domestic workers are using The Help to create social change, by Rinku Sen of Colorlines.
  • Goldline International, Glenn Beck’s favorite sleazy gold company, has been ordered by a court to refund $4.5 million to customers and stop telling the rubes that the feds are coming for their gold, Stephanie Mencimer reports for Mother Jones.
  • Greg Kaufman, author of the “This Week in Poverty” column for The Nation, on why the unemployment benefits extension doesn’t go far enough.


Foxconn Hid Underage Workers Before Inspection, NGO Claims

A Chinese watchdog group that monitors working conditions at the electronics manufacturing giant Foxconn says that the company hid underage workers after being tipped off about an upcoming inspection by the Fair Labor Association. Josh Ong of Apple Insider reports: 

Workers at Apple partner Foxconn have alleged that their employer transferred underage employees to other departments or did not schedule them to work overtime in order to avoid discovery during recent inspections by the Fair Labor Association, according to one non-governmental organization.

Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) project officer Debby Sze Wan Chan relayed the claims in a recent interview with AppleInsider. SACOM is a Hong Kong-based NGO that was formed in 2005 and has been researching labor rights violations in the electronics industry since 2007.

Chan said she had heard from two Foxconn workers in Zhenghou last week that the manufacturer was “prepared for the inspection” by the Fair Labor Association that had been commissioned by Apple and began last week.

Last month, Apple became the first technology company to join the Fair Labor Association, an NGO that says it bring companies, NGOs, and other stakeholders together to improve working conditions in factories. 

FLA president Auret van Heerden told Nightline that Apple paid $250,000 to join and that the group was footing the bill for the audits at Foxconn.

[Photo credit: Laughing Squid, Creative Commons.]

Powerful Photos of Rising Unrest in China

Protests are on the rise in China. Between 2006 and 2010 the number of reported protests, aka “mass incidents” has doubled. The Atlantic’s In Focus blog explains:

The uprisings are responses to myriad issues, primarily official corruption, government land grabs, Tibetan autonomy, and environmental problems. Late last year, the residents of Wukan – angered by a land grab by corrupt officials – rose up and briefly seized control of their village. After several days, the government gave in, admitting to mistakes and vowing to crack down on corruption. Villagers were also allowed to hold their first-ever secret ballot elections, apparently free from Communist Party interference. On February 11, 2012, Wukan residents elected their own governing committee, with a voter turnout of 85 percent.

The post includes a gallery of 41 striking images of dissent in China.

RIP: Ronald Fraser, People's Historian

Ronald Fraser, one of the preeminent historians of the Spanish Civil War, has died at the age of 81:

Ronald Fraser, an English oral historian known for his deftness at collecting and presenting ordinary people’s experiences during momentous events like the Spanish Civil War, died on Feb. 10 in Valencia, Spain. He was 81.

Tariq Ali, a friend and colleague, announced the death. He gave no cause.

Mr. Fraser used transcriptions of interviews, the oral historian’s principal tool, to write books chronicling working-class life, the ways of a Spanish village, the 1968 student uprisings in the United States and Europe, and even his own life.

His most influential book was “Blood of Spain: An Oral History of the Spanish Civil War,” a 628-page work published in 1979 that Paul Preston, a historian of the Spanish Civil War, said in The New York Times Book Review would “take its place among the dozen or so truly important books about the Spanish conflict.”

Time magazine said, “No other volume on the Spanish Civil War can surpass the power and detail of this one.” [NYT]

Fraser’s friend Tariq Ali remembers him in The Guardian.

Sidney's Picks: Facebook Exploits Censors; Birth Control, and More

  • You know what’s way more offensive than camel toes on Facebook? The fact that Facebook pays overseas workers a pittance to slog through posts flagged as inappropriate, Adrien Chen of Gawker reports: “Amine Derkaoui, a 21-year-old Moroccan man, is pissed at Facebook. Last year he spent a few weeks training to screen illicit Facebook content through an outsourcing firm, for which he was paid a measly $1 an hour. He’s still fuming over it. “It’s humiliating. They are just exploiting the third world,” Derkaoui complained […] Chen also has a follow-up post on Facebook’s new obsenity guidelines.
  • A man who says his house was illegally foreclosed upon was arrested protesting outside Freddie Mac in LA the day the New York Times revealed that most recent California foreclosures are illegal or irregular.
  • Sarah Posner reports on Rep. Darryl Issa’s all-male Congressional panel on birth control and religious freedom.
  • Video of Sidney Hillman’s panel discussion of Slavery By Another Name, PBS’s new documentary about the re-enslavement of black Americans under the guise of convict lease programs, a system that persisted from the end of Reconstruction until the Second World War. 

Flawed Foreclosures: CA Audit Finds Massive Irregularities

An audit of recent home foreclosures in California found that almost all the reposessions were illegal or suspicious, Gretchen Morgenson reports in the New York Times. An astonishing 84% of foreclosure files contained what appeared to investigators to be clear violations of the law:

An audit by San Francisco county officials of about 400 recent foreclosures there determined that almost all involved either legal violations or suspicious documentation, according to a report released Wednesday.

Anecdotal evidence indicating foreclosure abuse has been plentiful since the mortgage boom turned to bust in 2008. But the detailed and comprehensive nature of the San Francisco findings suggest how pervasive foreclosure irregularities may be across the nation.

The improprieties range from the basic — a failure to warn borrowers that they were in default on their loans as required by law — to the arcane. For example, transfers of many loans in the foreclosure files were made by entities that had no right to assign them and institutions took back properties in auctions even though they had not proved ownership.

Commissioned by Phil Ting, the San Francisco assessor-recorder, the report examined files of properties subject to foreclosure sales in the county from January 2009 to November 2011. About 84 percent of the files contained what appear to be clear violations of law, it said, and fully two-thirds had at least four violations or irregularities.

These findings will be grist for the Occupy movement, which has devoted considerable energy to defending homes against foreclosures in recent months.

[Photo credit: o_corgan, Creative Commons.]

Retired Marine Explains Why Military Women Shouldn't Expect to Be Raped

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Sarah Albertson delivers a righteous rebuttal to Liz Trotta of Fox News who claimed that women in the armed forces should “expect” to be raped their male colleagues:

From 2003-2008, I was a United States Marine. Trained as a Russian Linguist, I worked as a Security, Governance, and Economics Analyst. “Property of male Marines” was never in my job description, and therefore I should never have had to “expect” to be raped. Nowhere in my enlistment contract, not even in the fine print, did I agree to sexual assault as a part of the job. Fox News pundit Liz Trotta’s comments suggesting that servicewomen should “expect” to be raped because they’re in “close contact” with their male colleagues are beyond ignorant; they fall into the category of hate speech.

Not only does Ms. Trotta’s twisted stance set women’s rights back several decades, once again telling us that despite our abilities and qualifications, we should not be allowed to work in our chosen profession so as to avoid “tempting” violent criminals whom she desires to see continue their employment, but she goes even further to suggest that any male in our armed forces is completely capable of raping his colleagues.

In doing so, she has successfully degraded the entirety of the US military and painted the image of a lawless Old West in an organization that is run on order and discipline. Ms. Trotta has expressed a belief that those in uniform should not be protected by basic laws which govern and protect all other Americans, nor should we be held accountable to these laws. In expressing these beliefs, she demonstrates how very little she actually understands our military, and how extremely unqualified she is to speak on our behalf.

Read the rest at Change.org.

[Photo credit: U.S. Marine Corps Official Page, Creative Commons.]