May 2013 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

May 2013

#Sidney's Picks: Moral Mondays, NYC Car Wash Workers Ratify First Union Contract

Highlights from the week’s news.

  • North Carolina activists fighting the right wing agenda of their state government pledge to continue their Moral Monday protests on June 3.
  • “Kabul CSI sifts through evidence to identify victims of torture in Afghanistan.


[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Chicago Sun-Times Lays Off Photo Staff

The Chicago Sun-Times announced this morning that it was firing its photo department. Some 30 photographers and editors lost their jobs, three photo staffers reportedly survived the cuts but will be reassigned to new duties. From now on, the paper plans to make do with freelance contributors. 

What could possibly go wrong? Graphic designer Ian Arsenault can think of a few things, as shown above. 

[Image credit: Ian Arsenault, twitter: @ianwarsenault.]

Documentary: "Sex Offender Village"

When sex offenders get out of jail in Florida, they may find themselves with nowhere to legally live. Local laws may prohibit them from living within a thousand feet of a school, a park, or even a bus stop because children might congregate there. As a result of being on the sex offender registry, some offenders end up homeless, living in colonies with fellow offenders because they can’t find anywhere else to live. 

“Sex Offender Village” is short film about Miracle Village, a community that houses sex offenders who have nowhere else to go. The compound is surrounded on all sides by fields that extend for miles. Medically diagnosed pedophiles and offenders who committed crimes against strangers are banned from Miracle Village. In Florida, the term “sex offender” encompasses a very wide range of deviant conduct, from rape and kidnapping to consensual sex with minors. One of the subjects in says he was convicted of having consensual sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend when he was 18 or 19. As sex crimes go, it’s a pretty minor offense, but it nevertheless carries a life sentence on the sex offender registry, which renders him effectively unemployable even if he leaves the state because he will be listed as a sex offender online for as long as he lives. The filmmakers argue that Florida’s sex offender laws are overly punitive and ineffective at protecting the public. 

Click here to watch the film.

Dubai Guest Workers to be Deported After Strike

Dubai, like other Gulf States, is heavily dependent on foreign guest workers. Guest workers make up over 90% of the private sector workforce in the Gulf. They perform hard labor for low wages and have few rights in their host countries. Most hail from poor countries like Bangladesh and the Philippines. 

Nearly 500 guest workers are facing deportation after a strike in which they clashed with the Arabtec construction company, demanding to be paid their food allowance in cash instead of meals. “Paying” guest workers in overpriced food and housing instead of cash is a classic exploitative practice that crops up regularly in guest worker programs all over the world. The strike ended when police and immigration officials stormed the camp, handing out deportation notices. Both unions and strikes are illegal in Dubai.

If you designed a perfect scheme to exploit workers, it would look a lot like a guest worker program. These programs import workers to do a specific job, for a specific employer. Under the terms of their visas, guest workers can’t get another job in-country, even if they discover upon arrival that their job isn’t all they were promised. As you might expect, unscrupulous bosses and labor brokers exploit this leverage to the hilt. To make matters worse, workers often borrow to pay their labor brokers. If they don’t stay and work, they can’t keep up their payments to local loan sharks, who may threaten their families. It’s not clear whether the Dubai construction workers facing deportation were deceived, but these kinds of abuses are endemic in guest worker programs worldwide, including in the United States


[Photo credit: Dubai from the air, by Tom Olliver, Creative Commons.]

The Dark Side of Greek Yogurt

A bowl of thick, creamy Greek yogurt seems like the most wholesome of meals. If you’re a New Yorker, you can feel virtuous not only because you’re consuming copious amounts of calcium and protein, but also because you’re boosting our state’s dairy industry. Greek yogurt production in the Empire State has tripled in the last five years. In the U.S. at large, Greek yogurt is a $2 billion industry. But our national addiction to the white stuff comes at a cost, acid whey pollution:

For every three or four ounces of milk, Chobani and other companies can produce only one ounce of creamy Greek yogurt. The rest becomes acid whey. It’s a thin, runny waste product that can’t simply be dumped. Not only would that be illegal, but whey decomposition is toxic to the natural environment, robbing oxygen from streams and rivers. That could turn a waterway into what one expert calls a “dead sea,” destroying aquatic life over potentially large areas. Spills of cheese whey, a cousin of Greek yogurt whey, have killed tens of thousands of fish around the country in recent years. [Modern Farmer]

Greek yogurt is thicker and creamier than regular yogurt because more whey is strained or spun off in production. Unfortunately, unlike the sweet weigh that is a byproduct of cheese making, acid whey can’t easily be dried to make bodybuilding supplements. Some scientists are working on methods to filter the lactose out of acid whey, to be used as a food additive, but these solutions aren’t ready for prime time yet. In the meantime, the New York dairy industry alone is stuck with 150 million gallons a year of corrosive yogurt byproduct that nobody really knows what to do with. 


[Photo credit: Ephien, Creative Commons.]

New York Times Reporters Win May Sidney Award for Coverage of Bangladesh Factory Collapse

We are very proud to announce that Julfikar Ali Manik, Steven Greenhouse, and Jim Yardley of the New York Times have won this month’s Sidney Award for their compassionate, in-depth, well-contextualized coverage of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh and its impact on working conditions for garment workers. The building crumbled on April 24, burying over 1100 people, many of whom were garment workers sewing clothes for Western brands like Wal-Mart and Benetton. 

The three reporters began their coverage on the day the tower collapsed and they have since produced well over a dozen follow-up stories, exploring multiple aspects of the world’s worst industrial disaster. They covered the rescue effort, exposed the criminal past of the owner of Rana Plaza, and chronicled the negotiations between labor organizations and Western clothing brands to broker a historic safety accord that will dramatically improve working conditions for Bangladeshi garment workers. 

In my Backstory interview with Steven Greenhouse, we talk about the journalistic teamwork that made this coverage possible, the labor climate in Bangladesh, the mechanics of the safety accord, and more.


[Photo credit: This photo of the Rana Plaza disaster site is used with the kind permission of Claus of PhotoCPH, all rights reserved.] 

Moral Monday: North Carolinians Take it to the General Assembly

Moral Monday 51313

North Carolinians gathered at the state assembly building on Monday to peacefully protest the legislature’s radical agenda, which includes reinstating the death penalty, repealing the Racial Justice Act, rescinding felons’ right to vote after they’ve done their time, refusing a Medicaid expansion for 500,000 people under Obamacare, and above all, making it more difficult for ordinary people to vote. Yesterday’s action, dubbed “Moral Monday” was the fourth in a series of demonstrations organized by the NAACP and its allies.

Fifty-seven protesters were arrested yesterday out of a crowd of about 500 protesters. Organizers expect even more arrests on June 3. 

Many of these bills are prefab legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative organization that churns out cookie-cutter bills to restrict voting rights, collective bargaining rights, environmental protection, and other issues. 

Watch this video produced by Story of America to learn more about Moral Monday: Historians, pastors, and a pediatrician explain why they’re using civil disobedience to save voting rights for all in North Carolina. The state is doing everything it can to make it difficult to vote, from abolishing early voting to restricting the voting rights of felons who have already paid their debt to society. As one historian explains, North Carolina is taking a step backwards to an era where most poor people (black and white, alike) couldn’t vote because of anti-democratic restrictions. State legislators wantsto ensure that the people most likely to challenge its agenda are silenced at the polls, but the Moral Monday protesters aren’t going to let them. 


[Photo credit: Scene from a Moral Monday protest, sja7943, Creative Commons.]


The Dark Side of the Generic Drug Boom

Generic drugs promise the same efficacy as their brand-name counterparts at a fraction of the price. That’s why 84% of the nation’s drug supply has gone generic. Unfortunately, as Katherine Eban reports in Fortune, the recent boom in overseas generic drug manufacturing has outstripped the U.S.’s regulatory capacity. FDA inspectors visit overseas generic drug factories but their inspections are neither as frequent nor as thorough as the checks performed on domestic pharmaceutical plants:

Fortune’s investigation yields the first comprehensive picture of how one under-policed and far-flung generics company operated. It is not a tale of cutting corners or lax manufacturing practices but one of outright fraud, in which the company knowingly sold substandard drugs around the world – including in the U.S. – while working to deceive regulators. The impact on patients will likely never be known. But it is clear that millions of people worldwide got medicine of dubious quality from Ranbaxy.

Ranbaxy was the first foreign company to export generic drugs to the U.S. and it quickly became the 6th-largest drug company in America. It has since been discovered that many of its products were sold as substitutes for branded drugs without being properly tested to ensure equivalency. Ranbaxy got caught mixing high-quality HIV medication with cheaper stuff in order to bring the drug’s purity scores up to a minimally acceptable level. Such adulteration may have harmed patients because the drug mixture can rapidly break down and become toxic. 


[Photo credit: Ess_JayNZ, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Zombie Lehman Brothers, Fast Food Wage Theft, and an Anteater "Immaculate Conception"

Highlights from the week’s news: 

  • New York’s Attorney General is investigating wage theft in the fast food industry.
  • Family planning officials in Texas sat on $2.3 million while clinics closed for lack of funds and thousands of women lost access to care.


[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

A New Deal for Bangladeshi Garment Workers?

We aren’t accustomed to thinking of sewing as a death-defying trade, but as Hillman Judge Harold Meyerson explains in the Washington Post, garment workers in Bangladesh take their lives in their hands each day when they report to poorly built factories to stich cheap clothing for Western consumers.

On April 24, the Rana Plaza factory complex collapsed, killing over 1100 workers, but the Rana disaster was just the best known of a string of entirely preventable mass casualties. In the weeks since the collapse several fires have swept through garment factories in Bangladesh, the most recent of which killed eight people:

“That fire began on the lower floors, but people died on the floors above,” says Scott Nova, who heads the Workers Rights Consortium, the organization that has spearheaded the global fight to make garment factories safe. “Those people would have had no trouble getting out unharmed if they could have walked into stairwells protected by fire doors. But the factory had open staircases that became a chimney, funneling toxic smoke to the upper floors. And most of the factories in the country are similarly structured.” [WaPo]

These deaths reveal the inadequacy of the current regime of voluntary factory inspections that many Western companies use to put a figleaf on dismal working conditions. After Rana companies protested that their inspectors weren’t sent to inspect the physical integrity of the structure. Well, it doesn’t take a civil engineer to notice that a stairwell has no fire doors.

But there is cause for optimism. Rana may finally have shaken Western brands–and the Western consumers who buy their products–out of their complacency:

In the wake of Rana, that’s begun to change. Under pressure from unions and anti-sweatshop activists in their home countries, the European retailers and brands with the biggest presence in Bangladesh agreed this week to a plan under which they would pay for renovations to make their factories safe and independent inspections that would keep them that way. The retailers include H&M, which is the biggest buyer in Bangladesh, Carrefour and the British-based firms Tesco and Primark.

Thus far, most U.S. firms have declined to sign on. Holdouts include Wal-Mart, which ranks just behind H&M in the volume of clothing produced in Bangladesh; Gap; JC Penney and Sears. The only U.S. company to join the accord — and it signed on to a version that predated last month’s disaster outside the Bangladeshi capital — is PVH, the parent company of Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and Izod. [WaPo]

PVH had an extra push to do the right thing. The company decided to clean up its act after 2013 Hillman Prize-winner Brian Ross and his team at ABC News publicly shamed Tommy Hilfiger over factory deaths in Bangladesh in 2012. 


[Photo credit: jankie, Creative Commons.]