July 2013 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

July 2013

Palm Oil is Unhealthy, Especially if You Make It

As the world market for palm oil expands rapidly due to strong demand for cooking oil in China and India, human rights abuses proliferate in the industry, including child labor, debt peonage, and wage theft:

As it’s grown, the palm oil industry has drawn scrutiny from environmental activists in Europe and the U.S. They decry the destruction of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia to support oil palm expansion, which threatens the natural habitats of endangered species such as pygmy elephants and Sumatran tigers. The human costs of the palm oil boom, however, have been largely overlooked. A nine-month investigation of the industry, including interviews with workers at or near 12 plantations on Borneo and Sumatra—two islands that hold 96 percent of Indonesia’s palm oil operations—revealed widespread abuses of basic human rights. Among the estimated 3.7 million workers in the industry are thousands of child laborers and workers who face dangerous and abusive conditions. Debt bondage is common, and traffickers who prey on victims face few, if any, sanctions from business or government officials. [Bloomberg]

E. Benjamin Skinner of Bloomberg documents abusive labor practices at KLK, one of the world’s largest palm oil producers, which has sold its products to the likes of Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, and Unilever. Palm oil and its derivatives find their way not only into processed foods, but also into familiar consumer products like Crest toothpaste and Gillette shaving cream. 


[Photo credit: A truck on a palm oil plantation in Indonesia. Rainforest Action Network, Creative Commons.]

U.S. Calls on Bangladesh to Investigate the Murder of Aminul Islam

Sidney Award co-winner Steven Greenhouse continues his coverage of worker safety and labor rights in Bangladesh in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, the deadliest industrial catastrophe in history, which killed over 1000 workers. On Friday, the Obama administration laid out a set of conditions that Bangladesh will have to meet in order to get its special trade status restored:

Three weeks after announcing it would suspend Bangladesh’s trade preferences, the administration released an “action plan,” which calls on Bangladesh to significantly increase the number of labor, fire and building inspectors and to improve their training. The plan urges Bangladesh to impose stiffer penalties, including taking away export licenses, on garment factories that violate labor, fire or building safety standards.

In addition, the administration recommended that Bangladesh create a public database of all garment factories for reporting labor, fire and building inspections, including information on violations found, penalties assessed and violations corrected, with the names of the lead inspectors.

In addition to its demands for measurable progress on work safety, the administration drew attention to the widespread intimidation of Bangladeshi workers who seek to organize and bargain collectively and urged Bangladeshi leaders to safeguard the freedom of association of their workforce. Finally, the Obama administration called for a transparent investigation of the murder of union organizer Aminul Islam. Islam was an organizer with the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, he was murdered after helping Western journalists expose the terrible working conditions that have killed so many Bangladeshi garment workers in preventable fires. The Sidney Hillman Foundation presented its 2013 Officers’ Award for Public Service in Islam’s memory. We hope that mounting international pressure will help bring his killers to justice. 


[Photo credit: Rushdi13, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Moral Monday Mania; Occupy FL; Faulty FBI Forensics

The best of the week’s news: 

  • The Moral Monday movement catches fire in North Carolina: A multi-racial coalition fights for voting rights and the social safety net.
  • What do hungry seniors, bored preschoolers, frustrated campers, and unemployed defense workers have in common? They’re all collateral damage from the sequester.
  • Chicago retail workers offer bold solution to gun violence: Higher wages.
  • Sociologist Lisa Wade debunks hookup culture hysteria.


[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Rolling Stone's Jahar Tsarnaev Cover is Perfect

Rolling Stone put a selfie of Jahar Tsarnaev on the cover of their August 1st issue, and all hell broke loose. The headline for Janet Reitman’s cover story reads: “The Bomber: How a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam, and became a monster.” CVS is refusing to sell it, Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston called the cover a disgrace, and people I’m 99% sure have never read Rolling Stone are loudly threatening to cancel their subscriptions.

Their complaint is that Rolling Stone has glamorized terrorism.

Rolling Stone’s art directors didn’t make this image, Tsarnaev did. It was culled from one of his social media accounts and published in the Washington Post and the New York Times. It’s a self-portrait of Tsarnaev doing his best impersonation of a sensitive, moody rock star, presumably taken around the time he was planning to blow up the Boston Marathon. You can tell it’s a selfshot because Tsarnaev’s right arm is outstretched inside his baggy Armani Exchange t-shirt in the universal symbol for “selfie.” It’s like a million teenage selfshots in which the photographer strains to project an idealized image. 

Everyone assumed Jahar was an assimilated American, and what’s more American than wanting to be a rock star? Jahar captured the look better than most. Keep in mind that while Jahar was playing pop idol on the internet, his older brother and future accomplice Tamerlan had sworn off not just rock but all music because he thought music was anti-Islamic.

The shaggy, sensitive-looking photo was one of the many carefully curated images Jahar presented to the world. Janet Reitman’s cover story is a profile of a guy who was everybody’s favorite all-American stoner jock kid brother until he became a terrorist. The central mystery of his story is the discrepancy between appearance and reality. Putting a self-portrait on the cover captures that mystery perfectly. The question isn’t just “how did an innocent little boy grow up to be a big bad terrorist” (which you could ask any terrorist); the question is “how did Jahar fool everyone into thinking he was an innocent little boy until it was too late?” 

“Listen,” says Payack, “there are kids we don’t catch who just fall through the cracks, but this guy was seamless, like a billiard ball. No cracks at all.” And yet a deeply fractured boy lay under that facade; a witness to all of his family’s attempts at a better life as well as to their deep bitterness when those efforts failed and their dreams proved unattainable. As each small disappointment wore on his family, ultimately ripping them apart, it also furthered Jahar’s own disintegration – a series of quiet yet powerful body punches. No one saw a thing. “I knew this kid, and he was a good kid,” Payack says, sadly. “And, apparently, he’s also a monster.” [Rolling Stone]

It’s absurd to think that a cover that plainly identifies Tsarnaev as “the bomber,” a follower of “radical Islam” and “a monster,” glamorizes him. Who is that supposed to impress? The two most likely candidates are aspiring terrorists and Jahar fangirls. 

Aspiring Islamic terrorists probably regard Rolling Stone as a decadent Western abomination, given its hardline editorial stance on the inherent goodness of music and boobs. They are unlikely to find Jahar’s selfie treatment particularly inspiring. 

Of course the Jahar fangirls, the small but creepy subculture of teens in love with Jahar, are swooning over this picture. But they got ahold of it long before Rolling Stone did. Sadly, high profile killers attract groupies. But a magazine can’t program to the lowest common denominator. If you let the reactions of the Jahar fangirls influence your behavior in any way, the terrorists win. 

Mega-Camp Can't Save the Boy Scouts

The Boy Scouts of America tried to distract the public from recent sex abuse- and anti-gay discrimination controversies by building scouting’s answer to Disney World: a 10,600 acre park with five miles of ziplines and an an 85,000 seat stadium. The Summit, as the base is known, is projected to cost nearly half a billion dollars by the time of its estimated completion in 2015. However, Reuters reports that project costs are rising rapidly while fundraising is lagging behind, putting major stress on the organization’s finances. Meanwhile, the Scouts’ compromise to welcome gay scouts but exclude gay scout leaders has alienated both liberal and conservative groups and some corporate sponsors. Declining membership suggests that scouting is struggling to remain relevant. 

What George Zimmerman Can Do Now

Late Saturday night, a jury in Sanford, Florida acquitted George Zimmerman of all charges in the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Charlie Pierce of Esquire reflects on what this all means:

[S]ome night very soon, if he so chooses, George Zimmerman can load his piece, tuck it into the back of his pants, climb into his SUV, and drive around Sanford, Florida looking for assholes and fucking punks who are walking through neighborhoods where he, George Zimmerman, defender of law and order, doesn’t think they belong. He can drive around Sanford, Florida and check out anyone who is dressed in such a manner as might frighten the average citizen who has been fed a daily diet of “Scary Black Kids” by their local news and by their favorite radio personalities, and who is dressed in such a manner as might seem inappropriate to their surroundings as determined by George Zimmerman, crimebuster. He can drive around Sanford, Florida until he spots an asshole or a fucking punk and then he can get out of his SUV, his piece tucked into the back of his pants, and he can stalk the asshole or the fucking punk, the one who is in the wrong neighborhood, or who is dressed inappropriately, at least according to George Zimmerman, protector of peace. If the asshole, or the fucking punk, turns around and objects to being stalked – or, worse, if the asshole, or the fucking punk, decides physically to confront the person stalking him – then George Zimmerman can whip out the piece from the back of his pants and shoot the asshole, or the fucking punk, dead right there on the spot. This can happen tonight. That is now possible. Hunting licenses are now available and it’s open season on assholes, fucking punks, and kids who wear hoodies at night in neighborhoods where they do not belong, at least according to George Zimmerman, defender of law and order, crimebuster, and protector of the peace, because that is what American society has told George Zimmerman, and all the rest of us, is the just outcome of what happened on one dark and rainy night in February of 2012.

More reactions to the verdict from Ta-Nehisi Coates (Hillman ‘12), Jelani Cobb, Scott Lemieux, and Emily Bazelon.

[Photo credit: Greg Lily, Creative Commons, 2012.]

Sidney's Picks: Top Secret Vacuum Cleaner; Edward Snowden; The Voting Rights Act


[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Two Supreme Court Cases That Could Be Big Trouble for Organized Labor

In the Atlantic, Matt Bruening and Elizabeth Stoker look ahead to two Supreme Court cases that could devastate organized labor:

The first case concerns the president’s ability to appoint members to the National Labor Relations Board. Vacancies on the NLRB must be filled promptly because the board shuts down without a 3-member quorum. When Senate Republicans blocked Obama’s NLRB appointees, the president started filling the board with recess appointments. So, the Senate Republicans used procedural tricks to keep the Senate in perpetual “session” and thereby prevent recess appointments. The White House argues that the president should be allowed to make recess appointments anyway because the senate isn’t really in session if no business is being conducted. If the White House loses this case, the Senate Republicans will be able to paralyze the body that enforces the nation’s labor laws indefinitely. 

The second case could doom one of the most effective new organizing strategies to come along in years:

[M]ulhall v. UNITE HERE Local 355, calls into question what is probably the most successful union organizing strategy of last decade. Because our labor laws are so unfriendly to workers, major unions – including SEIU, UNITE HERE, and CWA, among others – often seek to enter into so-called “organizing agreements” with employers. These deals establish the rules that the unions and employers must follow in subsequent organizing battles. The most common provisions require employers to remain neutral about the union and to recognize it as soon as the majority of their employees sign cards authorizing it to represent them.

In Mulhall, these agreements are being challenged under anti-corruption laws that prevent employers from providing “things of value” to unions. If the Supreme Court decides that organizing agreements are unlawful, the only promising unionization strategy in recent years will die. 

It’s unclear to me how an organizing agreement counts as a “thing of value” for the purposes of an anti-corruption statute that is intended to prevent the improper exchange of tangible things of actual value–like suitcases stuffed with $100 bills. But to further muddy the waters, the Mulhall case involves an employer that agreed to a neutrality agreement in exchange for $100,000 worth of political support from the union for a casino gambling vote and a promise not to strike. A federal judge found that the agreement was legal, but the 11th Circuit disagreed. Unite Here said in a statement that it was pleased the Supreme Court decided to review the case. 

[Photo credit: Sad Panda, Jason Scott Jones, Creative Commons.]

Michael Grabell of ProPublica Wins July Sidney for Portrait of Our "Permatemp" Nation

Michael Grabell of ProPublica has won the July Sidney Award for “The Expendables: How the Temps Who Power Corporate Giants are Getting Crushed,” a portrait of our new permatemp nation. There are 2.7 million temporary workers in the United States, more than ever before. Temps earn 25% less than their full-time counterparts and they are more likely to be injured on the job. 

Across the country, workers rise before dawn and gather at labor centers to wait for assignments. If they are chosen, they are often pressured to ride to the job site in overcrowded minivans. The graphic above is based on a diagram that a New Jersey worker drew to show how his lagency crams seventeen people into a single van by making passengers sit on baby seats, perch on milk crates, and ride in the trunk. Just getting chosen and getting to work can take over 2 hours, and none of this time is paid. Agencies may also charge temps fees, which can drag their already meager pay below minimum wage. 

Companies use staffing agencies to insulate themselves from an employer’s usual responsibilities to workers. If temp workers in Walmart factories are taking home less than minimum wage, or their immigration status is going unchecked, Wal-Mart can outsource the blame to the staffing agency. 

Temps aren’t just stop-gap labor anymore. Since the 1960s, the staffing industry has waged a marketing campaign in the business press to convince employers that their staffs are a burden rather than an asset. Many companies, including Walmart, Nike, and Frito-Lay, bought the marketing pitch and made a huge pool of temporary workers a permanent part of their business models.  

Grabell and I talk more about the permatemp boom and its effects on workers and the American economy in our Backstory interview. 

[Graphic: Michael Grabell and Krista Kjellman Schmidt, ProPublica, Templand: Working in the New Economy.]

Female Inmates Sterilized in California Prisons Without Approval

Doctors under contract with the California prison system sterilized 148 female inmates without required state authorization between 2006 and 2010, according to a bombshell story by the Sacramento Bee and the Center for Investigative Reporting. As many as 100 others were sterilized in procedures that date back to the late 1990s. Forced sterilizations of prisoners and the mentally ill used to be common in California, until state lawmakers banned the practice in 1979. Today, in order to ensure that all sterilizations are truly voluntary, doctors must get regulatory approval before performing the surgery. Records obtained by the CIR show that the rule was ignored for years. 

The prisoners were sterilized when they came to prison infirmaries in Corona or Chowchilla to give birth. Prison officials insist that the women consented to tubal ligations, but some inmates say they felt pressured to have the surgery. 

Yet Kimberly Jeffrey says she was pressured by a doctor while sedated and strapped to a surgical table for a C-section in 2010, during a stint at Valley State. She had failed a drug test while out on parole for a previous series of thefts.

Jeffrey, 43, was horrified, she said, and resisted.

“He said, ‘So we’re going to be doing this tubal ligation, right?’ ” Jeffrey said. “I’m like, ‘Tubal ligation? What are you talking about? I don’t want any procedure. I just want to have my baby.’ I went into a straight panic.” [SacBee]

An inmate who worked in the prison infirmary said she often heard staff urging women who had served multiple prison terms to get sterilized. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s not right,’ ” she told a reporter. “Do they think they’re animals, and they don’t want them to breed anymore?”


[Photo credit: Derekskey, Creative Commons.]