Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

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.]

The Strangest Story You Will Read Today

A prisoner says that two consecutive Utah Attorneys General extorted thousands of dollars from him…and he has the receipts to prove it! Marc Sessions Jenson is doing time for failing to pay restutition to the investors he bilked in a separate fraud. He says Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and his successor, John Swallow, demanded and received thousands of dollars of perks from Jenson including vacations, golf outings, meals, massages, and faux consulting fees paid to their buddies. 

Jenson says that Swallow, who boasted in 2009 that he would be joining the Attorney General’s Office as Shurtleff’s handpicked successor, suggested he could help the businessman navigate his legal troubles from inside the office and ensure that Jenson’s plans for a luxurious $3.5 billion Mount Holly resort, with private ski slopes and a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, became a reality.

In exchange, Jenson alleges, Swallow wanted a share in the posh Beaver County resort. The shares started at $1.5 million.

“I was stunned. I was shocked. I was also scared to death,” Jenson said. “I had no idea what they would do next.”

Swallow is under federal investigation and Shurtleff may be under scrutiny as well. 

 

[Photo credit: Fatty Tuna, Creative Commons.]

H&M Agrees to New Safety Regulations in Bangladesh

The Swedish fast fashion giant H&M–the largest purchaser of garments from Bangladesh–has agreed to a sweeping and legally binding fire safety plan. H&M signed the deal on Monday. Inditex, the Spanish fashion conglomerate behind Zara, also agreed to the plan minutes after H&M signed on. The agreements came the day after Bangladesh’s minister of textiles announced that the government would raise the minimum wage for garment workers

H&M and other brands that purchase clothing from Bangladesh have been under intense international pressure to improve fire and building safety since the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex on April 24. Investigators found no evidence that any of the factories in the building were making H&M or Inditex clothes at the time of the collapse.

[Photo credit: Crownless King, Creative Commons.]

 

2013 Hillman Prizes: Photos

Left to right: Hillman board member Danny Glover, Broadcast winner Brian Ross, and foundation president Bruce Raynor.

On Tuesday night, the Sidney Hillman Foundation recognized excellence in journalism in service of the common good at our annual Hillman Prize ceremony and reception in New York City.

Click here to see all the photos of Tuesday’s event. 

 

Astudillo Wins 2013 Hillman Award for Social Justice Reporting at CUNY J-School

Carla Astudillo is the winner of the 2013 Hillman Award for Social Justice Reporting at the CUNY School of Journalism. Her specialty is data visualization, which she uses to tell the stories of vulnerable New Yorkers. 

“I wanted to learn how to relate the big picture to the person who has to use food stamps or needs paid sick leave, the ones who have kids in the juvenile justice system,” she says. “That’s where data visualization comes in. I want the numbers to put into context the tragedy of a person’s story.”

For her final project at CUNY, Carla developed an interactive map that allows New Yorkers to evaluate the quality of nursing home care. 

 

#Sidney's Picks: Special Pre-Hillman Edition

On Tuesday, May 7, the Sidney Hillman Foundation will present its annual prizes for outstanding journalism in service of the common good. Please join us to honor the winners at 6:00pm at the New York Times Center in Manhattan. A cocktail reception will follow the program. The event is free and open to the public. RSVP to [email protected]

To mark the upcoming occasion, we bring you a special pre-Hillman edition of Sidney’s Picks, featuring the work of all of our winners. 

  • Broadcast Journalism: Brian Ross, Rhonda Schwartz, Matthew Mosk and Cindy Galli, “Brian Ross Investigates: Tragedy in Bangladesh,” ABC News. An expose linking Tommy Hilfiger and other iconic U.S. brands to a factory that burned in Bangladesh killing over 29 workers. Aminul Islam helped Ross and his team find proof that these brands were made in the burned factory. 
  • Book Journalism: Tracie MacMillan, “The American Way of Eating,” Scribner. MacMillan went undercover as a farm worker, a produce stocker at Walmart, and as a kitchen worker at Applebees to expose the inner workings of America’s food system and document the struggles of the low-wage workers who feed us all. 
  • Newspaper Journalism: Patricia Callahan, Sam Roe and Michael Hawthorne, “Playing With Fire,” Chicago Tribune. Reveals how the chemical and tobacco industries colluded to introduce toxic and ineffective flame retardants into furniture. 
  • Magazine Journalism: Shane Bauer, “No Way Out,” Mother Jones. Bauer describes how prionsers in California can be thrown into solitary confinement without due process on flimsy evidence of gang activity, like owning political pamplets or drawing stars on a Christmas card. Bauer draws on his own experience in solitary confinement as a political priosoner in Iran. 
  • Web Journalism: Alison Young and Peter Eisler, “Ghost Factories,” USA Today. This innovative, digital-first series revealed that thousands of homes across the country have been built on sites contaminated, and that the EPA knew about the risk for over a decade but failed to act. 
  • Photojournalism: Rick Loomis, “Beyond 7 Billion,” Los Angeles Times. Loomis travelled the world to explore the impact of earth’s rising population on the environment, the economy, the status of women, and the role of religion in public life. 

2012 Hillman Prize-winner Reports on Bangladesh Factory Collapse

Sarah Stillman won the 2012 Hillman Prize for magazine journalism. This week, she reports on the aftermath of the collapse of Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh, and the Bangladeshi labor activists determined to fight on in the face of unimaginable tragedy. 

Next week, the Hillman Foundation will present a special Officers’ Award for Public Service to the garment workers of Bangladesh in menory of Aminul Islam, the late Bangladeshi union leader who was abducted and murdered, likely for his activism on behalf of garment workers. Islam helped Brian Ross of ABC News prove that a factory consumed by flames was making garments for iconic American brands like Tommy Hilfiger. Ross and his team will receive the Hillman Prize for Broadcast Journalism at the ceremony on Tuesday. 

2013 Hillman Prize ceremony to take place Tuesday May 7th at the Times Center in NYC. The event is free and open to the public. Meet our winners and our distinguished judges. RSVP to [email protected]

"The Most Hated Man in Bangladesh"

Meet Sohel Rana, the tycoon who owned Rana Plaza, the Bangladeshi factory tower that collapsed last week in the worst industrial disaster in the nation’s history:

SAVAR, Bangladesh — Barely 20 miles from the national capital, this gritty suburb is now a dusty, chaotic industrial center littered with factories that produce clothes for leading Western brands. Building codes are often unenforced, regulatory oversight is flimsy and the men wielding power often travel with armed guards.

And perhaps no one wielded power more brazenly than Sohel Rana. He traveled by motorcycle, as untouchable as a mafia don, trailed by his own biker gang. Local officials and the Bangladeshi news media say he was involved in illegal drugs and guns, but he also had a building, Rana Plaza, that housed five factories.

Upstairs, workers earned as little as $40 a month making clothes for retailers like J. C. Penney. Downstairs, Mr. Rana hosted local politicians, playing pool, drinking and, the officials say, indulging in drugs.

Now Mr. Rana, 35, is under arrest, the most reviled man in Bangladesh after the horrific collapse of Rana Plaza last week left nearly 400 people dead, with many others still missing. On Tuesday, a top Bangladeshi court seized his assets, as the public bayed for his execution, especially as it appears that the tragedy could have been averted if the frantic warnings of an engineer who examined the building the day before had been heeded. [NYT]

Rana is part of a new class of wealthy and ruthless men who have ridden Bangladesh’s apparel boom to riches. Until his arrest, he lived outside the law. He and his father even seized property by force to build Rana Plaza: 

Rabindranath Sarkar, who had bought land in partnership with Mr. Rana’s father, said the family sent thugs to seize part of his share of the land and then retaliated when he filed a complaint with the local police.

“Rana chased me through Savar with weapons,” he said. “The police wouldn’t even dare to protect me. The police were always scared of them.” [NYT]

The day before Rana Plaza collapsed, an engineer told Rana that the building was critically compromised, but he waved off the engineer and told journalists everything was okay. His arrogance cost over 400 lives. 

Pages