Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Tires and Tribulations: Tire Rentals Gouge the Working Poor

Investigative journalist Ken Bensinger of the LA Times exposes yet another abuse of poor people in a car-dependent society. Well aware that their customers need tires to get to work, tire rental companies like Rent-a-Wheel and Rimco are setting up usurious rent-to-own plans for customers who are too poor to buy upfront: 

When the tires on their Dodge Caravan had worn so thin that the steel belts were showing through, Don and Florence Cherry couldn’t afford to buy a new set.

So they decided to rent instead.

The Rich Square, N.C., couple last September agreed to pay Rent-N-Roll $54.60 a month for 18 months in exchange for four basic Hankook tires. Over the life of the deal, that works out to $982, almost triple what the radials would have cost at Wal-Mart.

“I know you have to pay a lot more this way,” said Florence Cherry, a 57-year-old nurse who drives the 15-year-old van when her husband, a Vietnam veteran, isn’t using it to get to his job as a prison guard. “But we didn’t really have a choice.” [LAT]

The price of tires rose by more than half between 2006 and 2012, as the median household income declined. Companies that used to sell custom rims to auto enthusiasts realized they could make more money gouging ordinary people who needed to get to work.

Tires account for just a tiny slice of the $8.5-billion rent-to-own market. But they stand out from the industry’s traditional fare because — unlike with a dinette set — giving back tires means not being able to drive to work. 

“Tires are a necessity,” said Jim Hawkins, a University of Houston law professor who studies the alternative finance industry. “These customers are vulnerable because they have no choice.” [LAT]

Tire financing combines the worst aspects of borrowing and renting. The real interest rate on a rent-to-own tire plan can be up to 120% per annum, or three times the interest rate of the highest-interest credit cards. However, since you are renting the tires rather than borrowing the money to buy tires, you may get a visit from the police if you miss even one payment. Since the tire company owns the tires until the final payment, some police departments treat non-payment as a species of theft. To make matters worse, tire contracts can’t be discharged in bankruptcy because they are rentals rather than loans.

Bensinger has provided yet another example of how greedy companies make poverty ruinously expensive. 


[Photo credit: pecooper98362, Creative Commons.]



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John Carlos Frey and PBS Need To Know team Win June Sidney Award for Exposing Epidemic of Migrant Deaths Along the Border

John Carlos Frey and the team at PBS’ “Need to Know” (producer Brian Epstein, correspondent John Larson, editor Judith Starr Wolff) won the June Sidney Award for “Crossing the Line: Dying to Get Back,” a documentary about how U.S. immigration policies are killing increasing numbers of undocumented migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. The documentary aired on PBS’ “Need to Know” and was produced with the support of the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute; it is the third in a three-part series on the Border Patrol.

The bleached bones of unnamed migrants are piling up in small town morgues along the border, even though unauthorized crossings are at a historic low. Over two thousand migrant deaths were reported between 1999 and 2012, and the true death toll may be even higher.

Crossings have become more dangerous because the U.S. Border Patrol has deliberately pushed cross-border traffic into inhospitable terrain where migrants risk death from heat stroke and exploitation by human traffickers. The Obama administration’s aggressive policy of deportation has created a new class of desperate migrants: people who have built lives and started families in the United States who find themselves deported to a country they left years earlier. Many of these migrants are willing to risk everything to get back, and some pay the ultimate price. 

Read my Backstory interview with Frey.

Target: Target

Janitors who clean multiple Target stores in the Twin Cities area began a 48-hour strike, Monday. The work stoppage is the latest in a spate of walkouts by low-wage workers in the discount retail and fast food industries. The janitors are demanding parity in pay and benefits with the cleaners who look after Target’s local corporate headquarters. The cleaners at corporate HQ are Target employees represented by SEIU; and they earn over $13 an hour, plus benefits. Whereas their subcontractor counterparts earn just $8.50 with no benefits.

As past Sidney Award-winner Dave Jamieson explains, the workers are also striking over unfair labor practices, namely, management’s alleged interference with their right to organize and bargain collectively. The janitors say that two of their co-workers were fired for attempting to organize. It is all too common for large retailers like Target and Walmart to subcontract the cleaning of their stores to smaller companies that keep their prices low by scrimping on pay, benefits, and job security for their employees. 

[Photo credit: Mr. T. in DC, Creative Commons.]

How Phony Psychics Bilk Their Clients

South Florida is a veritable rat’s nest of phony psychics, Kyle Swenson reports in a remarkable long-form piece for the Miami New Times. Psychic phone scams have become a way of life in some communities. A good fake psychic can make $200,000 to $300,000 a year, investigators say. A psychic will convince the client that he or she has been cursed and demand large sums of money for rituals to lift the curse. One lonely divorcee in England lost $140,000 to a South Florida psychic who called herself “Sienna Miller” and promised the client would be worshipped as a god if she ponied up for amulets, oils, and other high-priced paraphernalia. 


[Photo credit: Inspire Kelly, Creative Commons.]

Why Have 900 Guatemalan Bus Drivers Been Murdered?

Past Sidney winner Dave Jamieson tweeted this heartbreaking story about how driving a bus in Guatemala became one of the world’s most dangerous occupations:

There, in the crowded office, the phone lit up. A man’s voice came on the line. It was calm, almost pleasant. You’re going to pay us taxes now, the voice said: 8,000 quetzales a week—about $1,000. If you don’t, we’re going to start killing your bus drivers.

Palo and the rest of the owners looked at the phone, then at each other. Anyone could get a cell phone, drop it off, and make demands. “We thought someone was just trying to take advantage of us,” Palo said. [TNR]

Saul Elbein, the author, explains how the seemingly bizarre killing spree is one of the far-reaching consequences of a U.S.-backed coup in 1954, the ensuing 40-year civil war in Guatemala, the U.S.’s chilly immigration policy towards refugees displaced by the U.S.-fuelled conflict, gang warfare in Los Angeles, and the deportation of gang-affiliated Guatemalan teenagers from the U.S. to a “home” they had scarcely known. All of these factors, plus extreme inequality, created a fertile breeding ground for organized crime. Post-war reconstruction has been all but overshadowed by crime and corruption, and the U.S. bears much of the blame.

#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:[email protected]]

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.]