Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

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. 

Photo Essay on Global Population Boom Wins 2013 Hillman Prize for Photojournalism

The Sidney Hillman Foundation announced last week that Rick Loomis of the Los Angeles Times has won the 2013 Hillman Prize for Photojournalism for his series “Beyond 7 Billion” an eye-opening look at the environmental, geopolitical, economic, cultural, and religious dimensions of the global population boom. The world’s population has grown rapidly in the last two centuries, after holding steady for much of human history, and the unprecedented expansion is far from over. Loomis travelled around the world to document the way population growth is changing families, challenging spiritual certitudes, taxing the natural environment, fuelling conflict, and deepening poverty. 

Loomis and the other Hillman Prize-winners will be honored at a ceremony on May 7 at the New York Times Center. 

Special Hillman Foundation Officers' Award Honors Bangladeshi Garment Workers in Memory of Aminul Islam

On May 7th, the Sidney Hillman Foundation will present a special Officers’ Award for Public Service to the garment workers of Bangladesh struggling for safety and justice at work in memory of the late Aminul Islam, a garment worker and trade unionist with the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. Mr. Islam was kidnapped, tortured, and killed, presumably for his tireless activism on behalf of apparel workers. 

The Hillman judges had decided to honor Mr. Islam’s memory weeks before the most recent building collapse in Bangladesh, the worst industrial accident in the nation’s history. We hope that by drawing attention to violence against labor activists like Mr. Islam and to the dangerous working conditions he opposed, we can help make the garment trade safer in Bangladesh. 

Our namesake, Sidney Hillman came to prominence by leading a garment workers’ strike in Chicago in the early 20th Century. The work of Aminul Islam and his brothers and sisters in Bangladesh represents the values that Hillman himself held dear. 

ABC's Brian Ross Wins Hillman Prize for "Tragedy in Bangladesh"

Brian Ross, Rhonda Schwartz, Matthew Mosk, and Cindy Galli have won the 2013 Hillman Prize for Broadcast Journalism for their coverage of the dismal safety conditions at factories in Bangladesh where workers sew clothes for such iconic American brands as Tommy Hilfiger, Sears, and Walmart. More than 500 garment workers have died on the job in the last few years.

In the wake of a devastating factory fire, these journalists worked closely with garment worker sources who sifted through the remains of their charred workplace to find the labels that proved the factory was making U.S. brand name clothes before it burned. 

This award is especially timely in light of this week’s tragic factory collapse in Dhaka. The factory housed several garment factories making clothes for American companies. 

This year, the Sidney Hillman Foundation will present a special Officers’ Award for Public Service to the garment workers of Bangladesh in memory of the murdered Bangladeshi trade unionist and garment worker Aminul Islam. Mr. Islam helped arrange interviews for “Tragedy in Bangladesh.” He was abducted and killed shortly after the broadcast aired. We hope that public scrutiny of the apparel industry in Bangladesh will deter further violence against union activists. 

Chicago Tribune Wins 2013 Hillman Prize for Exposing Flame Retardant Racket

The 2013 Hillman Prize for Magazine Journalism goes to an outstanding investigative team from the Chicago Tribune for “Playing With Fire,” an expose of the machinations of the chemical industry and Big Tobacco to put ineffective and potentially hazardous flame-retardant chemicals in mattresses, couch cushions, and other soft furnishings. The dogged reporting of Patricia Callahan, Sam Roe, and Michael Hawthorne revealed falsified fire tests, a successful bid to infiltrate the ranks of state fire marshalls, and much more. 

Shane Bauer Wins 2013 Hillman Prize for Magazine Journalism

Shane Bauer is the winner of the 2013 Hillman Prize for Magazine Journalism for his special investigation into solitary confinement, entitled “No Way Out.” The winning feature was published in Mother Jones and supported by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute. 

Bauer brings personal experience to the subject of solitary confinement. One of three American hikers taken prison in Iran, Bauer was imprisoned for 26 months, four of which were spent in solitary confinement. 

“No Way Out” draws on Bauer’s personal experience and his reporting from a prison in California where inmates in solitary staged a major hunger strike. Bauer discovered that prisoners are routinely sent to solitary because they’ve been “validated” as gang members, often on such astonishingly shaky evidence as possession of political pamphlets, using the Spanish word “hermano,” or receiving a card with a drawing of an Aztec bird. Once a prisoner is validated, it is nearly impossible to clear his name. 

Bauer’s story exposes a major civil rights abuse in the California penal system and educates the public about the horror of solitary confinement. We at the Sidney Hillman Foundation are very pleased to honor Bauer’s brave and timely reporting. 

Learn more about Bauer and his reporting.

Factory Collapse in Bangladesh Leaves Dozens Dead

A building that housed several garment factories has collapsed in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, killing at least 70 people, injuring about 600, and leaving others trapped in the wreckage:. 

NEW DELHI – An eight-story building in Bangladesh that housed several garment factories collapsed on Wednesday morning, killing at least 70 people, injuring hundreds of others, and leaving an unknown number of people trapped in the rubble, according to Bangladeshi officials and media outlets.

The building collapse occurred in Savar, a suburb of the national capital of Dhaka, and is the latest tragic accident to afflict Bangladesh’s garment industry. Bangladesh is the world’s second-leading garment exporter, trailing only China, but the industry has been beleaguered with safety concerns, angry protests over rock-bottom wages and other problems.

This latest fatal accident, coming five months after a fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory killed at least 112 garment workers, is likely to again raise questions about work conditions in Bangladesh: workers told Bangladeshi news outlets that supervisors had ordered them to attend work on Wednesday, even though cracks were discovered in the building on Tuesday. 

Brian Williams and his investigative team won the 2013 Hillman Prize for Broadcast Journalism for their coverage of appalling safety conditions in the Bangladeshi garment industry. Thy found that leading U.S. firms including Walmart, Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, Sears and even ABC’s own parent company, Disney, manufacture clothing in Bangladesh, home of the world’s lowest minimum wage, just $37 a month.

These low wages come at a high price. As a result of grossly substandard safety practices, lax government enforcement, and ineffectual “audits” by industry groups that purport to self-police working conditions, more than 500 Bangladeshi garment workers have died in fires and building collapses in the last few years.

This week’s building collapse underscores the urgency of the Bangladeshi garment workers’ fight for decent working conditions. The Hillman Foundation presents its Officers’ Award for Public Service to these workers, in memory of Aminul Islam, a garment worker activist who fought tirelessly for better working conditions until he was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered, likely for his activism. 

"The American Way of Eating" Wins 2013 Hillman Prize for Book Journalism

[A] massive forthcoming event to take away our freedom,” Rush Limbaugh on Tracie McMillan’s “The American Way of Eating.” 

We are very proud to announce that Tracie McMillan has won the 2013 Hillman Prize for Book Journalism for her account of her journey into the underbelly of the American food system. McMillan went undercover as a farm worker, a WalMart grocery worker, and a kitchen worker at Applebee’s. The book documents the lives of the people who produce our food, and explains the economic realities that stand in the way of a healthy diet for all. 

“The American Way of Eating” joins the ranks of great progressive reporting on food and class in America, a category that includes such classics as “Fast Food Nation,” and “No Shame in My Game,” and “Nicle and Dimed.”

Learn more about McMillan and her book.

USA Today's "Ghost Factories" Wins 2013 Hillman Prize for Web Journalism

It’s part of the American Dream: You work hard so your kids can have a home with a back yard to play in. What if you found out that your home is sitting on the remains of an old lead smelter, decomissioned in the 1930s, but never properly cleaned up? What if you found out that the dust in the yard where your children play is slowly poisoning them with a neurotoxin that can stunt their growing brains and bodies for life? What if you found the Environmental Protection Agency knew about your tainted lot for a decade and never even warned you?

USA Today’s “Ghost Factories” sounded the alarm for thousands of families with young children living under the silent threat of lead contamination. Today, the Sidney Hillman Foundation proudly announced that reporters Alison Young and Peter Eisler have won the 2013 Hillman Prize for Web Journalism for exposing the threat of lead-contaminated soil from hundreds of abandoned smelters nationwide. Since their story broke, the EPA has investigated 464 potentially contaminated sites across the country and U.S. Senators have called for action on the issue.

Packed with videos, rare maps, and other special features, “Ghost Factories” is a masterpiece of investigative journalism and digital storytelling. Click to learn more about Young and Eisler’s award-winning expose