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Investigation Launched into Death of Georgia Worker at Kia Supplier

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Kenneth QuinnellThe Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has launched an investigation into working conditions at Sewon America’s LaGrange, Ga., facility after an employee, Teresa Weaver Pickard, died after allegedly being forced to work in extreme heat. Sewon, a company that provides auto parts to Kia, denies Pickard’s death was work-related, but an anonymous source at the plant has disputed Sewon’s account of the tragedy.

Michael D’Aquino, an OSHA public affairs officer for the agency’s Atlanta-West office, confirmed the investigation, the LaGrange Citizen reports:

“We’ll be visiting the [Sewon plant] trying to learn what happened and in what order,” D’Aquino said. “We’ll be looking at physical evidence as well as talking to eyewitnesses and learning as much as possible about the incident.” OSHA also will look at previous reports of misconduct by Sewon, potentially including the 2010 death of a workerwho fell 50 feet in a construction accident.

While the Troup County coroner’s office has not released details of its investigation, which has been sent to the state crime lab in Atlanta, the LaGrange Citizen says an anonymous employee reported several details of the incident and work conditions at the factory that are troubling. The employee, who has worked at the location for two years, told the newspaper the assembly line was unbearably hot because the air conditioner on the line wasn’t working properly and several employees in the last week passed out while working.

“I heard that [Pickard] complained of chest pain several times before she was sent to the break room,” the newspaper quotes the employee as saying. Pickard was sent to a break room at that point, but that room also had no air conditioning, something the employee said management does to discourage loitering in the break room. The room was so hot, he said, candy in the vending machines melted. Pickard eventually was sent to the front office, where the employee said Pickard sat for three hours before an ambulance was called. Pickard reportedly died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

Sewon says it conducted a “thorough” preliminary investigation and concluded Pickard’s death was not work-related:

On May 29, Mrs. Pickard arrived to the line at 6:30 a.m. Then, on or about 8:26 a.m., the management was made aware of Mrs. Pickard’s condition. The EMS was immediately contacted around 8:27 a.m. and EMS arrived about 8:37 a.m. Mrs. Pickard entered the ambulance under her own strength around 8:42 a.m. and left the facility to go to the hospital.

The lawyer for the Pickard family, Robert Bruner, told the newspaper the company’s press release was, at best, misleading, and that the company was not forthcoming with the family about the reasons for the death.

The anonymous employee reported work conditions at the plant are similar to a sweatshop. “It’s a really hostile environment,” the newspaper quoted. “I think [the managers] seek to create an adversarial relationship with employees,” he said. “If they had hot pokers, they’d stab you with them…. I really believe they have contempt for their workers.”

Sewon was fined $135,900 by OSHA for safety violations three years ago. “There is no reason to leave employees unprotected,” said Andre Richards, then-director of OSHA’s Atlanta-West Office. “Management is aware of the deficiencies in their safety and health program and needs to take action.”

Working America has more on this story.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on June 13, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

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Snowden Leak Highlights Few Whistleblower Protections for Intelligence Contract Employees

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Mike ElkOn Sunday, The Guardian revealed that Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old information technology specialist employed by the federal contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, was its source for a series of bombshell leaks regarding the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance apparatus. While Snowden’s leaks have raised a series of troubling questions about Americans’ privacy and the national security state, they also make clear how limited the privacy and whistleblower protections are for private contract employees working in the intelligence sector.

Under current federal law, employees working for the federal government have whistleblower protections that provide avenues for them to follow should they want to report potential abuses. As part of last year’s Whistleblower’s Protection Enhancement Act, rights for whistleblowers were enhanced for many categories of federal employees, but intelligence employees were excluded from coverage under the act. Likewise, intelligence workers—both federal and contract employees—were excluded from whistle blower protections offered to military contract employees under the most recent National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

While federal workers employed in intelligence gathering have less whistleblower protections than other federal workers, they are still able to raise their complaints with the Inspector General of the agency employing them or with members of Congress sitting on the Intelligence Committees. Under President Barack Obama’s Presidential Policy Directive 19 (PPD-19) issued last October, intelligence workers directly employed by the federal government received enhanced whistleblower protections against retaliation. By contrast, though intelligence employees employed for federal contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton are also allowed to report potential abuses to the Inspectors General of the agencies that contract with their employers, they have no protections against employer retaliation, such as being fired.

“Intelligence community contractors have been shut out of all of the recent reforms,” says Angela Canterbury, director of policy at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). “They received no coverage under the WPEA for federal employees, the PPD-19 for IC civil servants, and were carved out of the contractor whistleblower protections in the NDAA—based on objections from the Congressional intelligence committees—leaving them with no specific protections for whistleblowing under the law. If you look at intelligence contractors, they have no protections under any of the laws. It really is an accountability loophole.”

The only recourse for conscience-stricken employees classified like Snowden have in these situations is to hope their superiors won’t fire them for reporting abuses. However, with a company like Booz Allen that receives 98% of its $5.76 billion annual revenue from the federal government, there is a substantial financial motivation to not draw any attention to abuses by the federal government.

“Where would a whistleblower go first,” asks Donald Cohen, executive director of the anti-privatization group In The Public Interest. “First, they [would] go up the chain of command and [reporting] it wouldn’t be in the interest of the chain of command. What is in the interest of the chain of command is to keep quiet and keep the contracts flowing. If you are in a public agency you may go up the chain of command and you may run into the same roadblocks but it is clear what you can do from there.”

Not only do intelligent contract employees have fewer whistleblowing protections, but the private corporations that employ them also have fewer legal restrictions when it comes to electronically monitoring and surveilling employees. According to Paul Secunda, a labor law professor at Marquette University, federal workers directly employed by the federal government receive at least some protections from the 4th Amendment against searching their communications, even on federal equipment, without first establishing reasonable cause.

Indeed last year, the FDA was caught employing a sophisticated electronic surveillance system to monitor disgruntled FDA employees who were communicating with Congressional staffers, journalists, federal Inspectors General (IGs), and the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) regarding problems with the design of a medical device. Following an investigation, last June the OSC released a “Memorandum For Executive Department and Agencies,” [PDF], which noted that:

agency monitoring specifically designed to target protected disclosures to the OSC and IGs is highly problematic. Such targeting undermines the ability of employees to make confidential disclosures. Moreover, deliberate targeting by an employing agency of an employee’s submission (or draft submissions) to the OSC or an IG, or deliberate monitoring of communications between the employee and the OSC or IG in response to such a submission by the employee, could lead to a determination that the agency has retaliated against the employee for making a protected disclosure. The same risk is presented by an employing agency’s deliberate targeting of an employee’s emails or computer files for monitoring simply because the employee made a protected disclosure.

However, since contractors are employed by private corporations, arbitrary searches by corporate entities on corporate property are legal, thus making it significantly more difficult for whistleblowers to pass on information without being detected by the corporations employing them.

“Look at Snowden himself, look at what he had to do,” says Secunda. “He couldn’t rely on the 4th Amendment. He basically had to flee the country. If he had still been an employee of the CIA, he would have been a public employee with protections against unreasonable search and seizure. He would have at least theoretically had more robust protections under the law. Given that he was no longer employed by the CIA, given that he was employed by Booz Allen, he does not fall under that state action doctrine against unreasonable search and seizure by the state.”

Already, more than one-third of the 1.4 million people in the United States with top secret security clearance are employed as private contractors. With fewer protections afforded to them, private contractors, many whistleblower advocates worry, could receive an even larger share of this type of work.

“There is not the same level of accountability. We have a situation where the intelligence community is largely run by contractors,” says POGO’s Canterbury. “Perhaps we should look at the influence of the profit motive. Look at a company like Booz Allen where 98% of their revenue is from the federal government. Are they going to recommend things in the national interest or things that are important to their bottom line?”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on June 11, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times.

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New Jersey Domestic Violence Leave Bill Receives Final Legislative Approval

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Sabrina_Sandhu_webLast week the full New Jersey General Assembly granted final legislative approval for bill A-2919/S-2177, known as the “New Jersey Security and Financial Empowerment Act” or “NJ SAFE Act”.  If signed into law by the Governor, the Act would allow eligible employees who are victims or whose family members are victims of domestic abuse or sexual assault to take up to 20 days of job protected leave per year to handle issues related to the abuse or assault. Specifically, the Act provides that leave may be taken to seek medical attention for injuries, obtain services from a victim services organization, obtain counseling, participate in safety planning, relocate or engage in other activities to ensure the safety of the employee or employee’s family member, seek legal assistance, and participate in legal proceedings.

Eligible employees under the Act would be required to take their leave within 1 year of the incident.  Eligible employees are defined as those employees who have been employed for at least 12 months, and for at least 1,000 hours during the immediately preceding 12 month period.  Prior to approving the leave of an eligible employee, an employer would be permitted to request documentation of the basis for the leave.  Additionally, employers may request that eligible employees first exhaust any accrued paid leave provided by the employer, or leave afforded by the Family Leave Act and federal Family and Medical Leave Act.  Employers with less than 25 employees are exempt from this proposed legislation.

Importantly, the Act provides for a civil cause of action against employers in alleged violation of its provisions.  Should this legislation become law, the effective date will be the first day of the third month following enactment, and employers will be required to display a conspicuous notice of employee rights and obligations under the Act. Please check back periodically for updates about this legislation.

This article was originally printed on NJ Labor and Employment Law on May 28, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sabrina Sandhu is an associate at Giordano, Halleran & Ciesla.  She counsels employers with regard to workplace policies and manuals, and general litigation avoidance.

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“Total Worker Health” vs. “Wellness” vs. “Well-Being”: Framing Worker Health Issues

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davidyamadaLast month’s “Work, Stress and Health” conference in Los Angeles featured the theme of “Total Worker Health.” This important biennial event is co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and Society for Occupational Health Psychology (SOHP). On its webpage, NIOSH defines Total Worker Health this way:

Total Worker Health™ is a strategy integrating occupational safety and health protection with health promotion to prevent worker injury and illness and to advance health and well-being.

As conceptualized by NIOSH and others, Total Worker Health engages both legal mandates and pro-active measures to promote worker health and safety.


Another term often invoked at this conference was “wellness,” usually in association with employer-sponsored programs that promote smart health habits, such as good nutrition, exercise, weight control, smoking cessation, and mindfulness practices.

Wellness programs are designed to contribute to healthier and more productive workforces and to save organizations money in the through lower health insurance premiums and less absenteeism and turnover.


A third term that recurred at Work, Stress and Health was “well-being.” The federalCenters for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) examine well-being in the context of a concept they label “Health-Related Quality of Life.” They define well-being this way:

Well-being is a positive outcome that is meaningful for people and for many sectors of society, because it tells us that people perceive that their lives are going well. Good living conditions (e.g., housing, employment) are fundamental to well-being. Tracking these conditions is important for public policy. However, many indicators that measure living conditions fail to measure what people think and feel about their lives, such as the quality of their relationships, their positive emotions and resilience, the realization of their potential, or their overall satisfaction with life — i.e., their “well-being.” . . . Well-being generally includes global judgments of life satisfaction and feelings ranging from depression to joy. 

More than word salad

Okay, so you might be thinking, “Total Worker Health” . . . “Wellness” . . . “Well-Being” . . . blah blah blah. Just a toss of word salad among terms that you basically can mix and match.

Maybe so, at least from a distance. But these terms do carry subtle distinctions and connotations within the world of employment relations, especially in the fields of occupational safety & health and organizational psychology.

In a Good Company blog post, Dr. Matt Grawitch (St. Louis U.), an organizational psychologist who plays a key role in the APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program, reflected upon how these terms were invoked at the conference and cast his vote for well-being as the best framing concept:

For organizations, this means you have to have a strategy, one emphasizing the development of a workplace that fosters (or at least does not detract from) overall worker well-being. It should not start with the implementation of a wellness program; it should start by taking a long hard look at the culture, structure and business practices of the organization to identify where those important contextual factors are enhancing or detracting from worker well-being. It should include an assessment of a range of well-being factors (including health). And it should result in a multi-faceted approach that leverages a host of psychologically healthy workplace practices to effectively improve worker well-being.

Exercise can be a good way to relieve stress that we experience from an abusive supervisor, work-life conflict or poor working conditions. But wouldn’t the organization and its employees reap greater rewards if abusive supervision, work-life conflict and poor working conditions were eliminated? Then, exercise could be used to enhance health rather than to simply maintain it (or keep it from deteriorating even more).

I’m happy to cast a concurring vote. I confess that I had not given this any attention before. But at the conference, my thought process was first triggered by a sidebar conversation with Dr. Tapas Ray of NIOSH, who shared with me how his research is centering on measures of well-being. By the end of the conference, further informed by other discussions and panels, I had became a convert. Indeed, I realized that well-being, within the context of workplace health and safety, is a very good fit with broader questions about human dignity and employment law that I’ve been raising for several years.

I’m sure that I’ll be exploring these conceptual links in future posts.

This article was originally printed on Minding the Workplace on June 10, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Yamada is a tenured Professor of Law and Director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.  He is an internationally recognized authority on the legal aspects of workplace bullying, and he is author of model anti-bullying legislation — dubbed the Healthy Workplace Bill — that has become the template for law reform efforts across the country.  In addition to teaching at Suffolk, he holds numerous leadership positions in non-profit and policy advocacy organizations.

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LGBT Workers Face Rampant Discrimination, Higher Taxes and Receive Fewer Workplace Benefits

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Image: Kate Thomas87% of polled Americans believe it’s illegal under federal law to fire an employee just because that employee is gay or lesbian.

They’re wrong.

A new report demonstrates how 40 years of advocacy have yet to yield federal non-discrimination protections for LGBT workers. Instead of having a fair chance to get ahead, our existing federal laws result in LGBT workers and their families being held back by bias, fewer workplace benefits and higher taxes.

There are many ways America’s basic bargain – i.e. the widely-held belief that those who work hard can get ahead – is broken for LGBT workers. Here are just a few:

  • Lack of nondiscrimination protections.

    There’s no federal law – and only a minority of states – that provide explicit protections for LGBT workers. In 29 states, state law allows private employers to fire someone based on their sexual orientation — and based on their gender identity in 34 states. Progress has perhaps also been impeded by the fact that 87% of Americans think that it is already illegal under federal law to fire someone simply for being LGBT.

  • Higher levels of education lower unemployment rates.

    The National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that although transgender workers are more highly educated than the general population, their unemployment rates were twice the rate of the population as a whole–with rates for transgender people of color reaching as high as 4x the national unemployment rate

  • Family and medical leave.

    LGBT workers are denied equal access to unpaid leave to provide care for a same-sex spouse or partner. Transgender workers are often denied medical leave for transition-related medical care.

  • Family health benefits.

    An employer that extends family health benefits to married opposite-sex couples can legally deny that same coverage to married and unmarried same-sex couples. When LGBT workers do receive these benefits, middle-income families pay an estimated $3,200 in extra taxes for the same benefits that heterosexual workers get tax-free.

  • Spousal retirement benefits.

    LGBT workers are systematically denied Social Security spousal benefits designed to protect workers’ families during their retirement years. This costs retired same-sex couples up to $14,484 per year and a surviving same-sex widow or widower up to $28,968 per year.

  • Death and disability benefits.

    If an LGBT worker dies or becomes disabled, the worker’s same-sex spouse–and in some cases, his or her children–will be denied Social Security disability and survivor benefits, costing a surviving spouse with two children as much as $29,520 in annual benefits.


Even if same-sex couples were granted the right to marry in all 50 states tomorrow, it would still be perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay under federal law and in a majority of states.

“The public increasingly gets that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is flat wrong, and it’s past time for our work place and public policies to catch up with public sentiment,” Mary Kay Henry, President of SEIU, said in a statement. “LGBTQ workers and their families deserve the same workplace protections and benefits as other workers and their families.”

This comprehensive report shows why it’s long past time for Congress and President Obama to take action to give LGBT workers the freedom to build a successful career without fear of harassment or discrimination based on who they are or who they love.

Giving credit where credit’s due: This report was created in coordination with a coalition of leading LGBT organizations, policy experts and business advocates that include the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), in partnership with Freedom to Work, National Center for Transgender Equality, National Partnership for Women and Families, Out and Equal Workplace Advocates and SEIU.

A Broken Bargain: Discrimination, Fewer Benefits, and More Taxes for LGBT Workers – Read and/or download the full report and the executive summary at http://lgbtmap.org/lgbt-workers.

This article was originally printed on SEIU on June 4, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kate Thomas is a blogger, web producer and new media coordinator at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a labor union with 2.1 million members in the healthcare, public and property service sectors. Kate’s passions include the progressive movement, the many wonders of the Internet and her job working for an organization that is helping to improve the lives of workers and fight for meaningful health care and labor law reform. Prior to working at SEIU, Katie worked for the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) as a communications/public relations coordinator and editor of AMSA’s newsletter appearing in The New Physician magazine.

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People Over Politicians: Why a Shift in Labor’s Priorities is Needed

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douglas williamsAshley Byrd, News Director for South Carolina Radio: We are going to stay on the topic of job creation. And, uh, let’s start with this: Boeing is bringing more than 8,000 jobs into South Carolina. So here is a two part question first to Ms. Colbert Busch: Did the NLRB overstep its bounds when it tried to block Boeing’s approach to expansion in South Carolina? Yes or No, and why?

Elizabeth Colbert Busch: Yes. This is a right-to-work state, and they had no business telling a company where they could locate.

If the first thought that ran through your mind was, “Sounds like a standard Republican answer to a question like that,” you would be right. But, of course, Elizabeth Colbert Busch was the Democratic nominee for Congress in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District. In response to the Republican candidate, former Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC), stating that Colbert Busch “wants to be the voice for labor unions in Washington, DC”, she said the following:

First of all, um, Mark, what you’re saying is just not true. Things can be taken out of context, and everybody knows that. I am proud to support and live in a right-to-work state, and I am proud of everyone who has supported me.

Incredible, huh? Here is something even more incredible: the person who said those things, and who did not mention “labor” or “unions” once on her economic issues platform, received at least $32,500 from labor, with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers being her second biggest contributor at $10,000.

Labor also gave $68,000 in 2009-2010 to U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR). Yes, that would be the same Blanche Lincoln that played a large role in blocking the Employee Free Choice Act and who now works for Wal-Mart as a “special policy advisor” (read: lobbyist). You know, the same Wal-Mart notorious for its anti-union policies. It is not altogether surprising, though, given that Wal-Mart gave her $83,650 in donations over the course of her last term in the U.S. Senate.

Something is not adding up here.

Labor gave $1.1 billion in donations to candidates in federal elections between 2005 and 2011, and what do we have to show for it? No Employee Free Choice Act. President Obama’s nominee for Commerce Secretary heads a corporation that is being boycotted by labor for anti-union practices and horrible working conditions. The candidate who stated in 2008 that he would put on his walking shoes and join a picket line wherever collective bargaining rights were threatened seemed to forget where his local Foot Locker was when it came to worker oppression in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. But then again, that should not be surprising, given that the 2012 Democratic National Convention was held in a right-to-work state at non-union hotels.

After so much continual disappointment, it seems like a good time for introspection. Is continued engagement in national politics the best use of union resources? If we cannot point to any major victories after $1.1 billion of investment, largely in one party’s candidates, then is it not time to think about more productive, movement empowering ways to spend that money?

As an exercise, let’s take away half of the money spent by labor unions on federal candidates between 2005 and 2011, and reinvest it in organizing new workers and building internal capacities. For roughly $550 million, here is what labor could buy (these figures are calculated with the advertised salaries in AFSCME job listings for each position):

That is a lot of people, no matter how you divy them up between each position. Those are the kind of numbers that could really begin to do some major work in an area like the South, where years of inattention by major labor federations has served to make the work that much harder. A movement building apparatus that large could not only educate, inform, and organize workers on the job, but it could also mobilize communities to battle against employers and elected officials who seek to undermine a worker’s voice in the workplace.

To that end, if the labor movement must invest in politics, it would be wisest to do so at the community/local/state level. It is there, our “laboratories of public policy”, where the labor movement can have the most positive impact on the lives of working people. For example, the residents of New Haven, Connecticut have seen their city council transformed into one that values educating children in low-income communities and building up a strong local workforce due to labor’s involvement in local races. In addition to that, Minnesota’s home health care workers have been given the right to organize through legislative action by a new DFL (Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party) majority, and a piece of legislation that would have made Missouri a right-to-work state was defeated because of a veto threat by Gov. Jay Nixon (D-MO). When labor is deciding where to invest its political capital, it should always have one mantra: community first.

The labor movement’s biggest strength has never been its campaign war chest; it has always been its people. It is time to invest in movement building. It is time to invest in the organizers and the members who make the labor movement the force for progressive change that it has been for generations. And most importantly, it is time to invest in building solidarity amongst neighbors and between communities. If we are to invest in politics, then let us invest in the sort of politics that impacts people and communities the most, and that will put people in touch with the brand of social justice and progressivism that has been a staple of movement unionism.

No amount of money spent on a member of Congress or a Presidential candidate will ever match the effectiveness of investing in people. If the labor movement is to grow, we must recognize that simple fact.

This article was originally printed on The South Lawn on May 29, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Douglas Williams is a third-generation organizer, having a grandmother who worked to integrate the schools in his hometown and a father who continues to be active in labor organizing.  He earned his BA in Political Science at the University of Minnesota at Morris in 2008, as well as his MPA at the University of Missouri Columbia.  He is currently a doctoral student in political science at the University of Alabama (where he just happened to meet Sarah, the love of his life), where his research centers around public policy as it relates to disadvantaged communities and the labor movement.

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Why the Dubai Strike Matters

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Michelle ChenFrom a distance, Dubai shines like an oasis of modernity in in the desert, with its glass towers and opulent hotels. Beneath the glittering surface, however, lies an underbelly of indentured servitude. The city-state’s brutal labor system was abruptly exposed last month when workers finally threw down their tools to demand fair pay and working conditions.

Thousands of employees at the United Arab Emirates-based construction firm Arabtec went on strike on May 19, calling for wage increases in an unprecedented act of rebellion under a notoriously authoritarian government. According to Reuters, the UAE Labor Ministry announced that it was working closely with Arabtec to suppress the protests. Some 200 protesters were taken into custody in response to the four-day strike, and many were reportedly threatened with deportation or arbitrarily terminated.

The illegal work stoppage was a rare demonstration of outrage by the migrant workers lured by the UAE’s mirage of prosperity.

The Gulf region’s renowned economic growth model runs on the sweat of workers from India, Bangladesh and other Asian countries, who do construction and domestic work in virtually unregulated workplaces without real human-rights or labor protections. The migrant contract laborers in the Emirates and other Gulf States are subjected routinely to exploitation and brutality at the hands of employers. According to Human Rights Watch, labor abuses in the UAE include “unsafe work environments, the withholding of travel documents, and low pay or nonpayment of wages,” as well as physical and sexual violence.

Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, a global labor coalition that has long criticized the UAE’s labor policies, tells In These Times via email:

The Gulf states are slave states for workers. There is no freedom of association and therefor workers cannot join a union. It is beyond belief that in the 21st century that a nation can believe it is ok to treat migrant workers as less than human. The conditions are extreme with long hours, dreadful heat, poverty wages and shocking mental and at times physical abuse.

With typical monthly earnings of less than $200—compared to a UAE mean monthly income of nearly $5,000—many Arabtec workers had little to lose by striking. The strike was also a measure of how desperate workers have become in recent years as Dubai’s breakneck construction boom has declined, but not the hopes of masses of migrants who flock to construction sites to earn relatively high wages to remit to their families back home. Many have been taken in by shady labor agencies that load them with heavy debt and false promises.

Syed Khaled, a construction worker from Bangladeshi who says he worked without a raise for nine years and was denied annual leave for three, told Al Jazeera:

We live with five men to a room and 40 or 50 men share a bathroom. There is a big line for the bathroom in mornings before work. The company is very cruel so going on strike is a good idea. I currently earn 8,000 Bangladeshi taka ($102) per month. In Bangladesh for this work I can earn 10,000-15,000 taka ($128- $192) per month, easily, but the work is far from my home and it isn’t steady, maybe work one month and no work for two months.

Mohamed Ashraf, a veteran scaffolding installer also from Bangladesh, recounted in an interview with Al Jazeera that workers had earned paltry wages and been denied food rations. Now, he and other employees had received termination letters following the strike “for no specific reason,” and some coworkers had gotten deportation orders. He doubted the workers would fare better even if they organized because, “If we formed a union and we had a leader, he would take our problems to management and they would just deport the leader.

For years, luxury and oppression have gone hand in hand in the booming Gulf economies. The state-affiliated Abu Dhabi Tourism and Development and Investment Company faced international criticism in 2009 when the Guggenheim Museum and Louvre planned to establish branches on a luxury development site known as Saadiyat Island. A campaign led by artists and human rights activists called on the world-class art institutions demand a commitment from Abu Dhabi authorities to respect international labor standards. Despite promises to strengthen labor regulations on the site, labor groups say the UAE generally continues to enable the systematic abuse of migrants.

“We have offered to work with these [Gulf State] governments if they will commit to rights and major companies are willing to help end the system of enslavement. The silence is deafening,” Burrows says.

While UAE companies rebuff international pressure, industrial action from workers might spur a labor crisis from below, as aggrieved workers feel compelled to take direct action despite the legal risks. According to Rima Kalush, a migrants’ rights advocate with the activist network Mideast Youth, the uprising suggests that despite the crackdown, the strike showed that when facing crisis, migrants could find ways to band together and leverage their collective power:

Both governments and employers (a distinction difficult to make in some cases) feel empowered to subject migrant workers to low wages and poor conditions because they are easily replaceable. But this ‘advantage’ has occasionally been overcome when a large number of migrant workers strike on large-scale project; delays in construction or the provision of services cannot always be tolerated, and in some cases strikes end with some concessions to migrants’ demands. Strikes are really the only form of collective bargaining migrants have at their disposal as they are not allowed to unionize.

From an employers’ perspective, the threat of deportation is an ideal tool for terrorizing workers. Physically removing troublemakers from the country en masse can easily quash a nascent labor movement, particularly for migrants who are already disenfranchised. But the cycle of migration and exile can have a radicalizing effect, as well–as we’ve seen in global campaigns to champion international labor standards for migrant domestic workers and in labor advocacy led by exploited “guest workers” in the U.S. As the human analog to the globalization of capital, migration might expose workers to abuse but might also expand class consciousness, by drawing an ever-widening diaspora into a transnational experience of oppression. Sooner or later, Dubai authorities may realize that for each unruly laborer they kick out, a new migrant enters a workforce that grows more bitter, and more defiant, by the day.

This article was originally printed in Working In These Times on June 3, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.

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U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Sox Whistleblower Case Involving Contractors

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secunda-paulThis past Friday, the United State Supreme Court granted cert. in the case of Lawson v. FMR LLC. The case concerns whether the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX), which protects employees of publicly traded companies from retaliation for reporting financial improprieties, also protects the employees of private contractors of those companies. In the case, two fund investment advisors blew the whistle on a publicly-traded mutual fund which contracted for their services. The First Circuit found that the fund advisors were not covered by SOX protections.

The Court had asked the U.S. Solicitor General’s views on the case, and the SG recommended that the Court bypass the case in order to allow the issue to percolate among more circuit courts.  The case, however, was granted.

Among the issues to be decided: whether protecting the employees of contractors is mandated under the plain meaning of SOX and whether a finding of no coverage for such employees will discourage whistleblowers from bringing financial fraud allegations to the attention of the public. It should also be an interesting case because it is one of the first to examine the whistleblower protections of SOX and will likely provide guidance on how broadly or narrowly SOX should be interpreted to protect whistleblowers in the financial services industry.

This article was originally printed on Workplace Prof Blog on May 22, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Paul Secunda is an associate professor of  law at Marquette University Law School.  Professor Secunda is the author of nearly three dozen books, treatises, articles, and shorter writings. He co-authored the treatise Understanding Employment Law and the case book Global Issues in Employee Benefits Law.  Professor Secunda is a frequent commentator on labor and employment law issues in the national media.  He co-edits with Rick Bales and Jeffrey Hirsch the Workplace Prof Blog, recently named one of the top law professor blogs in the country.

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Kentucky Couple’s ‘Ride for Respect’ at Walmart

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berry craigJames and Trina Vetato knew about the freedom riders from history books.

This week, the Paducah, Ky., couple expects to join a civil rights movement-style protest against the world’s largest retailer. The Vetatos are activists in the employees’ group Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or OUR Walmart for short. Trina currently works at a Walmart store and James is a former Walmart employee.

Called the “Ride for Respect,” the demonstration at Walmart corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., will be modeled on civil rights volunteers who rode buses into the South in the 1960s to protest Jim Crow racial injustice, says James Vetato.

Busloads of OUR Walmart members will converge on Bentonville from across the country. They will be in town for the annual shareholders’ meeting June 7. Vetato says he expects 300 or more OUR Walmart members to begin arriving the week before the meeting. Most of the protesters—including Trina Vetato—will be taking part in an unfair labor practice strike, says her husband.

The protest will go on the whole week before the meeting. We especially want to draw national attention to Walmart management’s threats and retaliation against workers who speak up for better pay, more hours and respect on the job.

Vetato worked at his wife’s store in Paducah. When he stood up for his rights, he says:

I was threatened and intimidated by management who made my life so miserable I finally quit.

Our Walmart wants better pay, benefits and working conditions. “Like the freedom riders, we will be standing up for dignity and respect and justice and will be protesting peacefully,” Vetato says.

OUR Walmart isn’t a union, but the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) is helping the group, says Vetato.

Some other unions are in OUR Walmart’s corner, too. The Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council unanimously passed a resolution expressing its solidarity with the workers’ struggle at Walmart.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on June 2, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Berry Craig is the recording secretary for the Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council and a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College.  He is a former daily newspaper and Associated Press columnist and currently a member of AFT Local 1360.

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