dana liebelson

Dana Liebelson

Reporter

Dana Liebelson is a reporter in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. Her work also appears in Marie Claire and The Week. In her free time, she plays electric violin and bass in a punk band.

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H&M Plans to Pay Garment Workers Fair Wages. Here's Why That's Probably BS.

| Mon Jan. 6, 2014 3:55 AM PST

I recently wrote about the Indian sumangali scheme, wherein girls from poor, rural families are recruited to work in clothing factories, on the promise that they will earn enough money for a dowry. Instead, many toil in exploitive conditions, earning far less than recruiters told them they would. Many of these factories sell to American companies. H&M has been accused by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations of using sumangali labor in the past, but the company is trying to rid its factories of the scheme by 2014. Shortly before Black Friday, H&M announced that it also plans to start paying 850,000 workers at 750 factories—out of its some 1,800 total factories around the world—a fair wage by 2018.

Fair-trade experts say that the announcement is a step in the right direction, but some point out that the plan has major holes. Most notably, the factories that will be covered under the fair-wage program produce just 60 percent of H&M's products, and the company did not say whether it would eventually extend the plan to its other factories, as well. Here are a few other red flags:

H&M won't say how much it will pay workers in each country. Anna Eriksson, a spokesperson for H&M, told me that that the company does not believe US buyers should dictate a minimum wage to its factories; instead, it expects factory employees and factory owners to work together to come up with a fair wage. Wages will depend on the country and the factory, and must meet the Fair Wage Method, which was developed by Daniel Vaughan-Whitehead, who oversees wage policy at the United Nations' International Labour Organization. This standard is based on a number of factors—such as promoting "acceptable living standards" and being "comparable to wages in similar enterprises in the same sector." H&M also plans to support unions that empower workers to negotiate for wages, and encourage governments to identify a living wage level.

But Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, criticizes the company's plan to rely on governments and factories to set wages. Nova told the Washington Post, "Just saying 'we're for a living wage, in 5 years we're going to pay an undefined amount in a subset or our factories,' that's not credible." Jefferson Cowie, the chair of the Department of Labor Relations, Law, & History at Cornell University, echoed those concerns. "It is hard to see governments taking a strong role in boosting wages in the short run," he told me. Fair wages can also be hard to enforce. I saw this firsthand while reporting my sumangali story: In India, the government does have a minimum wage for textile workers—but many of the female workers I spoke with were not being paid that wage, and didn't have access to a union.

H&M claims that increasing wages somehow won't raise prices consumers pay for its clothing. Eriksson says that the company will keep its clothing prices steady for Western consumers by using in-house designers, buying clothing in large volumes, and finding other efficiencies. But Elizabeth Cline, the author of the 2012 book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, says that she doesn't believe that H&M can pay garment workers a living wage without raising retail prices. "How can that be true?" she says. "It makes me think that the company is just riding on unsustainable expansion [and] will just continue to sell more and more low-quality clothes to make up for this increased cost." However, Joel Paul, a law professor and expert in trade policy at the University of California-Hastings, speculates that the claim could, in fact, be true: Because foreign garment factory labor accounts for a tiny percentage of a shirt's total cost, he says, increasing workers' hourly wages from 15 cents to a $1.50—an estimated living wage in Bangladesh—wouldn't substantially undercut profits.

The wage increase won't affect any of H&M's spinning mills. H&M's fair-wage promise does not extend to all of its subcontractors, which include the factories that spin the cotton into thread (also known as spinning mills). In India, most sumangali schemes take place in spinning mills. That the plan doesn't include subcontractors could be a big problem: If some factories in the supply chain are not required to pay a fair wage, garment factories can simply outsource more of their labor to those cheaper operations. When I asked H&M how the company plans to address the challenge of factories outsourcing labor to subcontractors with potentially exploitive conditions, spokesman Håcan Andersson said, "We are not able to assist you further in this matter." 

Despite the plan's significant problems, Cornell's Cowie says he believes that H&M deserves some credit for taking baby steps toward fixing a notoriously exploitive industry. "Do they have the perfect solution?" he says. "Absolutely not. If they wanted to pay the highest wages, they wouldn't be shopping for labor in Cambodia and Bangladesh in the first place. But making an open commitment to workers matters—as long as it does not end up being just a cover for their old practices."

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State Attorneys General to FDA: What Were You Thinking When You Approved Powerful New Painkiller?

| Fri Dec. 13, 2013 10:28 AM PST

Last month, Mother Jones reported that the Food and Drug Administration had approved a powerful new painkiller called Zohydro over the objections of its advisory board, which voted 11-2 against approving the drug. Now Attorneys General from 28 states (and the US territory of Guam) have asked the FDA to reconsider its approval of Zohydro. In a letter to the agency, the AGs raise many of the same concerns that the advisory panel did, noting that the drug lacks adequate safeguards to prevent it from being abused and could exacerbate America's epidemic of painkiller deaths. Here's an excerpt from the AGs letter, which was dated December 10:

State Attorneys General do not want a repeat of the recent past when potent prescription painkilling drugs entered the market without abuse-deterrent qualities and without clear guidance on how they were to be prescribed. This created an environment whereby our nation witnessed a vicious cycle of overzealous pharmaceutical sales, doctors over-prescribing the narcotics, and patients tampering with these drugs, ultimately resulting in a nationwide prescription drug epidemic claiming thousands of lives.

Zohydro, which is made by a company called Zogenix, is five to ten times stronger than Vicodin, making it very similar in potency to OxyContin, a widely abused prescription drug that has contributed to the tens of thousands of painkiller-related deaths in the United States. OxyContin, however, now includes a gel that prevents the drug from being crushed and snorted. Zohydro was approved without that measure. Zogenix has entered into a $750,000 agreement with a Montreal-based company, Altus Formulation Inc, to help make the drug abuse-deterrent, but it's unclear whether the formula will be ready by the time Zohydro hits the market in a few months.

The Attorneys General don't think that's sufficient. "We hope that the FDA either reconsiders its approval of Zohydro ER, or sets a rigorous timeline for Zohydro ER to be reformulated to be abuse-deterrent while working with other federal agencies to impose restrictions on how Zohydro ER can be marketed and prescribed," they wrote in their letter.

Texas Wouldn't Let This Afghanistan Vet Vote in the Last Presidential Election

| Fri Dec. 13, 2013 4:00 AM PST

Last month, I collected reports from voters across the United States who had trouble casting a ballot because of the growing number of strict voter identification laws. When Ben Granger, an Air Force captain who was deployed during the 2012 presidential election read the piece, he came forward with his own story—about the time he was turned away from voting for the US president by a conservative county in Texas, after mailing his ballot from a war zone. 

Texas has come under fire for its new law requiring poll workers to apply extra scrutiny to voters' state identification, in a way that potentially discriminates against married women. Although voter ID laws garner the most attention for turning voters away from the polls—longstanding laws in Texas and other states still require election boards to use a voter's signature to verify absentee ballots.

Granger, who was deployed for seven months in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan in 2012, says he's voted in every presidential election since he turned 18. But after he sent his absentee ballot to Tom Green County, Texas, to vote in the 2012 general election, he received a rejection notice claiming that his vote was discarded because his signature on the ballot application and the signature on the ballot's envelope were signed by different people:

"I was surprised and aggravated," says Granger, who, having spent four and a half years on active duty, now lives in Belleville, Illinois, supporting U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command on active reserve. "As the guy that requested the ballot, carefully looked over the candidates, carefully signed the envelope and the ballot with a good pen, and then walked across my base to the post office to mail it personally, the rejection was insulting."

Under Texas law, in order to vote by absentee ballot, a voter must sign a ballot application, and then after receiving the ballot some weeks later, must sign the sealed ballot's carrier envelope. In Tom Green County—where 73 percent of residents cast a vote for Mitt Romney last November—the law allows a county to appoint a five-person board tasked with deciding, by majority vote, whether the two signatures match (they can even request to see the voter's registration signature). In Granger's case, they claimed that the application and the ballot envelope were signed by different people. He adds that while he doesn't specifically remember signing the application before successfully receiving his ballot about six weeks later, "I was pretty busy at the time...I [always] sign my name the same way."

This law is much older—more than a decade—than the one requiring that poll workers make sure a voter's driver's license "substantially" matches the name on the voter registration. Marian Schneider​, an attorney with the Advancement Project, a voting rights group, says that "every state has a process where they compare a voter's signature with another signature on file"—even if you vote in person—and she doesn't necessarily consider that a barrier to voting, in the way that voter ID laws are. But she notes that incidents of people committing fraud and forging signatures are nonetheless, "exceedingly rare."

Logan Churchwell, a spokesman for True the Vote, which argues that voter fraud is common, says that checking signatures is a good way to stop a criminal from "purchasing a ballot in a military installation and sending it on someone else's behalf." (There were only 13 credible cases of in-person voter impersonation between 2000 and 2010.) Churchwell doubts Granger's claim of voter suppression.

But Doug Chapin, the director of the Program for Excellence in Election Administration at the University of Minnesota, says that barring people from voting because their signatures don't match "is a growing problem in the field" and "an issue that’s increasingly on the radar.​" While every state has a different process for verifying signatures, "This example is definitely at the stricter end," he says. Rick Hasen, a voting expert and law professor at the University of California, Irvine, agrees that, "signature matching has been studied and it is not a perfect system." (Kansas has​ done away with it entirely, allowing voters to enter a verification number, such as a driver's license or social security number, instead.) 

Granger says that if the Election Board truly thought someone had stolen his ballot envelope or application, "isn't that cause for the launch of a criminal investigation?" Vona McKerley, the election administer in Tom Green County, tells Mother Jones that "several" ballots were turned away in last year's election because of non-matching signatures. "The ballot board was following the law as prescribed in processing the ballots. No, there was no investigation."​

Granger is, nonetheless, concerned that this is just another way to disenfranchise voters: "I am a young educated military officer and I know how to sign my own name for God's sake. And even if I didn't, is poor penmanship good cause for disenfranchisement? What about the elderly whose hands may shake?"​

Fri Nov. 22, 2013 10:26 AM PST
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