The President listens during a April National Security Council meeting in the Situation Room.
On Thursday, a number of civil liberties groups that have harshly criticized the NSA surveillance practices disclosed by Edward Snowden, are meeting with President Obama's top lawyer, Kathy Ruemmler. This White House session is one of several this week with lawmakers, tech groups, and members of the intelligence community that will help the President soon decide whether to keep the controversial surveillance programs intact.
Among groups that are reportedly attending the meeting are the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and the Federation of American Scientists. According to Caitlin Hayden, a spokesperson for the White House, the purpose of the meeting with Ruemmler "is to have a broad discussion regarding privacy and civil liberties protections and transparency initiatives." According to a source with knowledge of the meeting, the meeting is likely the "next phase" of the Obama Administration's attempt to decide "exactly how much of the Surveillance Review Group’s fairly radical recommendations they’re going to get behind."
In December, this independent panel took a hard look at NSA snooping and issued46 recommendations for reform, such as having phone carriers store domestic telephone records, rather than the NSA. Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of EPIC, tells Mother Jones that, "We support many of the recommendations contained in the report of the Review Group, particularly the proposal to end the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone records....But we think the President needs to do more." He adds, "Privacy protection is not simply about NSA reform. We also need strong consumer safeguards."
On Wednesday, President Obama is meeting with "leaders of the Intelligence community" and members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent agency that advises the President, according to Hayden. He will also meet with members of the House and Senate on Thursday to discuss surveillance issues. The Associated Press reports that he is expected to issue a final decision on NSA surveillance programs as early as next week.
The Senate unexpectedly moved forward on extending much-needed unemployment insurance for the 1.3 million Americans who lost benefits shortly after Christmas. On Tuesday morning the extension cleared an early filibuster by a 60-37 vote, with six Republicans joining the Democrats in voting for advancement. The Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act, introduced by Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), extends benefits for the long-term unemployed for only three months—but 37 Republicans still voted to block debate on the bill. Some of those Republicans who blocked the bill represent states with the highest unemployment rates in the country.
Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), the bill's Republican cosponsor and one of the few GOPers to vote to move the bill towards final passage in the Senate, comes from a state with the worst unemployment rate in the United States—at 9 percent. It's no surprise that he might vote to extend benefits to those Americans who have been out of the job for six months or more. But that doesn't explain the no-votes from Republican Sen. Mark Kirk from Illinois, which has the fourth-worst unemployment rate—8.7 percent—and the two Republicans senators from Mississippi, which has an unemployment rate of 8.3 percent. Republicans have cited the high cost of the bill as the reason they don't want to extend emergency benefits, although they've done so repeatedly in the past.
Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Dan Coats (R-Ind.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) joined Heller as the only Republicans to vote for cloture.
So what will happen now? The bill still has a long way to go before it passes the Senate. Some of the Republicans who voted for cloture on Tuesday might still join another filibuster against the final vote. Portman, for example, wants to proceed to debate but is demanding that the cost be offset if Democrats hope to win his vote next time. And even if the extension clears the Senate, it will likely flounder in the Republican-controlled House. In the meantime, as America continues to face the worst long-term unemployment crisis since the Great Depression, families who have been using the recession-era emergency benefits to scrape by will now fall even deeper into the poverty well. Last year, unemployment benefits helped lift 1.7 million people (including 446,000 children) out of poverty, according to the National Employment Law Project. As one New Yorker who has lost her benefits told Mother Jones, "I'm thoroughly petrified."
"[The supervisors] said we would get less work if we slept with them." That's what a 19-year-old Indian woman told me this year, about her experience working in a factory that makes products for international clothing companies. She's one of thousands of "sumangali girls" who take jobs at textile factories under false promises, believing that they will earn enough money for education or a dowry. After traveling to India to learn about the brutal conditions under which sumangali girls work—and getting chased by thugs in the process—it's been hard for me to shop for clothes in Washington, DC, without feeling guilty. So what's the solution?
At 11 AM EST on Tuesday, January 7th, I'll be discussing this question with Sindhu Kavinamannil, a native of Southern India who investigates government contracts for labor violations and served as my translator during my reporting trip, and Elizabeth Cline, author of the 2012 book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. We'll talk about the sumangali scheme, efforts by US clothing companies to reform their supply chains, and tips for American consumers who want to make sure that their clothes don't support exploitation. Here's our discussion:
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."
Job applicants line up at a new Target store in Albuquerque
When Congress reconvenes next week, lawmakers will have to decide whether to extend federal unemployment benefits for about 1.3 million Americans. These emergency benefits—which Congress let expire shortly after Christmas—are part of a 2008 program that allows workers who have been out of the job for more than six months to receive an emergency extension on their payments up to 47 weeks. If Congress fails to renew these benefits, only a quarter of jobless Americans will be receiving any benefits at all, according to the Huffington Post.
As these charts show, the United States is looking at the worst long-term unemployment crisis since soup kitchen lines peaked during the Great Depression. Americans who have been unemployed for more than six months are often hit with major financial and personal hardship. Around 10 percent must file for bankruptcy, more than half report putting off medical care, and many say they have, "lost self-respect while jobless." But who are these Americans who have lost their benefits? Some reached out to Mother Jones. Here are their stories:
Name: Anonymous State: New York
"My benefits run out this week. I'm thoroughly petrified…I am the nice girl you went to high school with who was in the advanced classes, graduated with an A average, and went on to college. I'm the girl who always worked through high school, college, law school, and grad school. I never thought I would end up a welfare mother, but here I am. I want you to know how I got here and why I can't get out. I want you to realize that your nasty comments on social media about the losers demanding entitlements and benefits and hand-outs as compared to your 'hard-earned money,' hurt more than you know. Those comments may also be hurting your friend or colleague or relative. I'm not alone in this situation. I do not want benefits, or hand-outs, or entitlements. I want a job. I want to be able to pay my own way. I want to be self-sufficient again and earn the money I receive through hard work. I don't want to lose my house or have to talk to another debt collector. But in the meantime, I am grateful that some of our lawmakers saw fit to protect the vulnerable in times of need."
Maureen "Momo" Kallins
Name: Maureen "Momo" Kallins State: Washington
"I am 65 years old. For three years I worked as the General Manager and the Business Manager of a small public access television station in Washington State. I lost that job in January 2013, which supported half of our household. (I have two sons, 26 and 24, and I live with my husband.) I was awarded unemployment insurance of less than half of my salary that month, which was extended after six months. I have applied for numerous jobs but never even get an interview. A friend of mine in the film business said recently, 'When you apply for a job at 50 people laugh at you. When you apply for a job at 65 people just look at you like you are crazy.' Presently I am adding to my video resume and trying to build a business. I sincerely hope that the members of Congress can agree to extend these benefits and throw us a lifeline."
Name: Carol Watterston State: Nevada
"After being laid off after seven years [at my job], I have now been unemployed since November 9, 2012. I job hunt for full-time employment everyday. I've been to multiple interviews and nothing has worked out. I've even attempted going back to school but I have bad credit and can't afford it…I'm already struggling to pay my rent, my bills, my car insurance and feed myself and my pets. I have never been one that expects or wants any kind of charity, and this situation I'm in is degrading and shameful, but I have to do whatever is necessary for survival. However, I have a lot more than other people on this planet. I have a roof over my head, I have food in my fridge, I have a car, and I have a very supportive family, which I'm thoroughly thankful for."
Name: Tara Dublin State: Washington
"I was a very popular DJ on the radio in Portland. When I lost that job, I could not find another job in local media. The radio station that fired me has not replaced me. As a single mom of two sons (15 and 10 years old), it was imperative to me that I show my kids that we don't roll over and die when bad things happen; we fight. And I've been fighting for the last four and half years. In the time since I lost that dream job, I've had small opportunities, but nothing long term. I'll get a voiceover gig just when a bill is due…I worked holiday retail sales at Nordstrom but wasn't rehired for this season, and despite applying for every retail and waitressing job I can find, I have yet to be hired. I'm on the verge of losing my house yet again, and I am terrified, I don't ask for a lot out of life—just to be in a job that makes me happy and pays my bills."
"I lost my marketing communications specialist position in April and have not landed a job in nine months of looking, despite working at it diligently and investing in expensive job-hunt strategy and technique classes. I am 61. I believe my age and the reasonably good salary I was earning were factors in losing my job. I was replaced by a 20-something who could be paid a lower salary. I just do not get the assertion I see in so many news stories that eventually, long-term unemployed people just stop looking for work. Who can afford to do that? How can they live?"
Name: Jeff State: Indiana
"I have an associate degree in hotel and restaurant administration. Right now I live in an old mobile home in pretty bad condition, but at least it is a sheltering place. I do not have a high standard of living, so really my only worry about not having a job and losing my unemployment benefits is becoming homeless. I only have rent, car payment and insurance, utilities, and food as expenses. I also worry about my three cats because I don't want to see them suffer because of what is happening to me. I have pretty much been taking care of myself since I was 13, and the thought of not having a roof over my head is terrifying…I do think Congress needs to extend benefits, because people are suffering and it would be a catastrophe to let all those who are hurting slip even lower."
Name: Anonymous State: Washington
"I had a baby in July 2012. I was on unpaid maternity leave until November 2012. I was informed that I would be getting laid off in October 2012. I was in a unionized position but I got bumped by a more senior union member. We had insurance through my work. So we went on COBRA for $1800 a month. The unemployment benefits extension was covering the COBRA payment. Now we'll be paying for COBRA out of pocket. And we have another baby on the way. I know I'm one of the lucky ones out there. I have enough in savings and an overall family income that I can make a choice to stay with the expensive COBRA, so that I don't have to deal with this hassle [of changing to Medicaid] mid-pregnancy."
And here are some stories from other news outlets:
David Davis, Virginia: "That’s one goal, to avoid living on the street or in my car." (The New York Times )
Adaline Irizarry, New Jersey: "If I don’t get an extension, I’m screwed. I think a lot of people are in that situation." (The Star-Ledger)
Celeste, New York: "I don’t buy books; I get everything from the library. We go to maybe one movie a year." (Buzzfeed)
Kaitlyn Smith, California: "I have to keep the house at 55 degrees even though I have two little girls, ages 2 1/2 and 1 1/2." (Los Angeles Times)
Mary Lowe, Ohio: "We didn't do anything for Christmas—50 bucks for our daughter, that was it." (CBS News)