dana liebelson

Dana Liebelson


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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NSA's Harshest Critics Meeting With White House Officials Tomorrow

| Wed Jan. 8, 2014 3:47 PM EST

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 issued 46 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. 


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

| Mon Jan. 6, 2014 6:55 AM EST

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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