"[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)
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.
The result aren't pretty. Many workers lack basic knowledge about food safety, don't wash their hands enough, and serve undercooked meat. Employees commonly show up to work when they're vomiting, because they fear losing pay and leaving the restaurant understaffed. As we reported in June, a number of states have introduced bills that prevent localities from passing laws that require paid sick leave—and they're backed by big restaurant chains, including McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and Olive Garden. (Is it any wonder that struggling restaurant workers are going on strike?) Restaurant employees working sick is "an important cause of foodborne illness outbreaks," say the researchers.
So, without further ado, here are eight of the most terrifying statistics from the new reports:
1. Nearly two-thirds of restaurant workers who handle raw beef aren't washing their hands afterward: The researchers looked at 247 restaurantsthat use raw ground beef. Employees touched the beef in 192 restaurants, and in 119 of those restaurants, employees who touched the raw beef with their bare hands didn't wash them before touching other cooked food. That means that the pathogens from the raw beef—particularly E. coli, which causes more than 61,000 illnesses and 20 deaths a year—could spread from the beef to the cooked food leaving the kitchen.
2. About 40 percent of restaurants don't usually use separate cutting boards for raw chicken: That's according to the 448 kitchen managers the CDC interviewed in both independent and chain restaurants. About 25 percent of managers also said they don't often use disposable gloves when handling chicken.
3. Most managers don't know the safe cooking temperature for chicken: In that same group of 448 kitchen managers, only 194 knew the FDA-recommended cooking temperature for raw chicken (165 degrees Fahrenheit). About a quarter of the managers underestimated the correct temperature, and 33 admitted they had no clue. (Incredibly, one manager actually guessed 90 degrees—lower than a normal human body temperature. We hope he or she was thinking in Celsius.)
4. Almost half of chefs don't use a thermometer to make sure a burger is cooked: Out of 385 restaurants, the managers in 190 of them said that they "never" used thermometers to check when a burger was done, instead determining doneness by color or feel.
5 …and as a result, a bunch of burgers are coming out raw: CDC inspectors found that 12 percent of the 234 hamburgers they tested were undercooked (less than 155 degrees Fahrenheit). When customers ordered a burger medium-rare, that number rose significantly: 40 percent of those burgers were undercooked.
6. 40 percent of sick food workers didn't go home because they have no sick leave: Of 491 food workers, more than half said they had worked a shift while ill. One hundred twenty-seven of those workers indicated that they did so because they had no paid sick leave or sick leave policy. According to the CDC, a lot of these workers also didn't want to leave their coworkers short-staffed: "Social and personal concerns appear more likely to guide workers' decisions" than pay, the researchers wrote.
7. Seriously. The cook is vomiting: In that same group of workers,20 percent said they were vomiting or had diarrhea on at least one shift in 2012, and 12 percent indicated that they had those symptoms for at least two shifts.
8. Vegetarians aren't off the hook: Out of 37 "leafy green" shipments—like lettuce or spinach—almost half were not delivered at the recommended temperature of 41 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the CDC, keeping greens stored above that temperature promotes the growth of germs. Fortunately, two out of three managers at 411 restaurants said they had rejected a greens shipment because the produce was rotten or too warm.