Today’s News & Commentary — May 15, 2017

The New York Times describes in a feature how the Iranian economy has created serious unpredictability for individuals seeking jobs. The only stable jobs are in government, yet older individuals who currently have these jobs have stuck around; when they refrain from retiring, younger Iranians are caught in “a vicious cycle of hidden poverty.” The struggle to find consistent employment for a younger lower and middle class—many of whom have professional and advanced degrees—lies in contrast with the influx of money into Iran in recent years.

A feature in the Atlantic describes how men who have lost manufacturing jobs are becoming nurses or surgical technicians instead. The article explains how many of these have historically belonged to women, due to their lower pay and the perception that “jobs that require caring for and tending to others” are for women. Yet the stereotype is breaking down, as an increasing number of men—former plumbers and electricians—train to be registered nurses and radiation technicians.

The Ninth Circuit heard oral arguments today in an appeal of an injunction on President Trump’s second travel ban. The case, Hawaii v. Trump, is brought by the state on behalf of its residents, some of whom are immigrants who have work visas. The series of cases that arose after the President’s travel bans were signed have drawn participation from companies that rely on immigrants, who make up a significant part of their workforces.

Today’s News & Commentary — May 1, 2017

Happy May Day! Also known as International Workers’ Day (or Labour Day in many countries outside the U.S.), May 1st is celebrated by workers and unions around the world in honor of the Haymarket affair. As we noted yesterday, the tradition will continue in force today. Organized labor and immigration groups are set to protest throughout the country, especially the Bay Area, according to the Los Angeles Times. Today too marks the last day of the contract of the Writers Guild of America, meaning strikes could begin as soon as tomorrow.

Michael Grabell in the New Yorker has a lengthy feature on immigrant worker exploitation at Case Farms’ chicken plant. One of “most dangerous workplaces in America,” the plant recruits immigrants “who endure harsh and at times illegal conditions that few Americans would put up with.” Workers, however, find themselves in a bind when complaining about conditions and injuries as harsh immigration law penalties loom over them. And when workers successfully bring cases in front of the NLRB or other authorities, they often receive few actual remedies. Instead of fixing its labor conditions, however, Case Farms is hoping to get rid of them altogether—with automatic chicken deboners.

The U.K. House of Commons Work and Pension Committee just published a damning report on self-employment and the gig economy [PDF]. The report accuses companies like Uber and Amazon of avoiding paying taxes and “free-riding on the welfare state” by classifying workers as “self-employed,” and “rebuffs their claims to be providing flexibility for workers,” according to the Guardian. The report concludes that drivers should be by default assumed to have “worker” status, giving them more labor protections while still affording them plenty of flexibility.

Today’s News & Commentary — April 17, 2017

Why don’t all jobs matter? The provocative question is posed by Paul Krugman in today’s New York Times. Krugman questions why so much focus is on mining and manufacturing jobs, when the service sector—a much bigger slice of the economy—is dwindling. He points to several possible reasons, though complicates them all: the importance of mining jobs to local economies, the “political footballs” they have become, and the fact that miners and manufacturers tend to be white and male. Krugman ultimately concludes that saving jobs that are being lost may not be the smartest tack; instead, we should be investing in reeducation and guaranteeing benefits like health care.

Dylan Matthews of Vox summarizes a number of ideas—inspired largely by Europe—for how to save unions. First, unions could be organized on the sector level instead of on the company level, so all workers in a particular industry are affected. With less cross-company labor competition, the argument goes, businesses will be less union-averse. But how do you avoid the “free rider” problem, where, as in France, nearly every worker is covered by a collective bargaining agreement but fewer than 10% of workers are actually in unions? Some countries, like Denmark and Finland, have systems where unions run unemployment insurance, increasing the contact between the labor organizations and possible members. As Professor Sachs notes in the piece, however, such a change might be very tough during the Trump years.

Fast Company Co.Design covers a recent report by the Center for Business and Human Rights at NYU Stern School of Business on migrant workers. The report highlights how many of these workers end up paying to work: agents and recruiters require trumped-up fees and many workers end up dishing out extra for airline tickets and other documents. As the piece notes, “When you finally get to work, you might already owe a year’s worth of wages.”

Today’s News & Commentary — April 3, 2017

The New York Times has a thorough feature about how Uber is using “psychological tricks” to subtly control the drivers who use the service. The article focuses on how the company “solves” the problem of how it cannot exert too much control over its drivers—currently treated as independent contractors—by using inducements: alerts questioning decisions to log out of the app, reminders of monetary goals, and sending drivers their next ride even before their previous ride is over. In turning the app into a video game, the article—and several researchers it cites—argue that Uber is in reality asserting quite a bit of control over drivers.

California Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher plans to introduce a bill allowing gig economy workers—like Uber and Lyft drivers—to unionize, according to the Los Angeles Times. Fletcher introduced a bill last year attempting to do the same, but pulled it after facing both business and labor opposition. The California push comes at the heels of Seattle’s ordinance allowing ride-hailing drivers to unionize and New York City’s informal union affiliation.

Mother Jones has an article providing more detail into how a private prison company put detained immigrants to work without pay, leading to a lawsuit that was certified as a class action a little over a month ago. By using “voluntary” workers, the prison company—the GEO Group—plausibly saved hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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Today’s News & Commentary — March 20, 2017

While President Trump has launched a campaign against undocumented immigrants, his administration has not spoken out about the employers who hire them, notes the New York Times in an editorial today. Faulty enforcement and high evidentiary hurdles make holding employers accountable difficult. The Times faults the administration’s one-sided focus on demonizing immigrants while not providing a path to citizenship and putting money into (controversial) solutions to verify employment eligibility, like E-Verify.

Trump’s push to bring back coal jobs (“a delusion,” according to the New York Times in a separate editorial) is prompting Republican legislatures in coal country to reenact looser mine safety laws. Some lawmakers claim that the “federal government can do the inspections just as well as the states”—a seemingly out-of-character stance, until one looks at the current federal government, which has no interest in regulating coal companies and plans to cut the Department of Labor budget by 21%. Other legislatures are passing laws that cut down on annual safety checks (in exchange for a “‘safety analysis’ based on conversations with miners”) and proposing bills that lower standards.

A former law student of Neil Gorsuch claims that the Supreme Court nominee implied that women manipulate companies during interviews to gain maternity benefits, according to NPR. The former student wrote a letter detailing her class experience to Senate Judiciary Committee leaders, which was posted by the National Employment Lawyers Association and the National Women’s Law Center last night.

Labor secretary nominee Alex Acosta will be heard before the Senate HELP Committee this Wednesday, reports The Hill. Acosta, whose hearing was delayed once already, hasn’t faced the same level of criticism as former nominee Andy Puzder. Many are eager to learn more about the Labor tap, who has managed to avoid the spotlight and is a “blank page on policy,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

Today’s News & Commentary — March 6, 2017

The Atlantic interviews David Weil, who recently was in charge of the Department of Labor’s wage-and-hour division, on the future of the Department under President Trump. Trump has spoken out about helping the “forgotten worker,” but if that simply means coal and manufacturing jobs, most workers will be left behind. Weil weighs in on what he thinks the biggest accomplishments during the Obama era were—and what is at stake over the next four years.

A federal judge recently certified a class action covering tens of thousands of immigrants who claim they were detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and forced to work for $1 a day—if any money at all. According to the Washington Post, the lawsuit is aimed at the GEO Group, which runs ICE’s Denver Contract Detention Facility, a private prison that houses thousands of people at any given time. Plaintiffs are alleging that the forced labor violates the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a law that prohibits slavery.

“Here’s the Reality About Illegal Immigrants in the United States.” The New York Times has a thorough feature on undocumented individuals. The piece explains where they have come from, their ties to America, and settles myths being perpetuated by the current administration. The article also covers the strategies many have taken to work in this country—strategies, like driving without a license or using a fake Social Security Number—that President Trump is now targeting.

Today’s News & Commentary — February 20, 2017

A former Uber engineer, Susan Fowler Rigetti, penned a brave blog post yesterday detailing her repeated sexist treatment while working for the ride-hailing company. She writes about being harassed; how she and other women engineers were discriminated against; and how Uber’s management and human resources were not just unresponsive, but actively fought back against her. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal report how, later yesterday, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick announced that the company would be launching an investigation into the allegations.

In the Washington Post, Jared Bernstein reminds us why the Department of Labor is so important in today’s times. Specifically, Bernstein talks about the “fissured workplace,” the term coined by David Weil to describe an increasing distance between employers and workers due to franchising, subcontracting, and outsourcing. This reality led the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division—which was run by Weil during the Obama Administration—to be more proactive about monitoring FLSA violations. Furthermore, such a “fissuring” places renewed importance on divisions within the department like OSHA.

Acquisitions and sales are adding to worker tensions overseas. McDonald’s may sell its Hong Kong and China operations to a large franchisee, which the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions warns may affect worker pay. Currently most workers earn just above the current minimum wage in Hong Kong—roughly $4.20 per hour. In the UK, General Motors may sell their Vauxhall business to the French car company PSA, according to Reuters. The purchase is being influenced by “overcapacity at existing sites, Britain’s move to leave the European Union and pension liabilities,” prompting talks with trade unions.