News & Commentary

June 4, 2015

Hannah Belitz

Hannah Belitz is a student at Harvard Law School.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections announced that it will shut down its work program for prisoners. The New York Times reports that the program, which paid counties to take in state inmates in exchange for free labor (and shortened sentences for the prisoners) is slated to end on August 1. As critics have noted, prison labor isn’t “free,” and state officials have decided that the program is too costly to continue. But this change does not signal the end of prison labor. Local governments can still request the assistance of prisoners — only now the prisoners will be housed in existing state-owned community work centers.

According to Politico, House Republicans have rescinded an invitation to Brian Pannebecker to testify at a right-to-work hearing. The hearing at issue, “Compulsory Unionization through Grievance Fees: The NLRB’s Assault on Right-to-Work,” comes in response to the NLRB’s signal that it is considering allowing unions to collect fees from non-union employees who use union grievance procedures.

Is it possible for clothing companies to stop employing exploited labor? The Atlantic describes how the use of labor brokers leads to human trafficking and forced labor in Patagonia’s supply chain — but that given the complexity of supply chains, it is “near impossible” to ensure humane treatment of workers at each step in the production process.

The Los Angeles City Council has approved a law raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2020, the Los Angeles Times reports. This makes L.A. the largest city to require higher pay for its lowest-income workers, and may influence other cities to pass similar legislation. Although a number of other contentious issues remain undecided, the council members decided to approve the ordinance now in order to give workers and businesses time to prepare for the change.

The Wall Street Journal reports on the contentious issue of worker classification. A coalition of trade associations has asked Congress to stop the Labor Department from awarding grants used to prevent misclassification of workers as contractors instead of employees. The Labor Department began awarding $10 million in annual grants last year in an increased effort to prevent companies from evading certain taxes and avoiding paying for the benefits owed to full-time employees. The coalition argues that these grants incentivize state workers to “find misclassification where none exists.” In response, the Labor Department explains that its enforcement actions are necessary and effective.

Until now, Congress has been mostly silent on the issue of workers’ rights in industries like Uber and Handy. According to the Washington Post, Senator Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) hopes to change that. At a speech scheduled today at the New America Foundation, he plans to initiate a conversation about how to help part-time, independent contractors who work for Web-based service companies.

One day after Walmart announced it would increase its starting hourly wage for managers, company executives agreed to raise average store temperatures by one degree. The New York Times explains that the concession came in response to an employee rally, and is part of Walmart’s strategy to remake its image. Walmart also announced that it will ease its dress code and bring back an in-store broadcasting service.

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