Truthout Stories Sun, 19 Apr 2015 18:53:53 -0400 en-gb 781 Million People Can't Read This Story

If you are reading this article, consider yourself one of the lucky ones; lucky enough to have received an education, or to be secure in the knowledge that your child will receive one. Lucky enough to be literate in a world where – more often than not – the ability to read and write can mean the difference between a decent life and abject poverty.

In the 15 years since the landmark World Education Forum in Senegal’s capital Dakar laid out six ambitious education targets agreed upon by 164 governments, a lot has changed.

For one thing, 34 million more children have attended school as a result of policies rolled out under the Education for All (EFA) initiative; the number of children out of school has been halved since the year 2000; and many countries have made great strides towards bringing as many girls into classrooms as boys.

But dig a little deeper and the good news gives way to a bleak reality. According to the most recent EFA Global Monitoring Report released Thursday by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), “There are still 58 million children out of school globally and around 100 million children who do not complete primary education. Inequality in education has increased, with the poorest and most disadvantaged shouldering the heaviest burden.

“The world’s poorest children are four times more likely not to go to school than the world’s richest children, and five times more likely not to complete primary school,” the report stated, adding, “Despite all efforts by governments, civil society and the international community, the world has not achieved Education for All.”

Six goals: A mixed report card

Given the vast spectrum of cultures, economies and political ideologies represented by the 164 governments in Dakar in 2000, the six targets agreed upon reflected some of the most urgent and universal challenges facing the world today: early childhood education and care; universal primary education; youth and adult skills; adult literacy; gender equality; and the quality of education.

Although the pre-primary school enrolment rate has improved by two-thirds since 1999, and the primary net enrolment rate is set to reach 93 percent by the end of the year, the fact remains that one in six children in low or middle-income countries – roughly one million kids in total – will not be in school at the time of the 2015 deadline.

Only 69 percent of countries studied will have achieved gender parity at the primary level by 2015, a number that falls to just 48 percent for secondary education. Although governments agreed in 2000 to halve the global illiteracy rate by 2015, a four-percent reduction is all that has so far been achieved.

Katie Malouf Bous, a policy advisor for Oxfam International based in Washington DC, told IPS the results of the monitoring report showed “a mixed bag, very uneven across different countries.”

She stressed that the widening of inequalities in education access and outcomes was a worrying trend, adding that there is an urgent need to “redouble investments in public education and make sure those investments are being targeted at the right communities and children.”

According to a March 2015 UNESCO policy paper, “The annual total cost of achieving universal pre-primary, primary and lower secondary education in low and lower-middle income countries is projected to increase from 100 billion dollars in 2012 to 239 billion dollars, on average, between 2015 and 2030.”

The policy brief went on to say that “the total annual financing gap between available domestic resources and the amount necessary to reach the new education targets is projected to average 22 billion dollars between 2015 and 2030.”

This funding gap proves that most governments are failing to allocate the required 20 percent of national budgets, or four percent of annual gross national product (GNP), on education.

Asia-Pacific: Is the region pulling its weight?

According to Oxfam’s Bous, “One of the things we’re really worried about is the trend we see of the state pushing some of its responsibilities on to the private sector, and focusing on low-cost private schools or public-private partnerships to deliver education.”

“We believe this is only deepening educational inequalities, particularly in the Asia region, where a lot of donor-driven initiatives are supporting low-cost private schools, which are basically profit-making schools that charge fees from poorer families […],” she explained.

Home to four of the world’s six billion people, the Asia-Pacific region is rife with inequality, a situation that will only worsen unless governments take the necessary steps to educate this massive population. Currently, one-third of all students between six and 18 years of age in South Asia attend private rather than public schools.

A 2015 study by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) revealed that over 40 percent of all out-of-school adolescents live in South Asia, with Pakistan alone accounting for one-half of that figure.

In a 2014 regional report tracking progress on Education for All, UNESCO noted that five of the so-called E-9 countries, defined as the world’s most populous developing nations, were in Asia: Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan.

Together, they accounted for some 45 percent of the total global enrolment in primary education and 80 percent of the Asia-Pacific region’s total enrolment in 2009, according to UNCEF.

While these states have made great strides in bringing children into the classrooms, they account for millions of out-of-school youth, most of whom will never receive a proper education.

This has major implications for the economic health of the entire region, which already hosts 64 percent of the world’s illiterate adults – roughly 497 million people as of 2014.

While 10 countries in the region have achieved universal (99 percent or more) participation in primary education, with nine countries on track to achieve the goal by the end of the year according to UNESCO, survival rates remain a challenge, with nations like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and the Solomon Islands experiencing difficulty in retaining students up until the last year of primary school, let alone ensuring that they will enroll in – or complete – a secondary education.

As the U.N. moves closer to finalising its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), education experts around the world are pushing urgently for policies that direct all necessary funds, energy and action into the classrooms – where the futures of many developing nations will either be made or broken in the coming decade.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

News Sun, 19 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
How Much Student Testing Is Too Much?

Washington - If it’s springtime, it must be standardized testing time in schools across the country.

It’s also when the debate over whether students are inundated with too many tests becomes hot.

Experts say testing is up. Parents who want their children to skip the tests say their ranks are growing. Lawmakers say they’re hearing a loud message about too much unnecessary testing.

The Common Core, a set of tougher classroom standards adopted by more than 40 states, has further inflamed the critics.

But new legislation might change the school testing landscape.

Congress will debate education this spring as lawmakers attempt to rewrite No Child Left Behind, the law spelling out the federal role in public education. Passed in 2002, it mandated annual testing and attached severe consequences for schools whose test scores didn’t show enough progress.

A bipartisan agreement in the Senate on its update of the education bill might reduce the pressure to test. It gives states, not Washington, the job of ensuring that schools are doing good work and deciding what to do about those that aren’t.

The legislation “should produce fewer and more appropriate tests,” according to Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

That’s still down the road. What’s new this year is that for the first time most states are using new computer-based tests that require more critical thinking.

What’s not are the complaints. Some parents worry that schools base their lesson plans on what the tests focus on. Poor test-takers are at a disadvantage. Critics say too much money is spent on testing. The consequences of failure can mean closed schools, lost jobs and an impact on student progress.

“We need fewer, better and fairer assessments,” Susie Morrison, chief education officer and deputy superintendent at the Illinois State Board of Education, said at a recent meeting of state school officials in Washington.

Parents deserve to know how their children are doing, she said. Tests also are needed to help reduce the large numbers of students who graduate from high school but need remedial classes before college.

But not all tests are equally valuable, she said: “Some assessments used by local districts can and should go away, in our opinion.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who wants to maintain the federal role of holding schools accountable for student growth through annual tests, nonetheless has said that students, parents and teachers have a legitimate complaint where there’s too much testing or test preparation.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools were required to show “adequate yearly progress” or face outside intervention, which could result in school takeovers.

Waivers from the law’s requirements under the Obama administration came with conditions that schools base teacher evaluations partly on test scores.

“There’s always been a group of parents that don’t like testing,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education research center. “I think the reason it’s been brought to a rapid boil lately is because of these teacher evaluations.”

Tests that states require to measure progress in math and reading cover about 20 percent of teachers, Petrilli said. Many states have standardized tests in other subjects so that all teachers can be evaluated by the results.

“It’s not just the assessments that they actually take as part of the state assessment program, it’s the constant benchmarking and practice tests that take up a significant amount of students’ time,” said Scott Placek, president of the Texas Parents’ Educational Rights Network, a coalition of parents and attorneys that supports parents who don’t want their children to take the tests.

In North Carolina, the Governor’s Teacher Advisory Committee recommended ways to alleviate what it called the testing burden on the district level. It also found that the state had reduced the number of required end-of-course tests from 10 to three in the past five years and had eliminated other state-required assessments.

Texas and Virginia passed laws that reduced the number of state-required tests.

In Florida, Rosemarie Jensen of Parkland, one of the national administrators of the United Opt Out movement, a group that opposes “test-centric educational practices,” said she’d seen big growth in the last year in the number of parents nationwide who’d been organizing in opposition to the tests and keeping their children from taking them.

In Florida, such groups have grown from a few to 26 this year. A map by Jensen’s group pinpoints parents who report they’ve refused to let their children take the tests. It shows them scattered nationwide.

“This is not a valid way to measure an entire child,” said Jensen, a former kindergarten and first-grade teacher who’s the mother of two high school students. “None of this has anything to do with better education. This is about a lot of money being made on these tests, and on using the tests to grade schools and turn them over to charters and firing teachers and impacting their pay.”

In her own family, Jensen said, her son, a ninth-grader, is a good student but a poor test-taker. Her daughter, a senior, does well on tests.

“Her test scores can mask some not-so-good teachers,” she said. “My son’s make his teachers look bad, and they work so hard with him. That’s not fair.”

Debbie Veney, vice president of government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, an advocacy group that focuses on students of color and those from low-income families, said too many tests were redundant, not aligned to standards or just not useful.

“However, are tests necessary? Absolutely,” she said. “We believe it’s not enough to simply see what performance levels are. You’ve got to be able to do something when performance levels aren’t where they need to be.”

Stu Silberman, a former school superintendent who’s executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a nonprofit group of advocates in Kentucky, said school districts must find a balance so that they could be accountable to the public without testing too much.

Silberman said he was a big believer in the informal tests teachers used all the time to see how students were doing, such as quizzes. These kinds of checks give teachers the clues they need to plan their lessons, he said.

But when tests get too formal, and too frequent, he said, “then it starts to feel like we’re doing too much.”

News Sun, 19 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Air Force Base Names Homophobic, Anti-Semitic Chaplain as "Officer of the Year"

A major war is being viciously waged against the United States of America, a war that’s global in scope and poses a terrifying threat to our national security interests. The ruthless attacks, which this conflict has generated, have inflicted grievous damage to nothing less than the U.S. Constitution itself, as well as the foundational core values of the United States armed forces. While the mainstream media has been woefully asleep regarding this raging conflict, the Pentagon has verified through its own official publications that the war has already led to vast transformations within the armed forces. Religious fanatics are spearheading this pernicious worldwide campaign and, no, I’m NOT referring to Shia or Sunni Islamic jihadists…. but “jihadist” was a good guess. I’m referring, of course, to our very own fire and brimstone fundamentalist Christian crusaders, both within uniform and without, who have seemingly infiltrated every echelon of the United States armed forces. These religious extremists are bolstered by legions of civilian zealots, parachurch organizations, legislators, and persons of influence who are carrying out their own grievous massacre of bedrock civil rights under the banner of “religious freedom.”

You want the latest proof? Witness the appalling appellation and homage recently given to USAF Chaplain (Capt.) Sonny Hernandez, 445th Airlift Wing Chaplain Corps: freshly crowned as the "Air Force Life Cycle Management Center Individual Mobilization Accession Company Grade Officer of the Year" at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, in Dayton, Ohio. The official statement regarding this newly benighted Company Grade Officer of the Year sounds wonderfully amazing and ecumenical. Well, don’t cue the U.S. Air Force band rendition of Kumbaya yet, folks – the plot’s about to thicken with bountiful bile and phlegm.

Upon reading the generic claptrap emanating from Wright-Patterson AFB’s Public Affairs department, we at the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) had a hunch. Indeed, a simple Google search for Chaplain Hernandez and a brief perusal of his sermons indicate that the man is not only a fanatical, fundamentalist Christian supremacist, but he’s also an egregious homophobe and classic anti-Semite.

Just take the sermon “Wrath of God,” which Hernandez delivered at his church, Sovereign Grace Baptist Church in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. I invite those who can stomach such violent hatred to try, and try hard, to listen to this putrid, bigoted oration. In it, the Chaplain stormily decries “abominations” deserving the “hatred of God about the perfect justice of God Almighty which is going to come upon those who loathe at his sovereignty. To those who burn with enmity against his law and his good works which have clearly been manifested throughout history, this is clearly his righteous judgment that’s going to take place upon those who bathe in their sin and boast in their debauchery.” Later on in the sermon, Hernandez provides us with an example of such “perfect justice” in the form of a howlingly moronic explanation of a virus “many of you may have heard of the virus called HIV,” a “due penalty” for the “detestable and abominable” act of homosexual love. In true quack fashion, the hate-preacher then uses cherry-picked statistics to buttress the radical right-wing canard of HIV being a “gay thing,” a consequence of his claim that “God gave them over to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” and that God has thus abandoned them.

Hernandez then takes the time to veer from the topic of “perversion” into theological anti-Semitism, claiming, “It's almost identical to how Jesus was delivered into the hands of wicked men.  In Mark 15:15, the Bible tells us that Pilate wishing to satisfy the Jews released for them Barabbas and then what happened? They scourged Jesus and delivered him to be crucified.” Wow, “Pilate wishing to satisfy the Jews?” This Air Force unit’s “Officer of the Year" blames “the Jews” in classic Old School anti-Semitic fashion despite the fact that Mark 15:15 doesn’t say “Jews” - it says, “the crowd” or “the people.”

In the sick mind of Hernandez (and sadly, to the “flock” he propagandizes with searing prejudice every Sunday) such bitterly hateful bigotry is “true love,” and those Christians who disagree with him are themselvesabominable, unprofitable, and unqualified for every good work, grace or mercy under heaven.

As a civil rights foundation which represents over 41,000 active duty, veteran, and civilian military personnel, about 96% of whom are practicing Christians themselves, we at the MRFF have long been wise to the fact that the DoD Chaplaincy is riddled with absolute bigots of the likes of USAF Poster Child Hernandez. You know, the types of major league religious extremist creeps who make Tomas de Torquemada seem like a career minor leaguer – and they’re as ubiquitous as cockroaches. For every anti-Constitutional dominionist theocrat discovered in the U.S. armed forces, there are thousands of others, big and small, hiding furiously and burrowing into the Pentagon’s worldwide woodwork. And you had better be sure that they’re laying their perverse proselytizing eggs with reckless, unconstitutional abandon.

In such conditions of almost unimaginable infestation, we “pest control experts” at MRFF were NOT at all surprised by the fact that the senior leadership at the 445th Airlift Wing saw fit to reward Hernandez for his loathsome “spiritual labor.” 

Now dear readers THINK, please, what all of this crap actually means. Ponder the far-reaching ramifications of what the U.S. Air Force has just done here. It has just singled out for magnificent and honorable recognition, in stiff competition no doubt, this particular virulently gay-bashing, homophobic chaplain who-for good measure- still blatantly blames “the Jews” for killing Jesus. Ah, yes that ol’ anti-Semitic blood libel still plays so well in 2015, eh, bro? Hey, got Vatican II, Chaplain Hernandez? Ruminate, just for a quick second here, on the clear message sent by the Air Force in officially so honoring and rewarding an officer festooned with such blood-curdling hatred for others. T-H-I-N-K, dammit!

After all, this is the same U.S. Air Force that assigned a fundamentalist Christian “'ex-gay' therapist,” Mike Rosebush, to a titular role at the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA) Center for Character and Leadership Development. This is the same U.S. Air Force which trumpeted quite institutionally the virulently anti-Jewish Christian snuff porn, The Passion of the Christ, back in 2004 while my two Jewish sons and Christian future daughter-in-law were attending USAFA. Indeed, this is the very same film which also spews the same ancient anti-Semitic Jew-baiting slurs repeated by Hernandez. And most recently, this is also the same U.S. Air Force which apparently left unpunished Colonel Mark H. Slocum, Commander of Seymour Johnson AFB’s 4th Fighter Wing in North Carolina, after he claimed that the U.S. is “Doing the Lord’s Work” (i.e. embarking on a Crusade) in the Middle East. Oh, yes indeed, and the very same U.S. Air Force which has officially sanctioned its armed, uniformed Security Force gate guards at Robins AFB, Georgia, to “assess" all who enter the base with that oh-so-sweet greeting of “Have a blessed day.” Oh, and let’s recall that this deplorable decision to allow the sectarian "gate blessings” came merely two days after the Security Forces squadron commander ordered his troops to cease and desist from blessing all entrants literally within 3 minutes and 10 seconds after MRFF's demands were made to him on behalf of numerous MRFF clients (most of them Christians) at Robins AFB.

So, my friends, the next time some fanatical Jesus freak from the “Family" Research Council, the American “Family" Association or the “Liberty" Institute (or some other Orwellian-named fundamentalist Christian hate-group) comes along and tries to sell you the unadulterated crap that the U.S. military under President Obama has become a “hostile environment for Christians,” in general, and hideously hostile to those poor, oppressed, pious military chaplains (like “Officer of the Year" Chaplain Hernandez) in particular, inquire about whether they also have some magic beans or love potions to sell you. You may then inform them with the cold, hard, irrefutable facts of the uber-dominating, Dominionist Christian influence pervading our armed forces, and the war on realreligious liberty that is being waged. 

Question: Are Americans REALLY so breathtakingly gullible and willfully ignorant as to believe the pathetic and terribly transparent con-job of “persecution” and victimization being fraudulently sold by the radical right-wing Christian faux-“religious liberty” movement?  If the answer is yes, then it won’t be long before we find ourselves in the grizzly grip of a theocratic dictatorship of Christian fundamentalism/totalitarianism at the helm of the most lethal military apparatus devised in the history of humankind; the United States military. 

Up is now down, black is now white and sunny day is now rainy day? Designating a hate-monger like Capt. (Chaplain) Hernandez as its USAF’s unit’s "Officer of the Year" Poster Child provides a terrifying glimpse into just what such a near term futuristic catastrophe awaits us all if we don’t act passionately and tirelessly to STOP it and demand DoD adherence to the United States Constitution.

Opinion Sun, 19 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Getting Better Organized: San Francisco's Fight for $15 and a Union

The Fight for $15 minimum wage campaign came to San Francisco in the very early hours of April 15.

Around 100 protestors assembled at 6am and then marched very orderly through the doors, packed the dining area and shut down for one hour the McDonalds in the heart of the city’s Latino Mission district, an area which itself is a focal point of the city’s gentrification and displacement of working class residents.

Speakers spoke inside with bullhorns, something that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago when arrests would have been certain. The political climate has dramatically changed in a very short time.

A majority of Americans support the message that was heard loud and clear today, “workers need a raise, a big raise!”

Demonstrators came from unions and numerous local community groups and included two San Francisco Board of Supervisors and Mike Casey, president of the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

Among them also was SEIU international president Mary Kay Henry who announced to the cheering crowd that “Fight for $15 and a Union” actions were occurring in “125 cities across the world in solidarity with protests held in 230 cities in the U.S.”

Organizers pointed out this was the largest mobilization of underpaid workers in history.

Yet, even though $15 an hour represents a doubling of the pitiful federal minimum wage, all the speakers recognized it was only the beginning.

The common thread of the newly emerging movements like “Black Lives Matter,” “OUR Walmart” and “Fight for $15,” UNITE-HERE Local 2 Food Service Director Anand Singh told me, is that all our particular social concerns “come together by fighting against economic inequality, which is the next step enabling working people to make some gains.”

On that point, San Francisco’s widening income gap stands as the most extensive in the country and, a startling disclosure for many, it is actually rated in the world alongside Rwanda when using the World Bank’s poverty gap index.

As a result, the city’s character and composition are rapidly changing.

Figures bear this out.

For example, the Black community is at a new low of only 3% of the population with the largest recorded migration out of any city since post-Katrina New Orleans.

Meanwhile, the city calculated in the last 10 years that 6000 new residents making more than $100,000 a year had replaced 8000 Latino residents who left the Mission neighborhood in that same period of time.

Anticipating the changing neighborhood, even the Mission district McDonalds being protested got a seven-figure upscale makeover a few years back. It now has low-hanging soft lights, cozy lounge cubicles, attractive brown wood paneling and a minimalist version of the gaudy, yellow corporate logo; thus begging the question – don’t the workers deserve better?

The answer from protestors was loud and clear: “Hold the Burgers. Hold the Fries. We want our wages Supersized!”

Protestors left after one hour for more actions being held throughout the Bay Area on an upbeat and enthusiastic note with a slogan that one would think would be very hard to rhythmically chant and it is probably for this reason that I had not heard it before.

But, it worked today, time and time again, capturing the energy and determination of protestors – “I Believe! – that We Will Win!”

Big Bang Moment Grows Into Big Movement

The social and economic justice movements of today can easily trace their origins to the Occupy Wall St. encampments that began on Sept. 17, 2011.

Their message of income inequality exploded unto the political scene like nothing seen before. After only three weeks, protests were happening in over 951 cities across 82 countries and in over 600 communities in the United States.

We owe a great debt to this movement. Its meteoric rise can truly be described as the century’s first political “Big Bang.” But Occupy Wall St. clearly also had some of the chaos and disorganization associated with that first cosmic explosion in nature.

Much has changed since, in a good way.

For example, the movements mentioned previously, “Black Lives Matter,” “OUR Walmart,” and “Fight for $15,” are much better organized than during Occupy Wall St. days.

The new movements today have a recognized leadership, a national and even international coordinated organizing strategy and a clear and focused series of demands.

These are huge political conquests, lessons learned from the best days of the labor, anti-Vietnam War, civil rights, women’s rights and gay liberation movements, yet, none of these were present during the exuberant days of Occupy Wall St where leadership, organization and coordination were frowned upon.

The demand for $15 an hour minimum wage is a good example of this progress. It is simple, clear, specific, easily understood and, very important, achievable. Though quite bold and in stark contrast to the cowardly timid proposals coming out of Washington politicians from both major parties, the slogan is still quite reasonable.

It, therefore, appeals to millions of Americans, captures the spotlight and becomes in many ways the focus of a national discussion about poverty and income inequality in America.

“We are turning the conversation,” executive director Tim Paulson, San Francisco Labor Council, told me, “away from attacking workers’ wages and pensions into supporting a living wage for all. It’s something that resonates with millions across the political spectrum and across every region.”

Nationally and internationally coordinated actions are also a major achievement for all these newly emerging movements. Ferguson activists are truly not alone and neither are WalMart or fast-food employees.

Another suggestion is for the three movements specifically mentioned in this article to each consider national conferences that could feature prominent guests from around the globe that share their common concerns of economic and social justice.

Again, labor unions regularly do this as have other past social movements.

It would be a good bet that thousands of young college and community activists would flood to a gathering that would give them a chance to be heard and a chance to further plan coordinated actions that have been so instrumental in growing the movement.

In any case, street protests are already doing a great job of linking issues of social justice, mostly affecting minorities and women, with economic inequality that affects male and female working people of all colors, thus laying the basis for a majority coalition that can change our country.

Opinion Sun, 19 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The War on (Poor) Women

Woman silhouette(Image: Woman silhouette via Shutterstock)

The use of women’s sexuality to diminish their place in the public sphere through restricted access to reproductive healthcare has rightly been called a war on women.  Notoriously, former Missouri representative Todd Akin, during his unsuccessful 2012 U.S. Senate campaign, explained his opposition to abortion in cases of rape by saying, “if it’s legitimate rape, the female body has ways to shut that whole thing down.”

More recently, possible 2016 Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee endorsed his party’s opposition to insurance coverage for contraception as reflective of its certainty that women “can control their libidos.”

Importantly, the legislative consequences of such sentiments amount not only to a war on women generally but, cumulatively, to a war on poor women specifically. This expresses itself in two related ways. First, many of the obstacles that now impede access to abortion make it more expensive, which disproportionately affects women of lesser financial means. Second, statewide campaigns to ostensibly end abortion have led to the closure of numerous women’s health centers, a primary source of care for poor women.

A signal achievement of Second Wave Feminism was the extension to poorer women of greater access to a full range of healthcare, frequently with the assistance of federal and state financial support. Across the country, women’s health centers have met a critical need for low-income patients in the arena of reproductive health.  But as in so many other areas of social policy in recent years, dwindling political support for public programs is felt most acutely by those most in need.

Since 2011, state legislatures across the country, especially in middle and southern states, have enacted a combined 231 restrictions on abortion and the facilities that provide them, even though abortions actually constitute a small percentage of the health services offered at women’s clinics (only 3 percent at Planned Parenthood).  Rather, care mostly involves pregnancy prevention, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, annual gynecological exams, and cancer screenings. For many poor women, these clinics provide their only means to obtain such medical treatment. Lack of reproductive healthcare for these women has become yet another cost of poverty in an unequal nation where the have-nots continue to expand.

These various state laws include mandatory counseling and/or waiting periods prior to an abortion; restrictions or outright bans on insurance coverage for abortions, including insurance acquired through the marketplace exchanges associated with the Affordable Care Act or through Medicaid; and what has become known as targeted regulation of abortion providers, or TRAP.

In the name of protecting women’s health, some TRAP laws require that abortion providers must have admitting privileges at a local hospital, which is not always granted, while others mandate that facilities that offer abortions meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers, despite the well-documented safety of abortion procedures in a clinic setting. All of this amounts to logistical and cost-prohibitive measures that frequently result in a women’s health center closing.

As a result of TRAP laws in Texas, the nation’s second most populous state, for example, the number of facilities that provide abortion has declined by half since late 2013.  And most recently in the Lone Star State the Senate, in a not-so-thinly-veiled attempt to shutter the remaining Planned Parenthood centers, has proposed to alter the distribution of funding for clinics that provide cancer screenings for low-income women.

Under the new system, the establishment of funding tiers would rank public entities at the top of potential recipients, followed by private clinics that offer cancer screenings as part of a comprehensive set of health services, and then private specialty clinics, such as Planned Parenthood, making it unlikely that any funds would remain to allocate to those facilities at the bottom of the list. The proposal also risks the loss to the state of $8.8 million in federal money to support the program, which constitutes about 75 percent of its funding. In other words, in an effort to shut down Planned Parenthood, Texas legislators have indicated a willingness to jeopardize the lives of low-income women.

Fewer women’s health clinics increases both the financial costs and the practical difficulties of accessing not only abortion but other healthcare services, particularly for women in rural areas.  As the geographic distance to a dwindling number of clinics grows, increased travel related expenses include overnight accommodations, additional childcare, and more un-paid time off work, all of which is in addition to the cost of the abortion procedure itself that, because of various state laws, may not be not covered by insurance.

These logistical complications also make obtaining other reproductive healthcare prohibitively expensive and impractical for many women.  Seventy-nine percent of the patients seen at Planned Parenthood facilities across the country have incomes at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level.

The war on women, as enacted in the arena of reproductive politics, affects all women in its attempt to control women’s lives by controlling their bodies. While inconvenient and burdensome, however, financial barriers to health coverage are more easily borne by women of economic means. Meanwhile, poor women’s health has fallen victim to these policy decisions, not unlike many of those over the last three decades, that have exacerbated economic inequality. Ultimately, these policies further punish women for being poor.

News Sun, 19 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Cyclone Pam Worsens Hardship in Port Vila's Urban Settlements

A cyclone hit the islands of Vanuatu in mid-March, destroying about 80% of the buildings.A cyclone hit the islands of Vanuatu in mid-March, destroying about 80 percent of the buildings. (Photo: ausnewsde /

Severe Tropical Cyclone Pam, which swept through the South Pacific Island state of Vanuatu in mid-March, has deepened hardships faced by people living in the informal settlements of the capital, Port Vila. Winds of up to 340 kph and torrential rain shattered precarious homes, cut off fragile public services and flooded communities with unsealed roads, poor drainage and sanitation.

“Eighty percent of my community has been affected by the cyclone,” Joel, a Port Vila resident, told IPS, describing that his house was damaged by gale force winds. “We have enough food, but the quality of the water has been very bad.”

Other city residents saw their homes completely destroyed. In the last week, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) found 50 people still sheltering in a shed-like structure in the informal settlements a month after the cyclone. They are in need of food, water and sanitation as they wait for assistance to rebuild their homes.

Vanuatu is an archipelago of more than 80 islands and an estimated 265,000 people located northeast of Australia. Sixty-three percent of the population, or close to 166,000 people, were affected by Cyclone Pam, which counted a death toll of 11 and is thought to be the worst natural disaster in the country’s history.

The main urban centre of Port Vila, situated on the southwest coast of Efate Island, is very exposed to severe weather and sea surges. An estimated 30-40 percent of its 44,000 residents live in informal settlements, such as Freswota and Seaside. Here, sub-standard housing, inadequate basic services and overcrowding all contribute to a poverty rate of 18 percent in Port Vila, in contrast to 10 percent in rural areas.

In the wake of Cyclone Pam, Peter Korisa, operations manager at Vanuatu’s National Disaster Management Office, said, “Most of the displaced in urban and peri-urban areas have been highly devastated and are vulnerable to future shocks. The scale of devastation to homes and infrastructure is huge. Bridges and roads have also been damaged and that will definitely be a high cost in the recovery effort.”

Frido Herinckx, head of the International Red Cross support team in Vanuatu, told IPS that he had witnessed serious damage in the urban settlements. “During the first week after the cyclone there were 43 evacuation centres in Port Vila supporting 4,000-5,000 people,” he said.

United Nations Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said this past Friday that only 36 percent of the U.N.’s ‘flash appeal’ for 30 million dollars has so far been pledged. He called attention to the fact that 111,000 people have no access to safe drinking water, and warned that the destruction of 90 percent of the country’s crops spelled danger for those who rely on agriculture for a livelihood.

While most people live in rural areas, urbanisation, driven by people seeking jobs and services, is happening at a rapid rate of four percent in Vanuatu, exceeding the state’s capacity to scale up urban planning. One quarter of the national population is now urban and that is predicted to increase to 53 percent by 2050.

Situated on the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’ and in a tropical climate zone south of the equator, with a cyclone season from November to April, the developing island state is vulnerable to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, cyclones and tsunamis.

It has been hit by at least 20 damaging cyclones in the past 25 years and only one year has passed since Cyclone Lusi impacted 20,000 people across northern and central provinces, destroying villages and crops, in 2014. According to the United Nations, Vanuatu has the most exposed population to natural disasters in the world, at 63.6 percent.

The vulnerability of the urban population is heightened by the makeshift state of 27 percent of houses in the capital. Constructing a strong, resilient house is too expensive and financial credit is unaffordable for many residents who live on low wages.

In the Freswota settlement area, home to 7,000-8,000 people, Chief Kalanga Sawia explained, “The government’s objective is to provide housing for the people, but they can only provide the land. The government doesn’t have the financial resources to build houses as well.”

Therefore, people have turned to building improvised dwellings as best they can with salvaged or cheaply bought materials, such as timber, corrugated iron, tin and fabric.

While power, water and communication services were all crippled by the disaster, Herinckx said, “[B]asic services are now back to the state they were before the cyclone, which is not optimal.”

Residents of the Freswota 2 sub-settlement, for instance, usually have access to a water supply, but only half have electricity. Across the country, only 28 percent of people have access to electricity and 64 percent to sanitation.

Recognising the threat disasters pose to lives, development efforts and the economy, the Vanuatu Government has worked to strengthen the nation’s disaster preparedness.

Nine years ago, it became the first Pacific Island country to integrate disaster risk management into national planning and, in 2013, a new state-of-the-art disaster warning centre capable of monitoring volcanic, seismic, and tsunami activity, operating 24/7, opened in Port Vila.

As Cyclone Pam approached, new technology was used to issue warnings and advice to people via text messages, reaching more than 80 percent of the population.

However, as one of the world’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Vanuatu has minimal capacity to cope with the relentless destructive toll of catastrophes year upon year. Korisa, of the National Disaster Management Office, claims that post-disaster recovery in Port Vila’s settlements will be very slow and hindered by land tenure issues, finance and resource constraints.

Currently the Red Cross is helping people in the settlements to build back better after the cyclone “by advising people on simple methods of building homes so they are more stress resistant,” Herinckx said.

But looking to the future, Korisa emphasised that more investment is needed in urban disaster risk reduction measures.

“For instance, the building code needs to be applied and enforced in all dwellings, including private, commercial and public buildings, and land use planning policy needs to be improved and implemented.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

News Sun, 19 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Will BRICS Carbon Traders Bailout Bankers' Climate Strategy?

The hope for our collective survival in the face of a likely climate catastrophe has been vested in a combination of multilateral emissions rearrangements and national regulation. But the premise behind the core strategy must be debated.

Pirapora, Brazil.Pirapora, Brazil. (Photo: guilherme/Flickr)

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The hope for our collective survival in the face of a likely climate catastrophe has been vested in a combination of multilateral emissions rearrangements and national regulation. But the premise behind the core strategy—the 1997 Kyoto Protocol—must be debated. Assuming a degree of state subsidization and increasingly stringent caps on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, Kyoto posited that market-centric strategies such as emissions trading schemes and offsets can allocate costs and benefits appropriately so as to shift the burden of mitigation and carbon sequestration most efficiently. Current advocates of emissions trading still insist that this strategy will be effective once the largest new emitters in the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) bloc are integrated in world carbon markets.

As climate crisis looms ever larger on the horizon, the demise of the Kyoto Protocol’s binding emissions-cuts commitments on wealthier countries will in the near future compel from them a renewed effort to promote market-incentivized reductions. In spite of widely-acknowledged market failure in the emissions trade, especially in Europe, several “emerging markets,” especially the BRICS, have begun the process of setting up or expanding their carbon trading and offset strategies now that (since 2012) they no longer qualify for Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) credits. The Kyoto Protocol had made provision for low-income countries to receive CDM funds for emissions reductions in specific projects, but the system was subject to repeated abuse.

Yet attempts to resurrect market strategies will become more visible as the next global-scale climate treaty takes shape in December 2015 at the Paris summit of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Most notably, that 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) is anticipated to remove the critical “Common but Differentiated Responsibility” clause that traditionally separated national units of analysis by per capita wealth.

The COP21 appears to already have been forestalled in late 2014 by the climate agreement between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama, representing the two largest absolute GHG emitters. That deal ensures world catastrophe, for in it China only begins to reduce emissions in 2030 and the U.S. commitment (easily reversed by post-Obama presidents) is merely to reduce emissions by 15% from 1990 levels by 2025. The BRICS bloc’s role in forging inadequate global climate policy of this sort dates to the 2009 Copenhagen Accord at the COP15 when a side-deal between Obama and four of the five BRICS’ leaders derailed the much more ambitious UNFCCC.

The failure of the carbon markets to date, especially the 2008-14 price crash which at one point reached 90% from peak to trough, does not prevent another major effort by states to subsidize the bankers’ solution to climate crisis. The indicators of this strategy’s durability already include commodification of nearly everything that can be seen as a carbon sink, especially forests but also agricultural land and even the ocean’s capacity to sequester carbon dioxide (CO2) for photosynthesis via algae. The financialization of nature is proceeding rapidly, bringing with it all manner of contradictions.

Due to internecine competition-in-laxity between COP negotiators influenced by national fossil fuel industries, the UN summits appear unable to either cap or regulate GHG pollution at its source, or jump-start the emissions trade in which so much hope is placed. European and United Nations turnover plummeted from a peak of $140 billion in 2008 to $130 billion in 2011, $84 billion in 2012, and $53 billion in 2013 even as new carbon markets began popping up. But after dipping to below $50 billion in 2014, volume on the global market is predicted by industry experts to recover to $77 billion (worth 8 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalents) in 2015 thanks to higher European prices and increased U.S. coverage of emissions, extending to transport fuels and natural gas.

However, geographically extreme uneven development characterizes the markets in part because of the different regulatory regimes. Since 2013 there have been new markets introduced in California, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Quebec, Korea and China, while Australia’s 2012 scheme was discontinued in 2014 due to the conservative government’s opposition. The price per tonne of carbon also differs markedly, with early 2015 rates still at best only a third of the 2006 European Union peak: California around $12, Korea around $9, Europe around $7.3, China at $3-7 in different cities, the U.S. northeast Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative’s voluntary scheme at $5, New Zealand at $4 and Kazakhstan at $2. The market for CDMs collapsed nearly entirely to US$0.20/tonne.

These low prices indicate several problems.

  • First, extremely large system gluts continue: 2 billion tonnes in the EU, for example, in spite of a new “Market Stability Reserve” backstopping plan that aimed to draw out 800 million tonnes.
  • Second, the new markets suffer from such unfamiliarity with trading in such an ethereal product, emissions, that volume has slowed to a tiny fraction of what had been anticipated (such as in China and Korea).
  • Third, fraud continues to be identified in various carbon markets, as can be witnessed at the Carbon Market Watch This is, increasingly, a debilitating problem in the timber and forest-related schemes that were meant to sequester large volumes of carbon.
  • Fourth, resistance continues to rise to carbon trading and offsets in Latin America, Africa and Asia, where movements against reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) are linking up (as the REDD Monitor website documents).

As a result, the introduction of market incentives to make marginal changes to emissions is simply not working: the cost of switching from coal to renewable energy remains in the range of $50/tonne, in contrast to the prevailing price on carbon.

An overriding danger has arisen that may cancel the deterrents to carbon trading: the international financial system has overextended itself yet again, perhaps most spectacularly with derivatives and other speculative instruments. It needs new outlets for funds. The rise of non-bank lenders doing “shadow banking,” for example, was by 2013 estimated to account for a quarter of assets in the world financial system, $71 trillion, a rise of three times from a decade earlier, with China’s shadow assets increasing by 42% in 2012 alone. The Economist last year acknowledged that “potentially explosive” emerging-market shadow banking “certainly has the credentials to be a global bogeyman. It is huge, fast-growing in certain forms and little understood.” As for the straight credit market, the main result of Quantitative Easing policies was renewed bubbling, with $57 trillion in debt added to the global aggregate from 2007-14, of which $25 trillion was state debt. By mid-2014 the total world debt of $200 trillion had reached 286 percent of global GDP, an increase from 269% in late 2007.

Global financial regulation appears impossible given the prevailing balance of forces, witnessed in failures at the 2002 Monterrey Financing for Development initiative and various G20 summits after 2008. As a result, the BRICS are especially important sites to track ebbs and flows of financial capital in relation to climate-related investments, what with so many expansive claims made about their counter-hegemonic character. In reality, in relation to both world financial markets and climate policy, the BRICS are not anti-imperialist but instead subimperialist.

The first-round routing of CDM funding went disproportionately to China, India, Brazil and South Africa from 2005 until 2012, but by then the price of CDM credits had sunk so low there was little point in any case. Moreover, according to Carbon Market Watch, “The environmental integrity of the other Kyoto offsetting mechanism Joint Implementation is even more questionable with over 90% of offsets issued by Russia and Ukraine with very limited transparency and no international oversight.”

As Naomi Klein pointed out in This Changes Everything, gaming the CDM became a profitable sport: “The most embarrassing controversy for defenders of this model involves coolant factories in India and China that emit the highly potent greenhouse gas HFC-23 as a by-product. By installing relatively inexpensive equipment to destroy the gas (with a plasma torch, for example) rather than venting it into the air, these factories— most of which produce gases used for air-conditioning and refrigeration—have generated tens of millions of dollars in emission credits every year.”

Similar problems of system integrity plague the carbon markets that have opened in China, according to a recent Carbon Tax Center report: “Authorities face high hurdles in program design, information provision and political acceptability if the eventual national program is to put an effective ‘price on carbon’ and actually constrain and reduce emissions.” China’s seven pilot projects launched in 2014 ostensibly cover 700 million tons of CO2 emissions (worth $135 million in deals last year), and when a national market emerges in 2020, there are estimates of a $3.5 trillion market. However, recall the frequent estimates of a $3 trillion global carbon market by 2020, and even one (from the lead Merrill Lynch trader) of $30 trillion (reported in the New York Times).

Within China, there is growing unease with carbon markets and at the Chinese Academy of Marxism, for example, Yu Bin’s essay on ‘Two forms of the New Imperialism,” argues that along with intellectual property, the commodification of emissions is vital to understanding the way capital has emerged under conditions of global crisis.

Regardless, an even greater speculative bubble in carbon finance can be anticipated in the next few years, as more BRICS establish carbon markets and offsets as strategies to deal with their prolific emissions. In South Africa, neither the 2011 National Climate Change Response White Paper nor a 2013 Treasury carbon tax proposal endorsed carbon trading, in part because of the oligopoly purchasing conditions anticipated as a result of two vast emitters far ahead of the others: the state electricity company Eskom and the former parastatal Sasol which squeezes coal and natural gas to make liquid petroleum at the world’s single largest emissions point source, at Secunda near Johannesburg. But by April 2014 carbon trading was back on the official policy agenda, thanks to the British High Commissioner whose consultants colluded with the Johannesburg Stock Exchange to issue celebratory statements about “market readiness.”

With all of South Africa’s carbon-intensive infrastructure under construction, the official Copenhagen voluntary promise by President Jacob Zuma—cutting GHG emissions to a “trajectory that peaks at 34% below a business as usual trajectory in 2020”—appear to be impossible to uphold, just four years after it was made. The state signaled its reluctance to impose limits on pollution in February 2015, when Environment Minister Edna Molewa gave Eskom, Sasol and other major polluters official permission to continue their current trajectories for another five years, ignoring Clean Air Act regulations on emissions of co-pollutants such as SO2 and NO2.

Other BRICS countries have similar power configurations, and in Russia’s case it led to a formal withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period (2012-2020) in spite of huge “hot air” benefits the country would have earned in carbon markets (for not emitting at 1990 levels) as a result of the industrial economy’s deindustrialization due to its exposure to world capitalism during the early 1990s. That economic crash cut Russian emissions far below 1990 Soviet Union levels during the first (2005-2012) commitment period. But given the 2008-13 crash of carbon markets—where the hot air benefits would have earlier been realised as €33/tonne “Joint Implementation” benefits (but by early 2013 fell to below €4/tonne)—Moscow’s calculation shifted away from the Kyoto Protocol, so as to promote its own oil and gas industries without limitation.

Binding emissions cuts were not in Russia’s interests, no matter that 2010-11 climate-related droughts and wildfires raised the price of wheat to extreme levels and did tens of billions of dollars of damage. The same kinds of self-interested albeit short-termist calculations are being made in the other BRICS, although their leaders regularly demanded (justifiably) larger northern industrial country cuts thanks to the historical legacy of carbon emissions.

The attraction of carbon trading in the new markets, no matter its failure in the old, is logical when seen within a triple context: a longer-term capitalist crisis which has raised financial sector power within an ever-more frenetic and geographically ambitious system; the financial markets’ sophistication in establishing new routes for capital across space, through time, and into non-market spheres; and the mainstream ideological orientation to solving every market-related problem with a market solution, which even advocates of a Post-Washington Consensus and Keynesian economic policies share. Interestingly, even Paul Krugman had second thoughts, for after reading formerly pro-trading environmental economist William Nordhaus’ Climate Casino, he remarked, “The message I took from this book was that direct action to regulate emissions from electricity generation would be a surprisingly good substitute for carbon pricing.”

That U-turn is the sort of hard-nosed realism that will be needed to disprove Klein’s thesis that capitalist crisis and climate crisis are conjoined. Instead, however, financial markets continue to over-extend geographically as investment portfolios diversify into distant, risky areas and sectors. Global and national financial governance prove inadequate, leading to bloated and then busted asset values ranging from subprime housing mortgages to illegitimate emissions credits. No better examples can be found of the irrationality of capitalism’s spatio-temporal-ecological fix to climate crisis than a remark by Tory climate minister Greg Barker in 2010: “We want the City of London, with its unique expertise in innovative financial products, to lead the world and become the global hub for green growth finance. We need to put the sub-prime disaster behind us.”

As BRICS are already demonstrating, though, new disasters await, for both overaccumulated capitalism in general and for what will be, for the next few years at least, under-accumulating carbon markets.

News Sun, 19 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Two Years After West, Texas, Fertilizer Plant Explosion, Are Workers Any Safer? New Report Says No

Much of West, Texas looked like a post-apocalyptic wasteland after the fertilizer explosion two years ago. But steps to prevent further disasters aren't being taken.Much of West, Texas looked like a post-apocalyptic wasteland after the fertilizer explosion two years ago. But steps to prevent further disasters aren't being taken. (Photo: A Name Like Shields Can Make You Defensive/Flickr)

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On April 17, 2013, a massive fire and explosion tore through the West Fertilizer plant in West, Texas, killing 15 people—including 10 volunteer firefighters—and injuring more than 200. Fueled by the 30 or so tons of explosive ammonium nitrate on site, the blast ripped through the wooden building and its flammable contents, destroying three nearby schools, a nursing home and devastating 37 city blocks. A federal government investigation into the disaster found enormous gaps in information made available to first responders and the community about the plant’s highly hazardous materials – information that could have prevented or reduced the loss of life, injuries and damage.

Two years after this catastrophe, the Center for Effective Government has taken a look at the disclosure practices around such hazardous chemicals—and found what’s required of these facilities to still be “inadequate and insufficient.”

In a report released this week, the Center for Effective Government, a non-partisan government watchdog, examined emergency response planning and reporting on chemicals required of plants like West Fertilizer under the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 (EPCRA)—enacted in response to the 1984 release of deadly methylisocyanate gas from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India that killed thousands and injured many more—and the Clean Air Act. Instead of comprehensive and coordinated reporting and planning that could help prevent the loss of life and injuries, CEG found “a patchwork of laws and regulations that cover chemicals and are supposed to be safeguarding the public,” says CEG Open Government Policy program director Sean Moulton.

“There are gaps between these programs, and West Texas, really highlighted this,” says Moulton. “It’s very hard to know what information is where and how planning is rolled out. It’s very clear that responders in West, Texas didn’t know how to respond,” he says.

Absent information about hazards at the plant, volunteer firefighters arriving on the scene were unaware of that ammonium nitrate might be in the process of exploding. There was—and still is—nothing that would have compelled anyone to alert community residents or local government that schools, healthcare facilities, homes or businesses were located near a plant housing massive quantities of explosive materials. And under current laws and regulations, nothing required the West Fertilizer company to report its use and storage of ammonium nitrate to the EPA or authorities with whom it might develop an emergency response plan.

What the laws do—and what they don’t

Under EPCRA, facilities that use or store hazardous substances are supposed to provide information about what’s on site to a state agency that shares this information with a State Emergency Response Commission, which then sends it to what’s called a Local Emergency Planning Committee. It’s up to the local committee to develop an emergency response plan that is coordinated with local first responders. Meanwhile, the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments require companies that use any of 140 extremely dangerous chemicals to report this information to the EPA and develop a “risk management plan” to be used in case of an emergency. This plan is also supposed to be shared with local first responders.

What CEG found, however, is that much of this information-sharing never happens. In all but five states, no full inventory of hazardous chemicals is publicly available. Two states did not make any such information available: Nevada, which declined to provide CEG with information, and Texas, which never shares this information with the public.

Additional gaps in these and other federal and local laws mean that thousands of facilities storing billions of pounds of highly hazardous chemicals all around the country lack emergency response plans that are actually communicated to or coordinated with local authorities and first responders. And where response plans do exist, there’s no guarantee that these details are publicly accessible.

There is also nothing that requires a company like West Fertilizer that uses ammonium nitrate to report on the chemical or develop an emergency plan because ammonium nitrate is not included among the chemicals which the EPA requires reporting.

“The EPA still doesn’t have risk management plans on-line,” Moulton explains. “Many states also don’t have these on-line. Many cite security reasons for this,” he says. And says Moulton, “We can’t really say what’s going on with local emergency planning committees.” There’s no list of the committees, and the last time EPA surveyed them was in 2008, he explains.

The upshot are situations like West, Texas where first responders and plant neighbors have no advance information or plan in place in case of an emergency when a delay can make an already dangerous situation even more serious.

Whether it’s in the community or on the shop floor, making certain there’s a response system if something goes wrong is essential, says United Steelworkers assistant director for health and safety Jim Frederick. “Working without that is foolishness,” he says.

Need for improvement but little progress to date

Recognizing the need for improvement in the wake of the disaster, President Obama issued an Executive Order directing federal agencies—including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)—to work together to improve the safety of facilities like the West Fertilizer plant where hazardous chemicals are used and stored. The EPA also issued what’s called an advisory about ammonium nitrate and with OSHA has proposed measures to enhance its required risk management plans. According to an EPA spokesperson, the agency is now reviewing the nearly 100,000 public comments received on this proposal.

So has anything changed since the West, Texas disaster?

“Things have happened that have raised awareness of these important issues,” says Frederick. “But the flip side is that nothing has really transpired yet from the perspective of the workplace or perspective of the worker,” he says.

“It would be really important for EPA to finish their rule-making on both better reporting, more thoughtful disclosure and transparency and also efforts on taking steps to move toward inherently safer practices,” says Charlotte Brody, the BlueGreen Alliance’s vice president of health initiatives. “Good drafts have been written but there’s no sign of them being done,” says Brody. “We’re concerned that proposed rules will never turn into regulations,” she says.

Greenpeace’s legislative director Rick Hind takes an even harsher view. “The EPA is bringing foot dragging to an art form,” says Hind. He points out that the EPA’s current schedule for finalizing improvements to risk management planning and what’s called “process safety management” – what happens on a day-to-day basis on the shop floor to involve all employees in safe operating practices – risks running out the clock on the Obama administration.

“If you’re dealing with an inherently dangerous technology you’re susceptible,” says Hind alluding to disasters like West, Texas.

As Brody explains, simply knowing what hazardous substances are on site, where and how they’re being used—and recognizing the costs and time involved in making sure nothing dangerous happens—are the first steps toward considering moving to safer materials. But right now, as the Center for Effective Government report details, information on these hazards is poorly documented.

Labor unions and government watchdogs aren’t the only ones dogging this issue. In December, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing to review progress made since President Obama’s Executive Order. “In the 602 days since the West, Texas tragedy there have been 355 chemical accidents resulting in 79 deaths and 1500 hospitalizations,” said Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) opening the hearing. “Essentially,” said Boxer, since the West Fertilizer accident, there’s been a U.S. incident involving hazardous chemicals every other day. “This,” she said, “is absolutely outrageous.”

So not only are catastrophic chemical accidents continuing to occur—and with disturbing frequency—but, according to the CEG report, facilities that use hazardous materials, communities and emergency personnel are lacking the information they need to respond.

It may sound like a pesky civic detail, but says Moulton, “It’s very important, local response planning” and in the case of West, Texas, “they weren’t prepared.”

 “I don’t want to be talking to you when the next disaster hits and we’re saying, ‘I told you so.’ I’m not interested in, ‘I told you so,’” Brody says. “I want them to do it now.”

News Sun, 19 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Did Slaves Catch Your Seafood?

A fishing boat off the coast of Thailand.A fishing boat off the coast of Thailand. (Photo: Chris Hoare/Flickr)

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A few years ago, a friend promised Asorasak Thama a job in the Thai fishing industry. The job offered good pay for a few weeks of work.

Instead, he wound up trapped at sea for a year, working in terrible conditions for no pay at all. Thama had become a slave.

Authorities rescued Thama and his crewmembers when they stopped the boat he was trapped on for fishing illegally in Indonesian waters. A few years later, however — after a stranger drugged him at a bar in southern Thailand — Thama found himself enslaved again.

When his boat came into shore to get a fishing license from Malaysia, he waited until the captain had had a few drinks, then punched him and fled.

Despite these terrible ordeals, Thama is one of the lucky ones — he escaped. Filmmaker Shannon Service will share Thama’s ordeal and long road back home in an upcoming documentary called The Ghost Fleet.

There’s no official data on how many men are enslaved on fishing boats in Thailand. The Thai government estimates that up to 300,000 people work in its fishing industry, 90 percent of whom are migrants — and therefore vulnerable to being duped, trafficked, and exploited.

These workers come to Thailand in hopes of earning money to support their families back home. But while they fill a major labor shortage in the country, they don’t enjoy the same protections as Thai workers, such as freedom of movement and association.

Migrants rely on a complex and murky network of brokers to help them find jobs — for a fee. The brokers sometimes lure workers with false promises of factory jobs, but instead sell them to ship captains as laborers.

Many wind up working in debt-bondage to pay off transport and work-permit fees. If the men are paid at all, it’s often much less than they’d been promised.

And the conditions are awful. Fishermen have reported working 20 hours or more at a stretch. The boats can stay at sea for years, since captains are reluctant to risk losing their workers by bringing them ashore.

Some captains give workers methamphetamines to keep them going, The Guardian reported last year. They survive on bits of fish they catch that cannot be sold.

Many die at sea. Some drown attempting to escape, while others are thrown overboard when they’re too sick to work.

It gets worse. A yearlong investigation by the Associated Press recently revealed dozens of fishermen held in cages on an island called Benjina in Indonesia. Some hadn’t communicated with their families for 10 years.

In all, it turned out, hundreds of other men were stranded on this island. Dozens lay buried in a crude graveyard nearby, roughly 3,000 miles from home.

The AP tracked the fish caught by the captives on Benjina to a Thai harbor, where it was then sent to various distribution points. From there it wound up with wholesalers like Stavis, which sells packaged fish that can make its way to supermarket shelves in the United States.

The AP followed the slave-caught fish to another distributor called Thai Union, which in turn sells to Wal-Mart, as well as to popular pet food brands like Fancy Feast, Meow Mix, and Iams.

What can you do?

By speaking out against companies profiting from exploitation — and choosing to buy more responsibly sourced products — consumers can change corporate practices. They’ve proved it in the past with other products, from chocolate made from child labor to tuna caught by nets that kill dolphins.

Asorasak Thama made it home, and the men on Benjina are on their way, too. But hundreds of thousands of others aren’t so lucky. It’s time for governments, companies, and consumers to stop turning a blind eye to slavery in the seafood sector.

Opinion Sun, 19 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Will House Democrats #StandWithJan to Back the Iran Talks?

House Democrats will play a key role in whether the Obama administration can get a deal with Iran. Under the Corker-Cardin deal on the Corker congressional review legislation, if a third of the House or a third of the Senate were willing to sustain a presidential veto of congressional legislation against the deal, that would be sufficient to block Republican efforts to kill the deal.

Even if all House Republicans oppose the president if it comes to a vote (by no means guaranteed, but certainly plausible), that means roughly three-fourths of House Democrats supporting the president would be sufficient to protect the deal.

To be precise, there are 435 seats in the House, so a bloc of 435/3+1 = 146 House members would be sufficient to protect the deal. There are 188 Democrats in the House. So roughly three-fourths (78 percent) of House Democrats have to support the president to guarantee House protection of the deal. If no more than 42 House Democrats defect to the Republican side, the advocates of diplomacy are dancing in the street. But if 43 House Democrats defect to the Republican side, diplomacy advocates will have to start calling in chits with the Ron Paul people (the father, not the prodigal son.)

House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is strongly backing the president on Iran diplomacy. But that's no guarantee that three-fourths of House Democrats will back the deal. For example, House Democrat Alan Grayson is attacking the negotiations by trying to introduce issues that are outside the scope of the talks and by trying to set an impossible "unicorns and ponies" standard for a "good deal."

So, what would be really useful right now would be a show of strength by House Democrats in support of diplomacy.

Fortunately, Illinois Democrat Rep. Jan Schakowsky (you may recall that she skipped Benjamin Netanyahu's anti-diplomacy speech to Congress) is circulating a letter to her colleagues in support of diplomacy. 

Wouldn't it be grand if we could get 146 House Democrats to sign the Schakowsky letter? You can weigh in online here; if you happen to be represented by a Democrat in the House, you can call them here.

Here is a video - made by a Grayson supporter - of Alan Grayson attacking the scope of the Iran talks at a fundraiser in Santa Monica.

Opinion Sat, 18 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400