Multinational Monitor

MAR/APR 2006
VOL 27 No. 2


Plague and Profit: Business, Bureaucracy and Cover-up in the Spread of Avian Flu in Asia
by Mike Davis

Fowl Play: The Role of Agribusiness in the Avian Flu Crisis
by Devlin Kuyek

Migratory Birds as Scapegoats: The Role of Wild Birds in Spreading Avian Flu
by Dr. Leon Bennun

Questions and Answers on Bird Flu from the CDC


Preventing Pandemic: The Global Strategy to Stop a Bird Flu Pandemic Before It Starts (Or Control It, If It Does)
An Interview with David Nabarro

At Risk: The dangers of an Eroded Public Health System
An Interview with Irwin Redlener

The Sky May Not Be Falling: An Eminent Scientist's Cautious View on Bird Flu Anxiety
An Interview with Edwin Kilbourne

Stopping Spread Among Poultry
An Interview with Alex Theirmann

The Tamiflu Manufacturing Controversy
An Interview with Yusuf Hamied


Behind the Lines

The Political Economy of Bird Flu

The Front
Great Bear Rainforest Story -- Dirty Halliburton

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News


Behind the Lines

China's Labor Repression

China's economic growth has come not just at the expense of workers in other countries, but at those in China itself, charges a pair of reports issued by the International Confederation of Trade Unions in April.

The reports contend that China's competitiveness is based on the exploitative wages and deprivation of workers' rights to organize freely, form independent trade unions and engage in collective bargaining.

Chinese minimum wages are very low ($44 per week in one of the most successful export regions, for example), but average manufacturing wages are only between 38 percent and 75 percent of these minimum requirements

"Whilst world leaders cry foul play over China's tariffs on this or that product, no one's got their eye on the main game: the fact that its polices are first hurting its own people first and foremost," says Guy Ryder, ICFTU General Secretary.

Labor disputes are rising rapidly in China. According to figures from the Ministry of Public Security "mass protests" or "mass incidents," including riots, demonstrations and collective petitions, rose from 58,000 in 2003 to 74,000 in 2004.

The ICFTU emphasizes as well that membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) has furthered the decimation of China's rural population. The World Bank estimates that three quarters of rural households are experiencing decreases in their living standards. Meanwhile, the WTO-facilitated slashing of the public sector has left the country with as many newly unemployed people as the rest of the world combined. Around 250 million of China's people, 16.6 percent of its population, still live on less than a dollar a day and close to 700 million, 47 percent of the population, live on less than $2 a day.

"Within just two decades, China has become one of the most unequal countries in the world," says Ryder. "China's experience shows that trade liberalization alone and success in export markets doesn't ensure social progress and development."

Eat This, Say Food Co.'s

Big Business thinks it is "common sense" that U.S. states should not be able to provide stronger food safety protections than the federal government requires. The U.S. House of Representatives apparently agrees.

In April, over the strident objections of consumer and environmental groups, the House passed the National Uniformity for Food Act. The Act would eliminate more than 200 state food safety and public health protections, by barring state rules that impose stronger standards for food safety or that require stronger warnings than mandated by federal law.

Representatives Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, and Edolphus Towns, D-New York, introduced the bill.

A very broad corporate coalition, ranging from the Alabama Beverage Association to Yoplait, with dozens of food companies and trade associations in between, backed the bill.

"We look at this bill and think that House members have sold their votes to big business interests that fear consumer labeling laws which save lives and expose harmful ingredients commonly used in conventional foods and beverages," says Organic Consumers Association Executive Director Ronnie Cummins. "GOP leaders and some Democrats who backed the bill really are out of touch with consumers who are more conscious than ever about the quality of ingredients in their favorite foods. This willingness to put the interests of their donors ahead of the demands of their constituents is really a travesty."

A particular concern for consumer and health groups is that the bill would override California's Proposition 65, the landmark legislation that requires warning labels on food that contains toxins that might cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive problems.

The purported rationale for the bill is that it will provide even-handed protections for all U.S. consumers. The "vote for the National Uniformity for Food Act re-affirms the belief that all consumers should have the best, science-based food safety standards and information available to them - regardless of where they live," says GMA President and CEO C. Manly Molpus. "We believe this common-sense legislation will help consumers in all 50 states make educated decisions for themselves and their families in an ever-changing and currently confusing food labeling environment."

The bill will not become law unless passed by the Senate.

Overdraft Rip-Off

Low-income people, single people and many people of color in the United States are increasingly turning to borrowing money from financial institutions by over-drawing their checking accounts, racking up interest rates that can exceed 1,000 percent, a nationwide survey shows.

A telephone survey of 3,310 households done for the Durham, North Carolina-based Center for Responsible Lending shows that a mere 16 percent of bank customers account for nearly three-quarters of all overdraft loans.

These people are effectively turning to overdraft loans as a line-of-credit.

Here's how overdraft loans work: A financial institution covers a check, ATM withdrawal or debit card transaction even when the customer's account is empty.

Typically, when the customer's next deposit hits the account, the bank grabs the overdraft amount plus a fee.

"A service created as a favor for customers has morphed into a harmful practice that traps vulnerable customers in debt," says the Center's Eric Halperin. "Some banks now realize that trapping borrowers and charging them a $25 fee for a $20 overdraft loan is a pretty good scam."

Financial institutions are increasingly turning to fees to increase their income. People in the United States now pay an estimated $10.3 billion in overdraft fees each year.

Terminating Terminator

The international de facto moratorium on Terminator technology - plants that are genetically engineered to produce sterile seeds at harvest - was unanimously upheld by governments at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), reports the ETC Group. The eighth meeting of the CBD was held in Curitiba, Brazil in March.

"The CBD has soundly rejected the efforts of Canada, Australia and New Zealand - supported by the US government and the biotechnology industry - to undermine the moratorium on suicide seeds," says Maria Jose Guazzelli of Centro Ecologico, a Brazil-based agro-ecological organization.

"By consensus decision, all governments have re-affirmed the moratorium on a genetic engineering technology that threatens the lives and livelihoods of 1.4 billion people who depend on farmer-saved seed," says Pat Mooney, executive director of ETC Group.

The call for a ban on sterile-seed technology took center stage at the UN meeting in Brazil, reports the ETC Group.

Thousands of peasant farmers, including those from Brazil's Landless Workers Movement (Movimento Sem Terra) protested daily outside the UN meeting to demand a ban, and the women of the international Via Campesina movement of peasant farmers staged a powerful silent protest inside the meeting on March 23.

"Terminator seeds are genocide seeds," says Francisca Rodriguez from Via Campesina, "We have pride in being one more step forward in our struggle, but we will not stop until Terminator is banned from the face of the earth."

The CBD's moratorium on Terminator, adopted six years ago, was under attack by three governments, reports the ETC Group. Australia, Canada and New Zealand insisted on a "case-by-case risk assessment" of the technology. A broad coalition of farmers, social movements, indigenous peoples and civil society organizations pressed governments meeting in Brazil to reject the controversial text because it threatened to open the door to national-level field testing of Terminator, without regard for its devastating social impacts.

At the CBD meeting, Malaysia, speaking on behalf of the G77 and China (together a group of 130 developing nations), said that the reference to case-by-case risk assessment was "clearly unacceptable" because it would potentially allow field tests. The CBD re-affirmed the moratorium on Terminator and even strengthened it by making it clear that any future research would only be conducted within the bounds of the moratorium - meaning no field trials.

Junk Food Aimed at Blacks

African-American-oriented television airs far more junk food ads targeted at kids than general-oriented networks, contends a study in the April issue of the Archives of Pediatratic and Adolescent Medicine.

"African-American children are overexposed to numerous types of food and beverage advertisements," concludes the study, authored by Corliss Wilson Outley and Abdissa Taddese of the School of Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota. "These advertisements do not provide an adequate level of positive [health and physical activity] messages. Consequently, the messages that are portrayed may undermine efforts to teach African-American children about the importance of healthy living and physical activity."

The study authors viewed advertisements aired on Black Entertainment Television (BET), the WB and the Disney Channel during a one-week period in July 2005 from 3 PM to 9 PM.

They found that more than half the ads aired were for fast food and drinks, such as sodas.

Roughly two-thirds of the fast-food ads appeared on BET, a third on WB and none on Disney. More than 80 percent of the beverage ads were on BET. Three in five snack ads aired on BET, with 40 percent on Disney.

BET challenged the study's methodology, arguing that its programming is not directed at kids. BET spokesperson Michael Lewellen told the Associated Press that BET's target audience is African Americans aged 18 to 34 and said its programming "does not target children." He also questioned the study's methods since the researchers included ads shown during prime time, "when virtually all networks target adults."

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