Multinational Monitor

SEP/OCT 2008
VOL 29 No. 2


Biotech Snake Oil: A Quack Cure for Hunger
by Bill Freese

Nuclear's Power Play: Give Us Subsidies or Give Us Death
by Tyson Slocum

Conservation Corp.: Enviros Ally with Big Grain Traders
by Christine MacDonald

The Concession Trap: Auto Worker Givebacks and Labor's Future
by Simone Landon

The Commercial Games: Selling Off the Olympic Ideal
by Jennifer Wedekind


Bad Samaritans: How Rich Country "Help" Hurts the Developing World
an interview with
Ha-Joon Chang

Unhealthy Solutions: Private Insurance, High Costs and the Denial of Care
an interview with
Steffie Woolhandler

Arts, Inc.: The Corporate Control of Culture
an interview with
Bill Ivey


Behind the Lines

The State of Corporate Welfare

The Front
Climate Changing Africa -- African Inequality

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Greed At a Glance

Commercial Alert

Names In the News


Behind the Lines

Tomato Justice

Florida’s migrant tomato pickers are finally getting it their way. In a sudden about-face, Burger King agreed in May to pay farm workers an additional penny per pound of tomatoes picked. The move marks another victory for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a farmworker advocacy group that conducted a long-term campaign pressuring Burger King to raise the wages of its suppliers’ impoverished workers.

Burger King’s additional penny per pound will translate into a more than 70 percent wage increase for tomato pickers. The farm workers earn about $10,000 a year when they pick for Burger King. To encourage the growers from which it buys tomatoes to implement the wage raises, Burger King also agreed to fund incremental payroll taxes and administrative costs resulting from the wage increase, bringing Burger King’s contribution up to an additional 1.5 cents per pound of tomatoes. This will cost Burger King between $300,000 and $325,000 a year, according to Burger King spokesperson Denise Wilson.

Burger King’s move follows similar commitments made by Taco Bell in 2005 and McDonald’s in 2007. Up until the May announcement, Burger King adamantly refused to follow suit and heavily criticized the CIW and its campaign. In a statement, John Chidsey, CEO of Burger King, apologized for the disparaging remarks the company previously made.

“We are pleased to now be working together with the CIW to further the common goal of improving Florida tomato farm workers’ wages, working conditions and lives,” he said. “We apologize for any negative statements about the CIW or its motives previously attributed to [Burger King] or its employees and now realize that those statements were wrong. Today we turn a new page in our relationship and begin a new chapter of real progress for Florida farm workers.” Along with the wage increase, Burger King and the CIW also established strict guidelines for the treatment of farm workers.

“The events of the past months have been trying,” says Lucas Benitez of the CIW. “But we are prepared to move forward, together now with Burger King, toward a future of full respect for the human rights of workers in the Florida tomato fields.”

The Declining Value of Life

Human life is no longer as valuable as it used to be — at least according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In May, the EPA dropped the “value of a statistical life” from $8 million to $7.2 million, according to Al McGartland, director of EPA’s office of policy, economics and innovation.

Environmentalists fear the change will result in less stringent regulations, as the EPA weighs the costs of implementing regulations against the value of human lives saved when deciding on regulatory measures.

The EPA’s McGartland maintains that the value change will not affect regulations. McGartland says that while a cost-benefit analysis is done for all regulations and put in the public record, the majority of the time the analysis is not put before the regulating agencies. “The administrator setting the standards would follow the law, not the cost-benefit analysis,” he says. He adds that the change in the value of a statistical life only applied to the Office of Air and Radiation.  

But environmentalists say the value change will have practical consequences. “The practical implication of the EPA’s action is that the benefits of environmental protection have been reduced, thus meaning that less regulation is justified from a cost-benefit perspective,” says Lisa Heinzerling, a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center and a Center for Progressive Reform scholar. “A lot of air pollution rules are justified, from this perspective, based on their benefits in terms of avoiding premature human mortality. If the value of that benefit is reduced, it could mean less protection.”

Protesting Pulte

Construction workers for one of the largest developers in the United States, Pulte Homes, are being forced to work for substandard wages and in dangerous conditions, according to a May report by Chicago-based Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ).

The report found that Pulte Homes, which had revenues of more than $14 billion in 2006, hired contractors who frequently cut costs by paying workers less, skimping on safety precautions and cutting corners during construction. As unionized construction jobs remain relatively high-paying, Pulte contractors use non-union and largely immigrant labor.

“Pulte Homes has created a situation that encourages subcontractors to exploit and abuse workers,” says Will Tanzman, an organizer for IWJ. “Pulte appears to be choosing contractors based purely on price rather than ethical considerations, which encourages contractors to do everything to cut costs.” Pulte did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Construction is the deadliest industry in the United States, resulting in more than 1,200 fatalities in 2007, and the IWJ report found numerous instances of unsafe working conditions at Pulte operations. Workers for one Pulte contractor, Hutchins Drywall in Las Vegas, were forced to construct make-shift scaffolds up to 20 feet high using buckets, planks and ladders. Workers using dangerous chemicals or power sanders were not provided with gloves or facemasks, and others were forced to work without hardhats or protective glasses.

A painter interviewed for the report said: “Whenever we’d go to our supervisors with problems, they’d tell us, ‘Well, if you don’t like it, you can get out of here, there are more Mexicans crossing the border every day.’”

Health insurance was either not provided or not affordable for workers. Even though most workers for Pulte contractors reported working 50 to 70 hours a week, they received only $8 to $13 an hour with no overtime pay. Workers have filed class action lawsuits against several contractors, listing Pulte Homes as a co-defendant, for nonpayment of overtime.

Workers attempting to unionize have faced backlash from their employers. One employee reported being fired after wearing a union T-shirt on the job, and the IWJ reports that “in a number of instances, workers picketing Pulte construction sites were sprayed repeatedly by high-power water trucks.”

Med Privacy Protected

A bill that would have allowed pharmacies to sell patient prescription and medical information to third-party companies narrowly passed the California State Senate before failing in the State Assembly.

The bill would have allowed companies including Adheris, Inc., the main business backer of the bill, access to patient medical records in order to mail notices to patients reminding them to take their medication. With outrage over the proposed bill coming from consumers, advocacy groups and medical associations, the California Assembly voted 17-0 against it.

“This bill is marketed as something that it’s not,” says Jerry Flanagan, healthcare advocate for Consumer Watchdog and one of the leading critics of the bill. “It’s all about drug companies trying to raise their profits by marketing to people in their mailbox.” The mailings would have touted expensive brand-name drugs, rather than encouraging patients to try less expensive, generic versions when available, according to Flanagan.

But Dan Rubin, president of Adheris, denies the bill had anything to do with marketing. “There’s no marketing allowed in the bill,” he says. “The bill was meant to address a serious healthcare problem in California” — patients not complying with long-term drug regimens. Rubin does concede that “in some instances the drug companies sponsor the program.”

Rubin argues that the mailed reminders would have helped with patient compliance in taking prescribed medications. However, Adheris “never provided research on how it would cure that,” Flanagan says, adding that “people don’t stop taking their medicine because they forget. They get tired of living under a drug regime.” Flanagan proposes patient support groups as a better alternative to helping with patient compliance.

Flanagan calls the bill “deceptive” and “dishonest” and points to the many privacy and medical concerns surrounding the bill. Going against California’s long-held privacy legislation, companies hired to carry out the program, like Adheris, would have access to patient records without their knowledge and consent. And, information would be transferred electronically, making it vulnerable to misuse and accidental leaks, Flanagan says.

The mailings, which would appear to be coming from the local pharmacy, could also interfere with the patient-doctor relationship, and may contradict specific instructions and concerns from the individual’s doctor. “Really, these companies are agents of the drug companies to prop up sales of expensive brand-name drugs,” Flanagan says.

Pollution Labeling

The state of California has a new approach to encouraging drivers to be environmentally friendly: putting a vehicle’s carbon emissions in plain sight.

New regulations, passed in June by the California Air Resources Board (ARB), require all new cars sold in California to carry an Environmental Performance label ranking the vehicle’s global warming emissions. Ranked from 1 to 10, cars with fewer climate changing emissions, such as hybrids, will receive a higher score. The global warming score will join a smog score, also ranked from 1 to 10, which has been on cars in California since 1998.

“Consumer choice is an especially powerful tool in our fight against climate change,” says Mary Nichols, chair of the ARB. “We look forward to seeing these stickers on the 2009 model cars as they start hitting the showrooms in the coming months.”

The global warming score is based on greenhouse gas emissions produced by the vehicle as well as production of the fuel it uses. The scale compares emissions between all vehicle classes, with the average vehicle receiving a 5. While ratings for 2008 and 2009 models haven’t yet been released, ARB research ranked 2007 models such as the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic GX as 10s. Cars such as the four-wheel-drive Ford Expedition and the BMW M5 received 1s.

Authorities hope the Environmental Performance labels will aid consumers in choosing more environmentally friendly cars.

“The main goal is consumer awareness,” says Craig Duehring, an ARB air resources engineer. “But they’re still not going to go out and shop on labels.” Duehring notes that SUV drivers will still be in the market for an SUV, but may decide on one with a slightly higher global warming score. He adds that the labels were generally well received by auto manufacturers and that they may even use high scores as a selling point.

— Jennifer Wedekind

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