Sunday, August 18, 2013

AARP partners with private sector in innovative initiative to address long term unemployment among older workers

This week, Bloomberg News highlighted an innovative private and non-profit sector collaboration to address the issue of long term unemployment in the United States in the wake of the 2008 financial crash.  According to an April 2013 report of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, almost 40% of the currently unemployed in the U.S. have been looking for work for more than 6 months and over 25% of the unemployed have been searching for over a year.  While youth unemployment has declined over the past year and young people have exited the labor market to pursue education and training, older workers (especially those over 50) find themselves over-represented amongst the long term unemployed, as do African American and Hispanic workers.  Official statistics do not fully capture the real number of people who have been unemployed for one, two, three or more years because once a person stops "looking" as officially defined, they stop being counted.  In May 2013, Bloomberg News reported that long term joblessness feeds upon itself, as stigma sets in.    The longer a person is out of work the harder it is to find a job.  Those affected are parents with college-aged kids, homes and cars, losing all the perqs of long careers and being productive members of society with homes, cars and retirement funds.  They find themselves without options, having lost everything that gave them status in society and having to start again from scratch - while competing against younger workers and suffering discrimination based on both their age and long-term joblessness.  The plight of older workers who lose their jobs is captured in this August 26, 2013 New York Times article about older workers being shut out of the economic rebound.

The Bridges to Employment program, modeled after Platform to Employment or "P2E", was first implemented in Bridgeport, Connecticut in December 2012 as a joint initiative of the American Association of Retired People (AARP) and The Workplace, Inc. to provide assistance to unemployed persons aged 50 and over to re-enter the workforce.  The AARP has taken an intensive interest in employment issues for older Americans.  In addition to its co-sponsorship of job creation programs like Bridges to Employment, the AARP developed Life Reimagined, a website dedicated to career advice for older Americans, conducts research and publishes studies on age discrimination such as its 2013 report Staying Ahead of the Curve about perceptions of discrimination against workers aged 45-74 and lobbies Congress and State Legislatures to strengthen anti-discrimination protections for older workers.

After completing a 5-week training program, a participant in Bridges to Employment transitions to a job try-out in which P2E pays up to 8 weeks of salary for the participant to work for a private sector employer.  The program is similar to those partially funded by the European Social Fund in the Sensitive Urban Zones (ZUS) in the suburbs of Paris and other major French cities to improve labor market participation of disadvantaged youth, except that rather than public funding of unsustainable public positions that go away after a few years, the hope is that payment of direct subsidies to employers will result in sustainable positions in the private sector.  As reported by Bloomberg, the Executive Director of The Workplace Inc. says employers prefer direct funding to tax credits.  While Americans and Europeans may have philosophical and cultural differences about whether funding should come from private or public sources, the advantage of providing the funds to private sector employers rather than public sector entities is it supports businesses still recovering from the ongoing effects of the Financial Crisis and can provide much-needed cash flow to small- and medium-sized businesses.  There is general consensus among labor market economists that small- and medium-sized businesses are the engines of job creation, as discussed in this March 2013 paper by Michael Grimm and Anna Luisa Paffhausen.

So far, the Bridges to Employment programs seems to be a success.  Not only do participants have high rates of permanent employment, but the program is in the process of being duplicated around the United States.  For example, in Dallas in February 2013, the program was expanded to cover both long-term unemployed and Veterans, with the governmental Workforce Solutions of Greater Dallas, non-profitYWCA of Metropolitan Dallas and private Citi Community Development and the Walmart Foundations joining The Workplace Inc. and the AARP Foundation as funders of the operation.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Drawing a connection between tribal sovereignty, the Paul Frank party flub and international sustainable development

I highly recommend Pilar Thomas' article Governance and Jurisdictional Considerations for Renewable Energy Development in Indian Country in the August 2013 ABA Native American Resource Committee Newsletter (pp. 13-17).  In this interesting and succinct piece, Ms. Thomas clearly and compellingly lays out the complexities of tribal jurisdiction over energy development on native lands in the U.S.  Basing her narrative on the principle of tribal sovereignty, Ms. Thomas provides a legal road map for U.S. tribes to exercise jurisdiction and control over the manner in which they pursue renewable and traditional energy generation and to encourage development of energy resources while ensuring that taxes and other revenues accrue to the tribe itself.  Exercise of sovereignty, authority and control over use of their lands and energy resources empowers U.S. tribes to impact the development of the U.S. energy grid now and in the future.

Empowerment is also the theme of a recent development in fashion circles whereby 4 Native American fashion designers partnered with Paul Frank to come up with a new collection of clothing and fashion accessories in the wake of Paul Frank's "Powwow Party Flub" back in September 2012.  The collaboration resulted after blogger Dr. Jessica Metcalfe criticized Paul Frank in her blog Beyond Buckskin for misappropriating and misrepresenting native culture in a company theme party.

What connects these two seemingly unrelated items to one another and to the themes of this blog are the concepts of empowerment, agency and transformation inherent in both. Pilar Thomas' article about tribal sovereignty and energy development shows native peoples asserting sovereignty over their land and resources while the fashion line resulting from Jessica Metcalfe's outraged blog post shows native people asserting sovereignty over their ideas, images and culture.  Both represent assertion of ownership over how peoples and cultures depict and define themselves rather than allowing outsiders to be the depicters and definers.

Empowerment, agency and transformation should play a more prominent role in approaches to eradication of global poverty and inclusion of the world's indigenous and racial minorities in sustainable environmental and economic development.  These two examples of empowerment and re-appropriation of cultural identity and resources contrast sharply with the "vulnerable populations" discourse in the European Union, where all peoples who differ from a certain view of the norm - racial minorities, the Roma, young people, old people - are referred to as "vulnerable" and deserving of special treatment.  The "vulnerable populations" discourse implies pity from the majority rather than respect and a well-deserved hand or leg up.

The dialogue and outcome at Paul Frank is something that could happen at other clothing manufacturers and retailers with global operations.  One example that comes to mind is the garment and textile manufacturing sector in Southern Mexico (Puebla, Oaxaca, Guerrero).  Despite thousands of years of history and tradition in textiles and clothing, indigenous workers are involved at the lowest ends of clothing and textile production but not at the design or conceptualization levels.  There is really unused space for creative and positive Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives and community engagement that can transform fashion and garment manufacturing the world over, modeled on expanded versions of the Paul Frank initiative.

Pilar Thomas' article raises the question of legal structures around the world that would allow indigenous and minority peoples to assert the kind of control over energy production the way tribal sovereignty empowers native peoples in the U.S. to assert themselves over energy production on tribal lands.  While indigenous peoples have used international human rights and minority protection regimes as a form of empowerment to challenge energy-related decisions in their lands - for example, the building of hydro-electric dams - indigenous people involved in such actions are often framed in international discourse as victims seeking redress rather than powerful actors seizing control of their destiny.  These issues are complex and strategies, cultural viewpoints and goals pursued by native peoples in the United States may not be the same as those pursued by native peoples elsewhere, but Thomas' article provides a good place to start in developing a new way of thinking about these issues not only in the U.S. but elsewhere around the world.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

US and EU differ on trade sanctions for violation of labor rights in Bangladesh

As one of the least developed countries in the world, Bangladesh has been a beneficiary of special tariff benefits under GSP programs in both the EU and US over the last several decades.  In the wake of the Rana Plaza building collapse in which 1,129 people were killed, US and EU trade authorities differed in their approach in determining whether Bangladesh should continue as a beneficiary of special trade preferences.  While the US suspended trade benefits under GSP, the EU allowed benefits to continue.  Despite this difference in policy, both the US and EU have continued active engagement with government authorities and social partners in Bangladesh to improve labor and employment law enforcement and workplace and building standards.  Both the US and EU will cooperate with the ILO and one another to improve labor standards and enforcement in Bangladesh in the coming years. European authorities have criticized the decision of US authorities to engage in trade sanctions against Bangladesh, but it appears as though action taken by USTR has led to a flurry of legislative and administrative action in Bangladesh to implement meaningful labor protections .  Critically, on August 9, 2013, the Solidarity Center reported that the Government of Bangladesh re-registered the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, a worker education and advocacy group which had been deregistered in 2010.

My recent piece in the ABA International Employment Lawyer (August 2013) outlines the procedural history leading up to USTR's suspension of trade benefits for Bangladesh in June of this year.  Although the suspension occurred 3 months after the Rana Plaza disaster, it was in fact the culmination of a 6 year process commenced with a petition filed by the AFL-CIO in 2007.  In many ways, this process has been ongoing for the last 23 years, as the first petition to suspend Bangladesh from the US GSP program for labor violations was filed in 1990.

What stands out in reviewing the pleadings in the GSP review process is how prominent a role Export Processing Zones (EPZs) play in the continuance of serious labor violations in Bangladesh and elsewhere.  EPZs allow for a separate labor rights regime which affords lesser protections than most countries' general labor rights regimes.  While both women and men work in EPZs, there is a predominance of women in certain sectors in EPZs which results in the creation, in essence, of a separate and unequal labor rights regime with disparate impact on women workers.

It is also apparent that the ongoing trade review process over the last 23 years has resulted in some improvements to the contents and application of labor laws in Bangladesh, with some steps forward and many steps backward.

Legislative authorities in Bangladesh are in the process of amending the country's labor laws, but the ILO has found amendments to fall short of full compliance with international labor standards and has called for further steps to improve labor laws and compliance.   In particular, Human Rights Watch focused its analysis on gender-related provisions of the new law, noting that while the version as of July 15, 2013 contained new provisions prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex and disability, it did not contain provisions prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace as required by a 2009 decision of the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh outlawing sexual harassment of women, girls and children in the workplace and educational facilities.