Imagine your office building just collapsed… Imagine garment workers in Bangladesh could take safety for granted

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By Stephan Manning.

Let’s imagine you work in a huge office building. You have been noticing cracks in the building structure. When raising safety concerns, your boss replies that it is safe enough and you should not worry. You find out that top management has given orders to continue operations despite obvious risks. Client pressure to deliver and keep costs down seems to be a major factor. Suddenly, the office building collapses. You barely escape through one of the few emergency exits. Right behind you, over three hundred of your colleagues get buried under the debris and die. Sounds extreme?

Well, this is what just happened a few days ago in Bangladesh. The building that collapsed was a garment factory; the people who died were mostly young female factory workers; the bosses who gave the order to continue work despite safety risks made contracts with global clients, such as Benetton, Cato Fashions, Joe Fresh, Primark, and Mango. Client representatives have expressed their condolences. But who is responsible? Management? Corrupt government officials? Global buyers? And why is it that a series of related events, including a fire at Bangladesh’s Tazreen Factory which killed over a hundred garment workers a few months ago, have not led to any serious action to prevent such tragedies from happening? Unfortunately, media coverage on the recent factory collapse is already fading. Business as usual is about to return. Before it does however – we should hold on for a second. Maybe we should care a little more about what has happened in Bangladesh …

Imagine you were born and went to school in Bangladesh before studying science, business or engineering in the U.S. or Europe. Imagine you used to work in that factory, or you know people who did. Even if you never lived in Bangladesh yourself, you might know someone who did, someone who knows someone else who has worked in one of those sweatshops. It is astonishing sometimes to think about how little separates us from one another in today’s world. Not to mention of course the clothes we buy and wear that are ‘Made in Bangladesh’.

joefresh

Imagine further that in the near future some of the survivors or their relatives might go to college and come to the U.S. on a H-1B work visa. Maybe they get hired by a business service provider such as Cognizant, Infosys or Tata, who have roots in India – Bangladesh’s large neighbor – and who have expanded globally, not least into the U.S., hiring thousands of young graduates, including a large number of H-1B visa workers. Imagine you might become a colleague of someone connected to those factories, or you will be a subcontractor or client of that person. And wherever this will be, you probably take for granted that the building you work in will not collapse or catch fire, that your personal safety – and the safety of your co-workers, clients and sub-contractors from the U.S., India and Bangladesh – comes before any cost-cutting concerns. And there is nothing wrong or naïve about assuming that. It’s common sense.

So, let’s make sure that people around the world – no matter where they work or who they work for at this moment in time – can take basic safety regulations for granted. Let’s make sure that the people who got killed in Bangladesh, who might have become your friends or co-workers, did not die for nothing. And let’s make sure their global clients don’t get away with condolences. It’s not just our moral obligation as consumers and human beings to promote global safety standards, e.g. by supporting the Clean Clothes Campaign who has been reaching out to global buyers to sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, but it’s about realizing that our world is getting more interconnected. Making a donation to support binding safety agreements across the sector, or paying a few Dollars more if labels guarantee sourcing from a secure production facility might save somebody’s life, somebody’s family’s income, somebody’s opportunity to study, work and live abroad and get to know you in person.

Good examples of global citizenship – such as the promotion of global safety standards – may be passed on to future generations of workers, entrepreneurs and managers across the world. It’s perhaps a sign of hope that a child was born and rescued from the ruins of the collapsed factory. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this child can live in a world where workers can take safety for granted? Wouldn’t it be great if later in life this person works for a company which never compromises safety for lower costs, larger profits or plain survival? We can do something to facilitate that. It’s our chance to make a difference.

Further References

Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity

Clean Clothes Campaign (takes donations)

Democracy Now! on Bangladesh factory collapse

Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights (takes donations)

New York Times (April 26 2013): Western Firms Feel Pressure as Toll Rises in Bangladesh

Picture taken from article (April 24 2013) in The Huffington Post Canada

A True Patriot: Carlos Arredondo

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By Stephan Manning.

Like many others, I was shocked at the bombings during the Boston Marathon yesterday on Patriots’ Day. And like many others, I felt inspired by the heroic effort of Carlos Arredondo in helping victims and preventing more severe casualties. But Carlos Arredondo is not just a random helper in a hat, but a long-term peace activist. In 2004, his son Alexander was killed in the Iraq war. In 2011, his other son Brian committed suicide being unable to cope with the loss of his brother.

Since 2004, both Carlos and his wife Melida have been actively opposing the ongoing U.S. military engagement in Iraq. As part of their efforts, they became members of the organization Gold Star Families for Peace – a community of families of soldiers who died in the war – whose mission was “to be a positive force in our world to bring our country’s sons and daughters home from Iraq, [and] to minimize the human cost of this war” (see Wikipedia entry). Since 2011, both have dedicated themselves to supporting military families who have suffered from suicides and mental trauma (see related article by Colonel Ann Wright).

The reason why Carlos came to this year’s Boston marathon was because one of the runners was honoring his dead son Alexander. Carlos expected the runner to make it to the finish line between 2 and 3 pm. The explosion occurred around 2:50 pm. Carlos did not think twice about rushing to the horrible scene and doing everything he could – as an American Red Cross volunteer – to help people in need and to assist the relief effort.

To me, Carlos Arredondo is a true patriot. Not just because of his heroic deeds on Patriots’ Day. But because throughout his life, especially following the death of his son Alexander, he simply did what he felt was right at any moment. No matter if he put his own life in danger or not. No matter if his actions were appreciated or if he had to swim against the political mainstream.

In fact, Carlos Arredondo is a patriot because he does not believe in empty symbols. In 2007, he was attacked by members of the Gathering of Eagles, a right-wing group, during an anti-war march in Washington D.C., because he was allegedly holding the American flag upside down. I wonder how many of these attackers knew what it’s like to lose someone in a war. In particular a war that could hardly be justified. A war that had nothing to do with protecting America. A war that made many Americans feel ashamed of their home country. Sometimes, being patriotic means questioning the symbols that turn citizens into blind followers.

Boston marathon Carlos Arredondo Carlos Arredondo is also a patriot because, being born in Costa Rica, he and his wife have made enormous efforts to reach out to Spanish-speaking families in the U.S. who have suffered from the loss of relatives in a war initiated and promoted by the U.S. government. The same government that cared relatively little about fair immigration laws and related rights for Hispanic and other minorities in the U.S. Knowing that George W. Bush passed a law in 2004 to allow parents of those killed in action to become legal immigrants does not make it any better. In fact, how cynical is that? Only if you lose a child in a war you have demonstrated sufficient patriotism to deserve legal immigrant status? How about all the families with children wounded – physically or mentally? How about all the parents who allow their kids to go to war in the first place – for a country that does not even recognize them as legal residents? To me, supporting those families is not only a great human effort, but a true act of patriotism.

And Carlos Arredondo is a patriot because he does not give up. So many people with a similar personal experience have lost hope or have become cynical. I do not know what has kept Carlos Arredondo from joining the club of the resigned and indifferent. It amazes me how he has maintained his belief in the spirit of America, in the spirit of the Boston Marathon, in the spirit of peace and understanding – when the time of war and U.S. military engagements is not over yet (or never will be).

Maybe the United States needs more people like Carlos Arredondo. But the fact alone that there are people in the U.S. like him, who carry a human spirit of patriotism, makes me hopeful and feel good about living in America – as a foreigner, like so many others, like Carlos Arredondo.

Further references

Wikipedia entry on Carlos Arredondo

Democracy Now! Featuring Carlos Arredondo (April 16 2013)

Article by Colonel Ann Wright: “More Costs of War: Suicides and Mental Trauma of Military Family Members”

American Red Cross Volunteering

U.S. News: “The man in the hat at Boston Marathon finish line: Carlos Arredondo didn’t set out to be hero” (April 15 2013)

Original source of the picture:

The Guardian: “Carlos Arredondo hailed as hero for Boston Marathon rescue efforts” (April 16 2013)

Aaron Swartz – It’s not the final word

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By Stephan Manning.

Aaron died on January 11 2013. He was 26 years old. In his short life, Aaron made more impact in this world than I will probably ever make. And – I should add – his influence would have grown so much larger if he had decided to live.

Aaron once described himself as someone who is driven entirely by curiosity. And this might have been true when he joined a working group at the age of 14 to co-author the RSS 1.0 standard – a web feed format for frequently updated works, such as blogs and news headlines. After dropping out of college he founded Infogami which later merged with Reddit – a news spreading website which today attracts Millions of users every month. But this – although impressive by itself – is not why I am writing this blog. Aaron was more than a gifted programmer and web enthusiast.

From early on, Aaron stood for a new spirit in the Internet age. He fought for the right to connect and freely share information. And he did this in ways that were novel, effective and sometimes drastic. Most famous perhaps is Aaron’s leadership role in the campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) which would have allowed the U.S. government to shut down websites accused of violating copyright, and, in effect, censor Internet content. You might remember the ‘Internet strike’ on January 18 2012: Wikipedia shut down and Google went black – probably the largest coordinated online protest ever. And as Aaron describes it, this movement was neither backed by political groups, non-governmental organizations, nor the corporate world. There was no lobby for it. Even mass media remained silent – maybe because of their vested interest in controlling the spread of news and information through the Internet. It was entirely up to citizens and Internet users to recognize the importance of this bill and to raise their voices. And it took leaders like Aaron to make that happen. For more details you may find this video very insightful:

http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2013/01/aaron-swartz-reader-in-his-own-words.html

It might take years before people realize how important this collective action was. It could very well be that the freedom to connect and share information will become a human right much like the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion. What happened in 2012 was maybe ahead of time, and, yet, it may lay the groundwork for a fundamental shift in thinking about the social value of information.

And let’s not forget about Aaron’s activism in related domains. Aaron strongly believed that access to public sources of knowledge and information should be free. In 2008, he downloaded and released approximately 20% of the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) database of United States federal court documents. PACER was charging 8 cents per page for information – much more than necessary to keep the system running, and a financial burden for many who might be interested in accessing these documents. In a similar fashion, Aaron used his access to MIT’s ‘open campus’ to download a large amount of articles from JSTOR – a digital repository of academic articles – for free dissemination. Aaron was arrested, facing a long sentence in prison, mainly because MIT held on to charges of wire fraud and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer etc. This affair might have very well contributed to Aaron’s early death.

What Aaron did might appear to some as an act of stealing, but let’s take a broader perspective. The law does not distinguish between crimes that are committed for personal benefit from illegal actions for the greater good. Nor has the law any foresight. Not so long ago it was illegal for women to vote, illegal for homosexual couples to get married, illegal to abort. And it used to be legal to physically punish school kids as a teacher, legal to restrict access to public places for physically handicapped people, legal to pollute the air without limitation. As it is legal today to make information of public value proprietary, and illegal to freely disseminate that information.

In a few years time, people may take for granted that information of public interest is freely accessible and they might have a hard time understanding why Aaron’s progressive act met so much resistance. But let’s be honest: progress is barely possible without a few brave characters who step over the line. As the German songwriter Wolf Biermann once put it in his ‘Ballade for a truly deeply concerned friend’: “My Dear, this has to do with division of labor. There are those who remain silent, and there are those who shout. If people like you go way too short, then some others may go a little too far.” Aaron went pretty far, and paid for it.

I would like to end with the first verse of another song – by Pete Seeger, a political songwriter Aaron admired very much. This song is called “If you miss me at the back of the bus” and it deals with the struggle of African Americans to fight for legal rights which everybody takes for granted today. It goes like this:

“If you miss me at the end of the bus
you can’t find me nowhere
come on over to the front of the bus
I’ll be riding up there.”

Aaron never accepted the growing rule of capital and government control over the Internet. He was riding up there. Thanks Aaron. And this will definitely not be the final word….

>>>

Further Links:

Farhad Manjoo: How MIT Can Honor Aaron Swartz (January 2013)

Michael Eisen: How academia betrayed and continues to betray Aaron Swartz (January 2013)

Bye bye Guttenberg, Koch-Mehrin, Schavan… Is this perhaps the most effective guerilla campaign against the conservative political class?

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By Stephan Manning

We just experienced the latest successful attempt of bringing about the downfall of a conservative politician in Germany: Annette Schavan. The former German minister of education joins the club of politicians who have been forced to give up their positions in government or party because of evidence of plagiarism in their PhD dissertations. Plagiarism means that other people’s work is used without proper citations, which is a violation of academic standards and which can be interpreted as cheating – a serious form of misbehavior in the eye of the public (at least in Germany) and a legitimate reason for putting an end to a politician’s career.

If somebody had told me ten years ago that this is going to happen, I would have disregarded this scenario as unrealistic. Some time ago, only a few hardcore believers in the value of ‘original academic work’ among German social scientists really cared about international standards when it comes to PhD dissertations. In all these cases – Guttenberg, Koch-Mehrin, Schavan etc. – not only the (former) Doctor degree holders, but also their academic advisors were taken by surprise when all of a sudden somebody raised the issue of plagiarism. (For those not familiar with the German academic system: For many years, German professors would support ‘practitioner’ PhDs, i.e. the pursuit of doctor degrees in business, law and political science as a means to boost professional careers. The academic value of dissertations leading to such degrees has always been questioned. But for a long time nobody really cared about it. Sloppy academic work was an acceptable flaw of a system producing ‘academically qualified’ managers and politicians. Not so different from MBA degrees in the U.S.)

So, what is really going on?  Who came up with this idea of analyzing the accuracy of dissertations of German politicians? I should say: dissertations that probably nobody has ever read or ever will read. I am inclined to think that there can be only one explanation for this. It’s all part of a systematic guerilla campaign against conservative politicians in Germany. Clearly, the tendency to copy & paste has nothing to do with political ideology. I bet there are as many Social democrats with a Doctor degree ‘guilty of plagiarism’ as there are Christian or Liberal democrats. But, to my knowledge, no single Social democrat or Socialist politician has ever been convicted of plagiarism yet.

Let’s think about it: What’s the point of spending endless time and energy on this rather tedious task of reading and analyzing somebody’s dissertation, identifying signs of misconduct, persuading former advisors and universities to start an official investigation, and informing journalists about the process?  Unless you are on a mission! The mission of demonstrating that the conservative political class is vulnerable. And honestly, I think it’s about time!

How easy has it always been to get rid of politicians in the left camp. From ‘Animal farm’ by George Orwell we all know how the formerly underprivileged get easily corrupted by power. Easy to imagine how excited some Green or Socialist politicians in power can get being able to fly first class for fun – even if travel budgets are not designed for that. Or having easy access to large amounts of money – even if receiving private funds or honorariums as a politician is considered inappropriate (in Germany). Some might remember that exactly that forced Cem Ozdemir to step down from his position as parliament speaker of the Green party in 2002. And it is not surprising that the new Chancellor candidate of the Social Democrats, Peer Steinbrueck, almost tripped over a similar issue (honorariums for presentations). Needless to say that these little incidents of power abuse for pleasure and financial gain are nothing compared to the elaborate systems of financial support established and maintained typically by the conservative political class. Helmut Kohl’s donation system is just one example. But unlike Kohl, who was able to stay in power for sixteen years, many politicians of the left camp never even get there because of their lack of smartness in dealing with power and privileges.

Another example: How easy has it been to accuse left-wing politicians of an unstable life style! How many times did Joschka Fischer and Gerhard Schroeder get married in their lives? Ten in total? Compare that to Stoiber and Kohl. And for some reason, right-wing politicians also seem to be able to control their sexual energy much better. Or they have less to begin with. How else could you explain the ease with which the promising career of French socialist Strauss-Kahn was put to an end after allegations of inappropriate sexual encounters with a hotel maid (whether or not particular allegations are actually true does not really matter). And how easy was it for Monica Lewinsky to get charming Bill Clinton to embark on a sexual adventure. Well, there might be something about (lacking) ‘conservative values’. At least they seem to keep many conservatives from falling into the same trap.

In fact, for a long time, a lot of things had to happen before a conservative politician was ready to give up. Let’s take a recent – albeit rare – example: the Christian democrat Christian Wulff, who many consider to be the most embarrassing federal president of Germany yet. Nobody in such a position has probably ever taken advantage of political power in so many different ways – real estate deals, flight ticket discounts, numerous bribes – than this man. And he was in good company. His business-smart ex-wife had the guts to exploit her husband’s misery by publishing and openly promoting a book about the cruel reality – loneliness, neglect etc. – of being a president’s wife. There was no left-wing conspiracy needed here. Wulff got unmasked by his conservative fellows and his own wife.

But think about it: How likely is it that other members of the conservative political class are as small-minded as Wulff was? How many examples, by comparison, do we know of conservative politicians who get away with almost anything? Can you imagine any Socialist politician with the mafia ethic of Helmut Kohl or the criminal energy of Silvio Berlusconi being able to stay in power as long as they did?

The plagiarism campaign might put an end to all this – at least in Germany – and create a better balance between right-wing and left-wing activism. While lefties keep struggling with having too much power, the conservative class now faces punishment for ignoring academic standards nobody (outside academia) actually cares about. Who would have thought that good old academia has such a practical impact after all! Cheers!