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Monthly Archives: December 2015

Boomer alert: A look back at the trends of 2015

Lloyd Alter on snowboard

I fell down and I can’t get up! Not. (Photo: Emma Alter)

A few years ago I pitched the idea of a blog dedicated to baby boomers, a fit and active generation usually treated by blogs as being ready for the nursing home. But when I tried to find fit and active boomers to contribute to it, they acted as if I was trying to make them join a club that they wanted no part of. In fact, studies have shown that most baby boomers look in the mirror and see someone 20 years younger (particularly men). Many don’t want to admit their age or, as is also said about children, to act their age.

I hope and believe that this is changing. It’s one reason that I asked to cover this topic on MNN over the last year, to talk about the issues that face baby boomers, many of whom are still looking after their own parents and supporting children and grandchildren, all at the same time. Here are my favorite posts on the subject from 2015:

When do you get to say ‘I’m too old for this’?

Lloyd Alter in rain

I’m too old for cycling in the rain. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

This post really is a synopsis of the whole year, the question of when do you get to say you’re too old. Certainly as a 63 year old, I’m feeling the effects of aging; you can see it in my eyes and hear it when I talk. I thought it last spring when I did a 50K bike ride in the rain and last winter when I was on my snowboard. So this year I have a better bike with more gears, and I’m buying new bindings for my snowboard so that I don’t have to get down on my rear end every time I get off the chair lift. That’s why they make these things. (Read more: When do you get to say ‘I’m too old for this’?)

Latest hearables give me new super powers

apple watch

Hearables and wearables together at last. (Photo: ReSound GN)

It’s like my hearables, as I like to call hearing aids. Boomers are embarrassed to admit that they need them and put it off, instead of turning them into the coolest tool, the best wearable on the market. They give me super powers that normal people don’t have.They connect to my iPhone, turning them into a fitness app, podcast player and Google map reader, but there’s much more. If they are an embarrassment, they are an embarrassment of riches. Read how the latest hearables give me new super powers. And then read about the ones that are even newer. They connect to my Apple Watch and do wonderful things.

I can imagine people being afraid of wearing them to work because they think that they make them look old; that is a big deal in the workplace today. In fact they offer real advantages to the older worker that the kids don’t have. Like the volume control on your head if you are working in crowded spaces, that you can turn it up when you want to hear everything going on around you. You’re not old, you’re bionic. Enhanced even. You are totally wired and they are not. Forget stigma, these are cool tools that give you an edge.

(Read more: New hearables sound better than headphones)

Boomer alert: Smartphones keep your brain young

man using tablet

Keep using that tablet! It will keep you young. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

The late Nora Ephron nailed it:

I am living in the Google years, no question of that. And there are advantages to it. When you forget something, you can whip out your iPhone and go to Google. The Senior Moment has become the Google moment, and it has a much nicer, hipper, younger, more contemporary sound, doesn’t it? By handling the obligations of the search mechanism, you almost prove you can keep up.

It’s better than that. In fact, studies are showing that the use of smartphones and computers is having a significant effect in keeping cognitive functioning going in older people, making a difference of as much as four to eight years. So the next time my daughter tells me to put down my phone and talk to her, I have an answer. (Read more: Smartphones keep your brain young)

Boomer alert: Exercise keeps your brain young

lloyd alter rowing

The author, doing his best to prevent cognitive decline. (Photo: Kelly Rossiter)

Or, put down your phone and get out and exercise. Everybody knows that this is good for your body, but new research shows that it’s good for the brain too, probably because your brain gets more blood. “The message is pretty clear: If you’re a boomer still trying to compete in the workplace or a senior trying to keep up, sudoku and Scrabble are fine, but remember that physical exercise is as important as mental exercise.” (Read more: Exercise keeps your brain young)

Boomer alert: You need better lighting to compensate for aging eyes

Hue light fixture

Our Hue light fixture, set for my wife, not me. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Most people have thermostat wars. In our house we have lighting wars, especially since we converted all our bulbs to LEDs and our main fixtures to Hue RGB LEDs, which we can control on our phones. I am always turning up the light to the absolutely highest level and sitting right under the fixture; my wife keeps changing it to a more pleasing color temperature and lower intensity. Because it turns out, as you get older, that your eyes need a lot more light — by age 65 the amount of light is reduced to 33 percent compared to young people.

Fortunately, we are living in the best of times to deal with this, with LED lights that are adjustable, bright and don’t use very much power. I bought a cheap light meter app for my iPhone and have been measuring light levels where I am comfortable reading and where I find it too low, and am adding fixtures when I need them. Of all the problems that baby boomers face as they age, this is about the easiest and cheapest to solve, and you might even save money while you do it. Don’t fight it, bright it. (Read more: Hey boomers: You need better lighting to compensate for aging eyes)

Robots and virtual reality may transform life for aging boomers

kitchen future

Aging boomers will have robots and Roombas, right? (Photo: RCA)

Better lightbulbs and smartphones are not the only things making it easier for boomers; new technology could revolutionize their lives, if they can afford it. From self-driving cars to smart carpets to robots, our technology will follow us and take care of us. We might not ever have to get out of our Barcaloungers at all, as we put on our Oculus Rift headsets and tour the world. “Using video game technology, retirees can tour a Paris museum or feel the bumps of a jeep ride on African safari, all from their favourite chair.” Really! (Read more: Robots and virtual reality may transform life for aging boomers)

Are older cyclists endangering themselves?

copenhagen cyclists

There’s safety in numbers, not clothing (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Are boomers taking their lives in their hands by getting on bikes? More and more of them are, and there has been an increase in the number of accidents. But in fact, if you look at the rate of accidents, it’s going down. That’s because so many more people are on bikes, getting exercise, which is healthy, not dangerous. We need more boomers on bikes, not fewer. (Read more: Are older cyclists endangering themselves?)

9 ways to redesign (and rethink) retirement

cherry blossoms

We need walkable cities, preferably with cherry blossoms. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

I get in a lot of trouble for this, but if you look up any article about aging in place, it talks about people designing houses with big halls, wide garages that can accommodate big vans and giant bathrooms. Look at Houzz on aging in place and you will see 156,825 photos of bathrooms as big as some tiny houses. It’s what I call Senior Sprawl. But we have to design communities, not houses. We have to make it possible for people to walk to stores instead of having to fire up a giant van. “Isolation kills. Lack of exercise kills. Yet we seem to be designing our cities to maximize both. It’s time for a redesign.”

And that is just one of the issues. (Read more: 9 ways to redesign retirement)

In praise of the college town

Food trucks

Yummy food trucks gather in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

If I were going to move out of my walkable neighborhood, or cash out of my valuable downtown property, I would head for a college town; you can usually find a good cappuccino, a second-run movie house, a decent bookstore and as I found in Durham, North Carolina, food trucks galore. If the university has a medical school, so much the better. It always was a thing, but is becoming more popular than ever. (Read more: In praise of the college town)

It won’t be pretty when boomers lose their cars

mother in law's house

My mother-in-law’s house with that rusting Saturn in the driveway. (Photo: Google Maps)

Those boomers are going to need walkable communities, because a lot of us are going to have to hang up the keys at some point. And the fact is, if you don’t have a car in the suburbs, you are totally screwed. Many baby boomers are going through this now, taking care of seriously old parents. Many are also setting themselves up for the same problem in the not-too-distant future. (Read more: It won’t be pretty when boomers lose their cars)

Who will save our digital memories?

family photo

My mother-in-law photobombs family, circa 1935. (Photo: McLean family)

Finally, this is not just for boomers but something everyone should think about: In this era where we write everything on the computer and take our photos with digital cameras, what happens to it all? I have lost a few years of writing for a website that closed, and a few years of photos when I didn’t archive them properly. The records of my architectural career are shredded or on unreadable 5″ floppy disks. I now back everything up to the cloud, but it is like a storage locker in the sky:

I suppose that some day, I won’t make the monthly payment, my kids won’t know the password or maybe not care about it, and there will be a digital version of “Storage Wars” where they try and sell the contents of my locker and if that doesn’t work, dump it out into the virtual street.

Something to think about. (Read more: Who will save our digital memories?)

 

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2015 Retrospective: The year in Tesla Motors and Elon Musk

Elon Musk and Tesla 2015

CC BY 2.0 Flickr

How productive was Tony Stark Elon Musk this year?

Life is never boring in Elon Musk world. The man and his company, Tesla Motors, are always working on something new. No need to wait years, or even months, between new projects and features — they roll out almost daily. Now that we are reaching the end of 2015, let’s take a moment to look back at what were the major Musk/Tesla stories of the year (and we won’t even cover SpaceX…):Tesla Snakebot autochargerTwitter/Tesla/Screen capture

First in January, Musk tweeted that they were working on a new charger that would automatically plug itself, looking a bit like a “solid metal snake”:
Tesla Dual Drive and AutopilotTesla/Screen capture

 

The best description by those who rode it was “like a rollercoaster”. See for yourself.

Apple vs. Tesla logosApple/Tesla/Promo image

February 2015 saw a lot of interest in rumors (which became more confirmed over time) that Apple was working on an electric car, and that the fruit company and Tesla were in competition for engineers. I wrote two pieces on this, one about Apple vs. Tesla, and one explaining 9 reasons why I think Apple might eventually buy Tesla.

Tesla Model S Consumer Reports top pick 2015CR/Screen capture

2015 was also the second year in a row when Consumer Reports named the Tesla Model S the “Best Overall Car”, though that honor was mitigated later in the year whenCR pulled its “recommended” stamp of approval from the EV because of potential reliability issue (especially with early models, Tesla says that they have corrected a lot of problems over time, and that the defects are covered under warranty).

Still, the Model S was so good during CR’s testing that it “broke” their rating system with a score of 103%

 

The year was also one in which the Supercharger Network grew like weeds, now only in the U.S. but worldwide:

Tesla Supercharger Stations mapTesla/Screen capture

In the fall the company passed a milestone: 500 Supercharger stations, with over 2,800 individual Superchargers.

It was also a great year for so-called ‘destination charging‘ (slower charging at restaurants, hotels, stores), with over 1,100 of those now around the US and Canada:

Tesla Destination charging mapTesla/Screen capture

Another revelation that came out this year, in a biography of Elon Musk, is that Tesla was almost sold to Google for $6 billion in 2013.

Tesla and Google logosTesla/Google/Promo image

Whether that would’ve been good or bad is debatable…

Tesla Powerwall home batteryTesla/Promo image

One of the biggest pieces of Tesla news of the year interestingly didn’t even have to do with electric vehicles. It was about static battery storage for homes, businesses, and utilities: The Tesla Powerwall, as wells as the unveiling of the Tesla Energy Division at the company, made big waves by promising to help make intermittent renewable energy like solar and wind easier to integrate into the power grid.

Tesla Powerwall battery specsTesla/Screen capture

The Model S received a bunch of upgrades this year. The entry model got upgraded from a 60kWh to a 70kWh battery, the top-of-the-line one was boosted to 90kWh and a ‘Ludicrous’ acceleration mode was added.

Ludicrous speedSpaceballs/Screen capture

But the most innovative change to the Model S was no doubt the Autopilot feature, which was added to existing car by a software update.

Tesla AutopilotTesla Motors/Promo image

But most impressive is probably the team who drove a Tesla across the U.S., from coast to coast, in 57 hours using the Autopilot.

Tesla Model X© Tesla

Another big piece of Tesla news was the launch (finally!) of the Model X electric crossover. It’ll take some time before the more affordable versions of it start shipping (only the fully equipped models are being made at first), but at least Tesla is not a one-car company anymore.

Tesla Model X© Tesla

 

What’s probably most impressive about the Gigafactory, apart from its massive scale (it could be the biggest building on Earth once completed, producing as many batteries as the whole world did in 2013), is that it’ll produce as much renewable energy as it uses. This net zero energy approach is something that all factories should aim for…

Tesla GigafactoryTesla/Promo image

Musk made an important speech in Paris during the climate negotiations, calling for a carbon tax as the most effective way to rapidly make progress.

And to end our retrospective on something a bit lighter, here’s what Elon Musk did for his birthday this year:

Elon Musk wing walking at 130 MPHInstagram/Screen capture

Elon Musk and Talulah Riley on the wing of a planeInstagram/Maye Musk/Screen capture

 

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Nativity Taken Down To Make Way For Atheists In Capitol

nativity1Christmas is a part of America. And Christmas is a Christian celebration, first and foremost. By forcing Nebraska to remove a Christian symbol of what Christmas is about, atheists are doing themselves no favors. They call it “separation of Church and State”, this crusade to remove God from the United States. However, there is no “separation” defined in the Constitution, only a statement that the Government will not pass a law favoring one religion over another. Displaying a Nativity is not passing a law, it is recognizing the place that Christianity has in the psyche of America.

An atheist group has forced Nebraska to remove a nativity from its state capitol and replace it with an atheist display.

The nativity is allowed to stay up until Dec. 18 when it must be taken down so that an atheist display can be put up. The atheist display will feature a small model church and model capitol building with a large wall between them to symbolize the separation of church and state, The Lincoln Journal Star reports. The atheist display will be up through Christmas, but not the nativity.

The Christian legal group, The Thomas More Society, sponsored a nativity last year, which raised questions about a possible violation of the Establishment Clause. This year, though, the Lincoln Atheists group preempted the Christians by reserving all the available space in August.

“They have proved our point that all speech is welcome, except Christian,” Martin Cannon, an attorney with the Thomas More Society in Omaha, which sponsors the Nativity scene, told the Journal Star. “We would have shared our space with them, but they are not willing to do the same.”

They say their intent was not to block out Christians, though they only held this event this year, a year after the nativity went up last December and made headlines. The atheists will host several groups in an event they’ve called “Reason This Season.” The Thomas More Society is involved in several nativity disputes around the country.

“The nativity displays represent a constitutionally protected expression by private citizens in traditional or designated public forums, where the sole role of the government is that of a viewpoint-neutral gatekeeper assuring open access for all citizens to have their ‘say,’” ”Tom Brejcha, Thomas More Society president and chief counsel said in a statement. “If the First Amendment entitles you to get up on your soapbox and plead for a candidate or advocate a political point of view in a public forum, then equally you may get on the soapbox and proclaim the joyous, hopeful message of the Christ Child!”

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Donald Trump proposes ‘closing the Internet’ as a way to fight terrorism

Politicians here in the US aren’t generally known for embracing modern technology. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) publicly boasted this year that he’s never sent an email. Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and John McCain (R-AZ) said they only check it every few months. From the “series of tubes” meme to Representative Jim Barton’s (R-TX) proposal that the FCC be given the power to shut down social media sites if terrorists are found to use them, there’s no shortage of tech-ignorant politicians.

Donald Trump, however, may be in a class of his own. In a speech in South Carolina yesterday, the Republican presidential candidate laid out one facet of his plan for preventing homegrown terrorism and radicalization:

“We’re losing a lot of people because of the Internet and we have to do something. We have to go see Bill Gates and a lot of different people that really understand what’s happening. We have to talk to them, maybe in certain areas closing that Internet up in some way.

“Somebody will say, ‘oh, freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people… we’ve got to maybe do something with the Internet because they are recruiting by the thousands, they are leaving our country and then when they come back, we take them back. Oh come on back. Where were you? ‘Oh I was fighting for Isis.’ Oh come on back, enjoy yourself.”

It’s worth noting that Trump’s claim that “thousands” of Americans have joined Daesh (often referred to as ISIS or ISIL) is a significant exaggeration. In July 2015, FBI Director James Comey testified before Congress that roughly 200 Americans had attempted to join the terrorist organization. The majority of Westerners who have fought in Syria have been European citizens, with an estimated 4,000 Europeans joining the war thus far.

The larger issue, of course, is Trump’s assertion that we can “close up the Internet” with or without Bill Gates’ assistance. There is no magical method of separating lawless and lawful behavior at such scales, at least not without fundamentally overhauling both the US constitution and the Internet itself.

Emperor Ballpatine

If we’re going to get Bill Gates in on this, can we also get Emperor Ballpatine?

Trump has based his campaign on big ideas, not specific policy recommendations. His campaign rhetoric hammers broad themes and promises to look into and deal with various problems, but doesn’t offer much in the way of concrete proposals. What’s striking about this particular one, however, is that there’s no way to read that sentence that doesn’t conflict with the fundamental structure of the Internet — and of American law. Does he mean closing the Internet to individuals? To organizations? To traffic from other countries? Should social media sites like Facebook and YouTube be responsible for actively policing every post and comment for anything that might be deemed subversive? If they found such content, what steps would be taken to “close down” the people who made the statements in the first place?

What’s particularly frustrating about these types of proposals is that the same politicians who call for policies that would effectively destroy the modern Internet will stand up and praise the innovation and drive of firms like Google, Amazon, and Facebook. The idea that the structure and design of the former is partly responsible for the success of the latter is rarely given a passing thought.

We need candidates who understand the modern Internet, at least superficially. Hopefully that’s something everyone can agree on, no matter where you land on the political spectrum.

 

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Three food companies with a climate footprint bigger than the Netherlands

Analysis of the carbon emissions of global food giants Cargill, Tyson and Yara puts agribusiness in the spotlight at UN climate talks in Paris
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They may not be household names but collectively global food companies Cargill, Tyson and Yara have a bigger climate footprint than the Netherlands, Vietnam or Columbia, according to a new analysis.

The startling revelation from the NGO Global Justice Now comes at a time when fossil fuel companies such as Shell and BP continue to dominate discussions about climate change. Far less attention has been paid to the agri-food sector, despite as much as 29% of global emissions being associated with food production.

At present food companies only report their direct emissions, which include their own energy use but often exclude the vast majority of indirect emissions from their supply chains.

US animal feed manufacturer Cargill, for example, declares its official annual emissions as 15m tonnes. If it included the emissions arising from growing feed crops and their use by livestock then its climate impact, according to Global Justice Now’s new findings, would be an estimated 145m tonnes.
Likewise, Tyson, the largest beef producer in the US, declares its emissions at 5m tonnes but does not include emissions related to the rearing of livestock. If it did its climate emissions would be 34m tonnes, suggests the analysis. The report found Yara, one of the world’s fertiliser producers, has a climate impact of nearly 75m tonnes, when emissions relating to the use of its fertilisers are taken into account, rather than the 12.5m tonnes that it declares.

The result is millions of tonnes of climate emissions that are otherwise being hidden from public knowledge. In the case of Cargill, its undeclared climate emissions of 130m tonnes are comparable to the combined national emissions of Denmark, Bulgaria and Sweden.

“They shouldn’t be able to indulge themselves in the fiction that they are not culpable for these indirect climate impacts,” says Alex Scrivener, policy officer at Global Justice Now and co-author of the analysis, who adds that Yara, Tyson and Cargill are just the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to evaluating the climate emissions produced by agri-food companies.

Campaigners have been particularly critical of Yara and Tyson for their membership of a two different climate-smart agriculture initiatives – the Global Alliance on Climate Smart Agriculture and World Business Council for Sustainable Development. The term itself – climate-smart agriculture – has been accused of being almost meaningless.

“We now know the big oil and coal companies are creating environmental havoc, but agribusiness still gets away with painting itself as the ‘solution to climate change’ despite causing huge damage to the climate,” says Scrivener.
Food and drink companies found to be ignoring biggest impact on climate
Read more
To be taken seriously food companies need to move away from headline-grabbing projects that only focus on one part of their supply chain, says environmental non-profit CDP.

“We prefer big targets that cover the true scope of their operations and supply chain rather than niche projects they market the heck out of to give the impression they are doing more than they are,” says CDP’s head of supply chains Dexter Galvin. “They talk about getting their own house in order but most have outsourced their emissions to their supply chain.”

In response to the analysis, the companies say they are not ignoring their indirect emissions but that it is unlikely that they will start reporting on it soon.

Cargill says it is working to reduce emissions across its supply chains but that “measuring that progress in a quantifiable way is a separate challenge; admittedly, it’s something we – and many others – are still trying to figure out.”

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Tyson says the farmers raising its livestock operate independently and, as such, it would be a difficult to report these emissions. Yara says it is helping to reduce emissions through sharing knowledge on more efficient farming techniques and supporting research to reduce emissions from fertiliser application.

“Obviously companies aren’t as responsible for indirect emissions as they are for direct emissions. But I think most people would recognise that, at the very least, companies need to be aware of the impact of their supply chain and end use of their products, and make this information public,” says Scrivener.

While the focus of the findings were on global agri-food businesses, Tara Garnett, coordinator of the food climate research network at Oxford University, says the responsibility for climate emissions lies across the food chain with consumers who eat the food and supermarkets who sell it, as well as manufacturers like Cargill and Tyson who produce it.

More analysis Topics
Food COP 21: UN climate change conference | Paris Greenhouse gas emissions Climate change Global climate talks Agriculture

 

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Syrian infighting poses challenge for Turkey, US

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A militiaman of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Tel Tawil village, northeast Syria, fires an anti-aircraft weapon in the direction of Islamic State fighters. (photo credit:RODI SAID / REUTERS)

 

BEIRUT – Groups that have received support from the United States or its allies have turned their guns on each other in a northern corner of Syria, highlighting the difficulties of mobilizing forces on the ground against Islamic State.

As they fought among themselves before reaching a tenuous ceasefire on Thursday, Islamic State meanwhile edged closer to the town of Azaz that was the focal point of the clashes near the border with Turkey.

Combatants on one side are part of a new US-backed alliance that includes a powerful Kurdish militia, and to which Washington recently sent military aid to fight Islamic State.

Their opponents in the flare-up include rebels who are widely seen as backed by Turkey and who have also received support in a US-backed aid program.

Despite the ceasefire, reached after at least a week of fighting in which neither side appeared to have made big gains, trust remains low: each side blamed the other for the start of fighting and said it expected to be attacked again. A monitoring group reported there had still been some firing.

The fighting is likely to increase concern in Turkey about growing Kurdish sway near its border.

It also poses a new challenge for the US-led coalition which, after more than a year of bombing Islamic State in Syria, is trying to draw on Syrian groups to fight on the ground but finding many have little more in common than a mutual enemy.

Azaz controls access to the city of Aleppo from the nearby border with Turkey. It also lies in an area coveted by Islamic State, which advanced to within 10 km (six miles) of the town on Tuesday and took another nearby village later in the week.

The fighting pitched factions of the Free Syrian Army, supported by Turkey and known collectively as the Levant Front, against the YPG and Jaysh al-Thuwwar – both part of the Democratic Forces of Syria alliance backed by Washington.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that monitors the conflict in Syria, said Levant Front was supported in the fighting by the Ahrar al-Sham Islamist group and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.

Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman said the rebels had received “new support, which is coming in continuously” from Turkey, a US ally in the fight against Islamic State.

“Turkish groups against US groups – it’s odd,” he said.

Although the YPG has been the most effective partner on the ground for the United States in the fight against Islamic State, Turkey does not want to see its influence expand further, even if the group is fighting Islamic State.

The United States and Turkey have for months been talking of a joint effort to clear Islamic State from the remaining part of the frontier, but there has been no sign of progress.

LONG-STANDING SUSPICION

The clashes were in villages between predominantly Arab Azaz and the majority-Kurdish town of Afrin further southwest. A few dozen people were killed, including 13 civilians, and small tracts of territory have changed hands.

The insurgents blamed the Kurdish forces and their allies for trying to advance. But a Democratic Forces of Syria spokesman said Islamist groups had attacked first under the pretext that his group was a front for the Kurds.

In Aleppo city, insurgents shelled a Kurdish-inhabited area, and the YPG fired from there at the rebel supply route that leads from Aleppo to Azaz and Turkey, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The rivalry is stoked by long-standing rebel suspicion of the Kurdish agenda.

“The Levant Front and the others are in dispute over who should control the Azaz area, and so you have this fighting between them, and the Jaysh al-Thuwwar and the (YPG),” said a rebel leader familiar with the situation. “This is strife between Jaysh al-Thuwwar and the Kurds, with the FSA factions.”

Levant Front commander Abu Ahmad al Jazrawi said he hoped Thursday’s ceasefire would hold. But if the YPG and their allies “try another time to raid our areas we will not hesitate to attack them again,” he warned.

The spokesman for the Democratic Forces of Syria said most of the fighting on its side was being done by non-Kurdish forces, though YPG fighters were reinforcing them from nearby Afrin.

A Levant Front fighter told Reuters the fighting began when the YPG and Jaysh al-Thuwwar seized three villages in the Azaz area. “They cut our main supply route,” he said. “We then succeeded in evicting these forces.”

Rebels say the YPG has been emboldened by Russian air strikes in Syria that have mostly hit groups fighting President Bashar al-Assad, and are not targeting the Kurds, whose fight with Islamic State has been praised by President Vladimir Putin.

The Syrian Kurds, who have established their own government in areas of northern Syria they control, have been accused by President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents of cooperating with him during the 4-1/2-year-old conflict – a charge they deny.

The spokesman for the Democratic Forces of Syria blamed the flare-up on Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra Front, which he said had initiated hostilities against Jaysh al-Thuwwar positions on the pretext that it was a front for the Kurds.

“Ahrar al-Sham and the Levant Front were dragged behind the lie of the Nusra Front,” said Talal Ali Selo, the spokesman, an ethnic Turkmen who is a member of Jaysh al-Thuwwar. The YPG were involved in the fighting on their side, he said.

Selo said he did not trust those groups to keep the peace.

“In my personal opinion, they will not remain committed” to the ceasefire, he said.

The Observatory reported even after it was signed that there was firing in the area, and one rebel group that had been involved in fighting said it was not party to the truce.

NEW US STRATEGY

The Democratic Forces of Syria alliance, unveiled on Oct. 12, comprises the YPG, Arabs and groups representing other ethnicities. The United States promptly air dropped ammunition to members of the alliance to press the war against Islamic State in northern and eastern Syria, an overhaul of US policy after it abandoned a program to train and equip rebels to fight IS.

The YPG is the strongest element of the coalition, having cleared IS from swathes of eastern Syria with the help of US-led air strikes earlier this year.

The Syrian Kurds already control an uninterrupted 400 km (250 mile) stretch of the Syrian-Turkish border. Turkey’s fear is that they aim to link that territory with Afrin by seizing the territory north of Aleppo. Ankara is fighting an insurgency against Kurdish PKK fighters in its southeast.

The border territory on the Syrian side is currently controlled by a mix of rebels and Islamic State, and was the area where Turkey and the United States had been working on plans to crush IS.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Nov. 17 the United States was starting an operation with Turkey to finish securing the northern Syrian border – an apparent reference to the area north of Aleppo.

In Aleppo, insurgents shelled the YPG-controlled Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhood, and the YPG opened fire from there on the main road that runs north of the city towards Azaz, the Observatory said.

Abdulrahman said there was no definitive death toll for all the clashes, but that at least 15 rebel fighters and eight on the Kurdish side had died a few days ago, as well as several civilians in Sheikh Maqsoud.

 

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Russia presents proof of Turkey’s role in ISIS oil trade

The Russian Defense Ministry has released evidence which it says unmasks vast illegal oil trade by Islamic State and points to Turkey as the main destination for the smuggled petrol, implicating its leadership in aiding the terrorists.

READ MORE: Map, images from Russian military show main routes of ISIS oil smuggling to Turkey

The Russian Defense Ministry held a major briefing on new findings concerning IS funding in Moscow on Wednesday.

According to Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov, Russia is aware of three main oil smuggling routes to Turkey.

“Today, we are presenting only some of the facts that confirm that a whole team of bandits and Turkish elites stealing oil from their neighbors is operating in the region,” Antonov said, adding that this oil “in large quantities” enters the territory of Turkey via “live oil pipelines,” consisting of thousands of oil trucks.

The routes of alleged oil smuggling from Syria and Iraq to Turkey © syria.mil.ru

Antonov added that Turkey is the main buyer of smuggled oil coming from Iraq and Syria.

According to our data, the top political leadership of the country – President Erdogan and his family – is involved in this criminal business.”

READ MORE: Russia says Turkey’s Erdogan & family involved in illegal ISIS oil trade

However, since the start of Russia’s anti-terrorist operation in Syria on September 30, the income of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) militants from illegal oil smuggling has been significantly reduced, the ministry said.

The income of this terrorist organization was about $3 million per day. After two months of Russian airstrikes their income was about $1.5 million a day,” Lieutenant-General Sergey Rudskoy said.

At the briefing the ministry presented photos of oil trucks, videos of airstrikes on IS oil storage facilities and maps detailing the movement of smuggled oil. More evidence is to be published on the ministry’s website in the coming says, Rudskoy said.

The US-led coalition is not bombing IS oil trucks, Rudskoy said.

READ MORE: US-led coalition not striking ISIS oil trucks despite evidence – Russia’s General Staff

For the past two months, Russia’s airstrikes hit 32 oil complexes, 11 refineries, 23 oil pumping stations, Rudskoy said, adding that the Russian military had also destroyed 1,080 trucks carrying oil products.

“These [airstrikes] helped reduce the trade of the oil illegally extracted on the Syrian territory by almost 50 percent.”

Up to 2,000 fighters, 120 tons of ammunition and 250 vehicles have been delivered to Islamic State and Al-Nusra militants from Turkish territory, chief of National Centre for State Defense Control Lt.Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev said.

According to reliable intelligence reports, the Turkish side has been taking such actions for a long time and on a regular basis. And most importantly, it is not planning to stop them.”

“One thing is clear. The role that Turkey is playing in this area is in many ways destructive and it’s affecting the European security, it’s affecting its neighbors. Ultimately it’s affecting its own society,” Uzi Arad, former head of research at Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency told RT.

Responding to the Russian allegations, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that nobody had a right to“slander” Turkey by accusing it of buying oil from Islamic State.

Speaking at a university in the Qatari capital, Doha, on Wednesday, Erdogan once again claimed that he would resign if such accusations were proven to be true and stressed that he did not want Turkey’s relations with Russia to deteriorate further.

Following Russian accusations, the US has again defended Turkey, denying any ties between Ankara and Islamic State.

“We flatly reject any notion that the Turks are somehow working with ISIL. Preposterous. And really very, kind of ridiculous,”Steve Warren, Pentagon spokesman, said.
He called Turkey “a great partner” to Washington in fighting against IS terrorists in Syrian and Iraq.

“They’re hosting our aircraft. They’re conducting strikes. They’re supporting the moderate Syrian opposition,” Warren explained.

Iraq will immediately file a protest in the UN Security Council if claims that Turkey is illegally purchasing oil from Islamic State terrorists are confirmed, the Iraqi Defense Ministry said.

“If the Iraqi government receives enough evidence and details, without any hesitation it will file a protest at the UN Security Council and all other relevant international bodies,” Naseer Nuri, ministry’s spokesman, told Sputnik.

According to Nuri, certain “general information about the smuggling of Iraqi oil by trucks to certain countries, including Turkey” is already available.

“This oil is used to fund Daesh (IS)”, he added.

 

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All You Americans are Fired!

The H-2 guest worker program, which brought in 150,000 legal foreign workers last year, isn’t supposed to deprive any American of a job. But many businesses go to extraordinary lengths to deny jobs to U.S. workers so they can hire foreigners instead. A BuzzFeed News investigation.

MOULTRIE, Georgia — “All you black American people, fuck you all…just go to the office and pick up your check,” the supervisor at Hamilton Growers told workers during a mass layoff in June 2009.

The following season, according to a lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, about 80 workers, many of them black, were simply told: “All you Americans are fired.”

Year after year, Hamilton Growers, which has supplied squash, cucumbers, and other produce to Wal-Mart and the Green Giant brand, hired scores of Americans, only to cast off many of them within weeks, according to the U.S. government. And time after time, the grower filled the jobs with foreign guest workers instead.

Although Hamilton Growers eventually agreed to pay half a million dollars to settle the suit, company officials said the allegations are baseless. Mass firings never happened, they said, nor did anyone use racially inflammatory language. But workers tell a different story.

“We want to go to work and work all day,” said Derrick Green, 32, a father of six who said he was fired by Hamilton Growers in 2012 after only three weeks picking squash. “But they don’t want that.”

Last year, thousands of American companies won permission to bring a total of more than 150,000 people into the country as legal guest workers for unskilled jobs, under a federal program that grants them temporary work permits known as H-2 visas. Officially, the guest workers were invited here to fill positions no Americans want: The program is notsupposed to deprive any American of a job, and before a company wins approval for a single H-2 visa, it must attest that it has already made every effort to hire domestically. Many companies abide by the law and make good-faith efforts to employ Americans.

Yet a BuzzFeed News investigation, based on Labor Department records, court filings, more than 100 interviews, inspector general reports, and analyses of state and federal data, has found that many businesses go to extraordinary lengths to skirt the law, deliberately denying jobs to American workers so they can hire foreign workers on H-2 visas instead.

A previous BuzzFeed News report found that many of those foreign workers suffer a nightmare of abuse, deprived of their fair pay, imprisoned, starved, beaten, sexually assaulted, or threatened with deportation if they dare complain.

At the same time, companies across the country in a variety of industries have made it all but impossible for U.S. workers to learn about job openings that they are supposed to be given first crack at. When workers do find out, they are discouraged from applying. And if, against all odds, Americans actually get hired, they often are treated worse and paid less than foreign workers doing the same job, in order to drive the Americans to quit. Sometimes, as the government alleged happened at Hamilton Growers, employers comply with regulations by hiring Americans only to fire them en masse and hand over the work to foreign workers with H-2 visas.

What’s more, companies often do this with the complicity of government officials, records show. State and federal authorities have allowed companies to violate the spirit — and often the letter — of the law with bogus recruitment efforts that are clearly designed to keep Americans off the payroll. And when regulators are alerted to potential problems, the response is often ineffectual.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Labor, which is charged with protecting workers and vetting employers seeking visas, said in a statement: “We acknowledge that the laws that authorize these programs are inadequate.” But the department also said that despite limited resources, it “actively pursues measures to strengthen protections for foreign and U.S. workers.”

The H-2 visa was created to address shortages in the American workforce. Although labor is indeed tight in some areas — such as North Dakota, where an oil boom has driven unemployment below 3% — there is little evidence of labor shortages in many industries that use the visas. In some cases, there is even a glut of available workers.

Landscaping companies, for example, were approved for more than 30,000 H-2 visas in the 2014 fiscal year. Yet Daniel Costa, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute, which receives some funding from unions, found that over the same period, unemployment in landscaping was more than twice as high as the national average.

“The problem with the system is that the H-2 workers who are coming in are not tied to actual, demonstrated labor shortages,” Costa said.

Companies that have difficulty finding American workers could attract more applicants by offering higher wages. But instead of encouraging or even subsidizing that, the government’s H-2 program effectively subsidizes the opposite effort — helping companies find pliant foreign labor, often at the expense of American workers.

Derek Davis outside his home near Moultrie, Georgia. Kevin D. Liles for BuzzFeed News

In the last five years, the number of H-2 visas issued by the State Department, which administers the program along with the Department of Homeland Security and the Labor Department, has surged by more than 50%.

Bills in Congress to expand the guest worker program have won support from both Democrats and Republicans in recent years. Business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce have lobbied for as many as 400,000 additional H-2 visas per year. But the issue has been overshadowed by larger debates over the legal status of millions of undocumented immigrants.

Around the country, lawyers and labor brokers actively promote the H-2 program as a way to boost profit margins. Usafarmlabor, a labor broker serving the agricultural industry, until this month bluntly stated on its site: “Our workers actually save you money each month in a comparison with U.S. workers.”

Employers who use the H-2 program note that it entails numerous added costs, including visa fees and transportation, as well as compliance with complex rules. It requires that most workers be paid above minimum wage, sometimes substantially so.

But the guest worker program also offers numerous financial incentives. Agricultural employers are exempt from payroll and unemployment taxes on H-2 workers, for example; nonagricultural employers do not have to provide housing, but if they do they are allowed to charge their workers rent, which is sometimes extortionate.

Foreign laborers usually live at the job site, available to work at any time. They typically come alone, without families or other distractions that could cause them to miss work. The terms of their visas prohibit them from taking other jobs, so they have almost no leverage when it comes to wages or working conditions. And since they often come from abject poverty in their home countries, many visa holders put up with difficult or even backbreaking conditions without complaint to ensure they are invited to return the next year.

The visa program can be even more advantageous to the many employers that exploit their guest workers, making them work long hours without overtime pay, charging them illegal fees, or flat-out cheating them of their wages — all of which are against the law, regardless of whether workers are American or foreign.

A cotton field near Moultrie, Georgia. Kevin D. Liles for BuzzFeed News

Hamilton Growers has been cited, repeatedly, for its treatment of its mostly Mexican workforce. Even as the farm was accused of casting off American workers, government investigators found that it failed to pay foreign employees all they were owed and that ithoused them in often deplorable conditions. Hamilton Growers vigorously denies that it mistreated workers.

Americans are far less isolated than foreigners on H-2 visas, many of whom cannot speak a word of English. U.S. workers often know at least some of their rights and how to complain about abuses. They frequently have family nearby whom they can turn to for support. And, perhaps most importantly, they can’t be threatened with deportation. But the guest worker program can still have a devastating impact on their jobs, their families, and their entire communities.

In house after house in Moultrie, American workers said they have been shut out of agriculture jobs that have been available in their community for generations. Older workers talked of becoming impoverished; younger ones said their chances of financial stability have been strangled, leaving them, in some cases, with little choice but to leave town.

“They got rid of us,” said Mary Jo Fuller, referring to black workers. A field-worker on and off for most of her life, she said she was abruptly terminated from J&R Baker Farms, near Moultrie, as part of a mass firing in 2010. Unable to find other employment, the 59-year-old said she wound up homeless for more than a year. “We don’t really have jobs no more.”

Moultrie is “nowhere, really, for a young person trying to make it,” added Green. “It just makes you angry, very angry,” he said. “We right here in America, and you don’t want us to work. You’d rather get foreigners.”

For several years, Abrorkhodja Askarkhodjaev ran a temp firm based in Kansas City that relied on H-2 guest workers from the Philippines, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic and that serviced large hotels and other businesses around the country.

“Foreign people will clean two rooms in one hour. The American will not even finish in one hour one room,” he said speaking from the federal prison where he is serving a 12-year term for crimes related to visa fraud.

“Foreigners are better,” Askarkhodjaev added. “Of course I tried not to hire Americans.”

Before a company can bring in any guest workers, it must clear a series of legal hurdles to prove to the government that it has tried but failed to recruit Americans for the job.

Companies that don’t actually want Americans, however, have devised a whole set of creative tricks to get around these hurdles.


To apply for the right to import foreign workers, a company must first post at least two newspaper job ads, including one on a Sunday, “in the area of intended employment.”

Some employers have a very broad definition of “area of intended employment.”

In January 2011, Talbott’s Honey, a small honey producer, placed ads as requiredsoliciting workers for jobs in Kimball, South Dakota. The ads, however, ran in Elkader, Iowa; Dalhart, Texas; and Hobbs, New Mexico — towns that arehundreds of miles from Kimball.

Talbott’s then told the government there were no available American workers and got permission to import 12 foreign workers instead.

Reached by phone, the company declined to comment on the matter. But when asked why it hadn’t run an ad somewhere in the actual vicinity of the job, Talbott’s wrote that it had tried but the ad “somehow fell thru the cracks,” according to Labor Department records.

Sometimes the government actually abets this tactic. In North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, seasonal jobs cutting down Christmas trees in the frenzied weeks before the holiday pay well. But year after year, the state’s online job board has incorrectly posted those jobs in the wrong counties, sometimes hundreds of miles from any pine forests. As a result, workers looking for Christmas tree work close to home face a peculiar paradox: The only way to find the openings nearby is to search in a faraway corner of the state.

Lawyers at Legal Aid of North Carolina have been complaining to the state Department of Commerce about the Christmas tree job posting discrepancies for years. Yet despite repeated promises by state regulators to fix it, the issue persists, the lawyers said.

Indeed, officials in the state at times seem to make it easy for employers to avoid hiring Americans. During the fiscal year that ended this July, the state’s job bank tallied work orders seeking H-2 workers for 17,496 agricultural job openings, according to the North Carolina Department of Commerce. More than 7,000 U.S. farmworkers had registered with the agency actively seeking work — yet only 505 of them were referred to those jobs.

Kim Genardo, spokesperson for the department, wrote in an email that the state’s “Foreign Labor Certification program is absolutely in compliance with federal law.”

Across the country, employers have run ads that failed to list any contact information,omitted the name of the company, or excluded relevant information such as what kind of job it was, where it was located, or how much it would pay, records show.

Some simply don’t place ads at all.

For years, Linda White ran a business in Livingston, Louisiana, securing H-2 visas for hundreds of employers. Late last month, she was sentenced to 18 months in federal prisonfor creating phony receipts in an attempt to convince regulators she had placed newspaper ads for dozens of clients, when in fact she had not. During a three-year period reviewed by the Labor Department, her clients were approved for more than 8,000 visas, federal data shows.

In an interview, White called the matter “a mistake,” adding that “nobody was going to call for these jobs over dumb newspaper ads anyhow. When clients come to me, what they want is their Mexicans.”


The H-2 program dates all the way back to 1952, and employers have been coming up with ways to game the system for almost as long.

An information sheet from the Snake River Farmers Association in Idaho from the mid-1980s, obtained by a legal aid group representing farmworkers from Texas, offered a list of tips on how to write job postings so that they would deter American applicants.

“Irrigators or pipe movers is a great job description because no one wants to move pipe,” the fact sheet said. “Ranch Hands,” by contrast, is “a poor description,” the memo noted, adding: “One might get some adventuresome young ladies from Cincinnati seeking the thrill of working on a western ranch. With numerous applications from such U.S. workers, the employer would never get around to recruiting aliens.”

In response to a query from BuzzFeed News, Jeanne Malitz, a lawyer who represents the association, initially said it was “unaware of the source of this document, or whether it was published or ever disseminated” and disavowed its contents. Told of the document’s origin, she declined to comment further.


Despite all the obstacles, some U.S. workers do manage to find out about job openings at the companies that are seeking to hire abroad. But many of those companies set unusually stringent requirements — for their U.S. applicants, at least.

Even for entry-level jobs, or tasks as simple as picking melons, some employers demand that American applicants have months or sometimeseven years of experience, clean drug tests, high school diplomas, familiarity with botanical nomenclature, knowledge of diabetic cooking, multiple references, or commercial driver’s permits.

Despite the H-2 program’s focus on unskilled labor, employers seeking guest workers routinely demand previous work experience, further raising the bar for Americans. In recent years a full three-quarters of companies approved to bring in agricultural guest workers have listed such requirements, according to a BuzzFeed News analysis of federal data. In some states — as geographically diverse as New York, North Carolina, Montana, and Washington — virtually all agricultural employers demand prior experience.

Such requirements are a way to “filter out U.S. workers,” said Lori Johnson, an attorney at Legal Aid of North Carolina. She noted that some fruit and vegetable picking jobs now require three months of experience. And, Johnson said, there is little evidence that such requirements are ever imposed on the foreign guest workers who ultimately get the jobs.

Some requirements also appear racially coded.

“I will keep my pants pulled up around my waist. I will wear pants and shirts that fit,”reads a document that Hamilton Growers required its workers to sign in 2013. “If I have long hair or extensions in my hair, I will fix my hair in such a manner that it can be placed under a hair net.”

Jon Schwalls, director of operations at the farm, said it was “ridiculous” to suggest that the language targeted black workers; those rules were about food and workplace safety, he said.


Early this year, the sign manufacturer Persona, of Watertown, South Dakota, obliged American applicants to take the Thurstone Test of Mental Alertness, which “helps measure an individual’s ability to learn new skills quickly, adjust to new situations, understand complex or subtle relationships, and be flexible in thinking.”

The 20-minute exam is often deployed to assess computer programmers, accountants, bank managers, andcommercial airline pilots, but Persona used it to evaluate — and reject — Americans applying for painting and welding jobs. A Labor Department official questioned whether the test “is going to be administered to foreign workers.”

A Persona official declined to comment.

When American workers showed up to apply for a job at Pro Landscape, in Hillsboro, Oregon, they were told they would have to dig a trench four feet long, a foot and a half wide, and a foot and a half deep within five minutes to be considered for the position, according to Labor Department records.

Manuel Castaneda, the company’s owner, called the task a “fair way” to see who was up to the job. But the Labor Department said the tests appeared “to not be normal” for the industry and to “be restrictive to U.S. workers.” Indeed, Labor Department records show that only five of the 18 applicants who attempted the tests passed. “The employer’s tests,” the department found, appear to have “discouraged U.S. workers.”


When Nicole Burt applied for work as a stable attendant in Kentucky, she was sure her experience and skills were unimpeachable. As a teenager in Vermont she showed, trained, and groomed horses, and no sooner did she graduate high school than she moved to the Bluegrass State in order to be in what she dubbed “the horse capital of the world.”

In early 2011, she applied to a dozen or so stables, she said, but none called her back. One of them was Three Chimneys Farm, a stately home for legendary thoroughbreds including the 1977 Triple Crown winner, Seattle Slew.

Three Chimneys, based in the town of Versailles, had told federal authorities it was “facinga distinct labor crisis and cannot locate or retain American workers” and that “all U.S. workers who express an interest in the employment opportunity will be interviewed for employment.” But when Burt called to check on her application, she was told no jobs were available.

“Basically we never hire US workers who are applying,” the farm’s director of human resources, LaTerri Williams, told the Department of Labor in a signed statement. “I don’t conduct interviews or take their applications. Basically I just tell them we have no openings.”

Nicole “Niki” Burt, at her home in Hustonville, Kentucky. Katie Simpson for BuzzFeed News

Asked by regulators why it didn’t give Burt a chance, as federal law required, the company stated that the single mother of three was better off unemployed than taking the $9.71-an-hour job. “Given the length of the commute, the cost of daycare, the loss of her eligibility for food stamps, it would cost Ms. Burt more to work for Three Chimneys than if she did not work at all,” the company said.

Burt said she never found another job working with horses, and in the months she waited, holding out hope that she’d get a call, she lost both her cars and her house. Almost four years later, the Labor Department awarded her $16,313 — the amount regulators calculated she would have earned at Three Chimneys had she been hired as the law required.

Three Chimneys did not respond to several requests for comment.

“I kept hearing the employers say that they couldn’t find anybody. And I just want to smack them, because we’re right here,” said Burt. “I felt betrayed. I just felt like America had let Americans down.”


The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa in Scottsdale, Arizona, was approved for 23 foreign housekeepers in 2012, arguing that the golf and convention seasons created a need from October to May. As required by law, the sprawling luxury resort, part of the $12 billion Starwood chain, placed ads for American workers in the Arizona Republic newspaper — but it rejected all five applicants. The company told the Labor Department that some failed to meet a one-month experience requirement.

The following year, however, when government inspectors contacted some of those rejected workers, a different story emerged. One applicant “revealed that she had over 25 years of housekeeping experience” and “used to run her own motel in Colorado,” investigation documents said.

The Labor Department ultimately ordered the Westin Kierland, which has a championship golf course, multiple pools, and a 900-foot “lazy river” spread over 262 acres, to pay a total of $13,500 in lost wages to two American workers it judged should have been hired. In a statement, Bruce Lange, Westin Kierland’s managing director, said the resort disagreed with the Labor Department’s findings but “chose to resolve the matter in order to focus our time and resources on caring for our associates and guests.”

Throughout the Midwest, corn detasseling is a popular summertime gig. So when D&K Harvesting filed a job posting in April 2013 — a step it had to take to win approval to import 120 H-2 workers — Katlyn Sanchez rushed to apply. The job, which involves removing the flower from cornstalks, typically draws high school kids and young adults.

But when the Kalamazoo, Michigan, teenager’s mother spoke to a recruiter over the phone a few days later, she was warned that it was “not a good situation for a young female worker alone,” according to a complaint later filed to regulators by Sanchez. “There will be all single men from Mexico” working alongside her, the recruiter later said, and her daughter “could get physically or sexually attacked.”

The recruiter added that D&K “will not be responsible for anything that happens” to Sanchez in the fields. Employers do not have the right to absolve themselves of workplace dangers, nor to decide that they’d rather not hire women. But the recruiter’s tactic worked: Sanchez’s mother agreed not to let her take the job.

The recruiter offered her approval: “I think you’ve made a good choice.”

D&K president Larry Marsh did not return several calls seeking comment.


Far off the interstate, perched under a big blue sky and surrounded by fields of fluffy cotton, Moultrie, population 14,000, feels frozen in time. Coffee can be found for less than a dollar. The charming central square is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And the town’s quiet old neighborhoods — some graceful, some ragged — are deeply segregated.

For many black men, job options are especially scarce. In the spring of 2012, Derrick Green, the father of six, had been unemployed and looking for work for several months, while his wife’s uncle, Derek Davis, 42, had trouble landing a job because of a pair of old drug convictions. When the two friends went together to the Moultrie branch of the Georgia Department of Labor to review job listings, both said they were desperate for work.

They were referred to Hamilton Growers, one of the area’s largest farms and one of the county’s largest employers, which had posted the openings as part of three separateapplications to import a total of 614 H-2 workers that year.

Along with roughly a dozen other folks, most of them black, Green and Davis submitted to drug tests and filled out applications. Picking squash under a relentless Georgia sun for$9.39 an hour is brutally hard and monotonous. But Green, who is athletic and slender, said he “learned to pick” as a child alongside his grandmother. Davis, a former U.S. Army mechanic, said he first toiled in the fields at 14.

It was June and already sweltering when they reported to work among lush crops rolling across the red clay. Rumbling old school buses transport workers to and from long rows where they stoop in the hot sun, picking squash, cucumber, and peppers.

Kent Hamilton, shown on Southern Valley’s Facebook page. Southern Valley / Facebook / ViaFacebook: southernvalleyfv

Hamilton Growers is owned by the Hamilton family, which boasts that it has cultivated land in this area for six generations. The enterprise has grown into an agricultural behemoth, with more than half a dozen interconnected corporations and LLCs running each aspect of the business: While Hamilton Growers files H-2 visa requests to the Labor Department, Southern Valley Fruit and Vegetable sells produce grown on the land.

Beyond south Georgia, the farm also has operations inTennessee and in 2003 went international, cultivating hundreds of acres in a remote section of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

At the headquarters in Norman Park, a 20-minute drive northeast of Moultrie, a prominent plaque proclaims that the farm commits to “feeding the nations and providing a source of income for those who labor here, as servants of our Lord for His glory.” The chief executive, Kent Hamilton, is beloved by local youths for the zip line over his swimming hole. He is on the board of the nonprofit Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Foundation and has donated thousands of dollars to local elected officials, including former U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who lives in Moultrie and previously chaired the powerful agriculture committee.

Nearly two decades ago, Hamilton Growers began bringing in foreign guest workers. It’s a transition increasing numbers of farmers have made in recent years — often, as in Hamilton’s case, after complaining they had lost crops for want of people to pick them.

“You don’t save any money” by using H-2 guest workers, said Matt Scaroni, whose family owns Fresh Harvest, a farm labor contractor based in California that accounted for roughly one-fifth of all agricultural H-2 visas approved in the state last year.

Matt Scaroni at his home in Heber, California. His family has farmed in California for five generations. Melissa Wood for BuzzFeed News

By Scaroni’s calculation, housing, transportation, and legal costs, not to mention state and federal inspections and regulations, cost upwards of $4,000 to $5,000 for each guest worker “before they pick one fruit.”

In the past year, Scaroni said, Fresh Harvest has rented entire motels in Salinas to accommodate workers, along with apartments and traditional farmworker housing. The company has also been forced into once unthinkable expenditures, such as purchasing 3,000 new beds and launching a catering operation to provide meals, he said. In Salinas, he added, a paid cleaning service even visits many of the Fresh Harvest motels.

That’s a very different standard of living from that of many guest workers at Hamilton Growers. Some of them live in concrete dorms, others in rotting old school buses on cinder blocks in a forest near the grower’s packing operation, for which they say they must pay nearly $300 a month. In 2005, health inspectors told Hamilton Growers that its portable toilets couldn’t simply “have a hole cut in the bottom and a pit dug for waste.”

On a recent afternoon, some Mexican H-2 workers sat in the thick heat inside a dimly lit school bus and said that the company wasn’t paying them for all the hours they worked. None agreed to be named. “People are scared,” one of them said.

Their grievances echo those made by more than a dozen Mexican H-2 workers who suedHamilton Growers and Southern Valley in federal court last year, alleging that the companies had engaged in intentional wage theft. American workers eventually joined the suit.

The companies deny the charge, but earlier this month they agreed to pay $485,000 to settle the lawsuit because, Schwalls said, doing so was less expensive than litigating it.

He said that the company pays its employees properly and that its housing “meets and exceeds” federal standards. All bedrooms have central heat and air conditioning even though it is not required, he said, and there are no pit toilets at the housing site.

He expressed shock when told that workers had a receipt showing they had paid the company’s longtime foreman, who departed this summer, $296 a month to live in the school buses. “That is not our land,” Schwalls said. “I can only speak to those workers who choose company housing, which is at no charge to the employees.”

Some of Hamilton Growers’ H-2 guest workers pay to live in school buses near the company’s headquarters. Jessica Garrison / BuzzFeed News

Hamilton Growers has consistently maintained that it uses foreign workers not because they are cheaper or more pliant, but because there are simply not enough U.S. workers. “I would prefer to have an all-domestic workforce,” Schwalls said. “We hire 100% of the American applications we receive.”

But according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Hamilton Growersfired or pushed out “the overwhelming majority” of the 114 American field-workers it hired in 2009 — but “few to none” of the 370 Mexican guest workers. In 2010, the company hired 233 American workers and got rid of “nearly all” of them, yet almost none of its 518 Mexican H-2 employees lost their jobs. The story was the same in 2011, the government charged in a rare lawsuit.

In late 2012, the company agreed to pay $500,000, without admitting guilt, and entered into a consent decree, pledging to be “a model employer in the area of anti-discrimination and equal employment opportunity.”

Despite the settlement, Schwalls said the government’s claims were “completely inaccurate and false” and that it was only poor record keeping that prevented Hamilton Growers from proving that workers had voluntarily abandoned their jobs. “It’s just a family farm,” he said. “There was no understanding of the need for documentation.” Wal-Mart, which has been one of the farm’s customers, declined to speak for this story, while Green Giant didn’t respond to a request to comment.

By the time Derrick Green applied for the job at Hamilton Growers in 2012, he had heard rumors about troubles at the farm but was assured by staff at the local employment office that the company had mended its ways.

“They told me they was good now,” Green recalled.

Derrick Green in his home in Moultrie, Georgia. Kevin D. Liles for BuzzFeed News

He lasted just three weeks, he said, before he and a dozen other Americans were abruptly fired for not meeting production targets.

The workers protested, demanding to see some kind of accounting of their performance, but the company refused to provide it, Green recalled. “We had a big argument in that office,” he said. The dispute ended, he said, only after one manager pulled out a can ofmace and another picked up the phone to summon the cops.

Schwalls said he could not comment on terminations of individual employees but insisted no one was ever threatened with mace.

This month, as part of their settlement of the suit brought by foreign guest workers, Hamilton Growers and Southern Valley agreed to pay 13 American workers, including Green, $1,500 each for claims that they were wrongly fired.

After their time at Hamilton Growers, Green and Davis returned to the employment office and were referred to J&R Baker Farms, another big vegetable grower in the area that has come to rely heavily on guest workers. In 2012, the farm applied for 160 H-2 visas, arguing there were not enough Americans who wanted the job.

Davis and Green were both hired. For the first few days, they say, the company made it difficult for them to work — by not sending the bus that was supposed to transport them to the fields or by dismissing them after just a couple of hours. On Green’s fourth day, the bus made an unscheduled stop at the front office, Green recalled, and a foreman told the Americans — but not the Mexican guest workers — to get off the bus. Nine Americans were fired that day, according to a lawsuit Green and others later filed against the company.

The entrance to J&R Baker Produce. Jessica Garrison / BuzzFeed News

J&R Baker too has been repeatedly accused of mistreating both its American workers and guest workers. In 2010, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour division fined the farm $136,500 and said it should pay $1.3 million in back wages. The farm eventually settled with the agency, agreeing to pay a fraction of those amounts.

In 2012, two dozen black workers sued J&R Baker, alleging that they were held to different production standards than H-2 workers and that many of them were unlawfully fired for not meeting quotas. The grower settled that case in February 2014, agreeing to pay up to $2,200 to each of the terminated employees.

Six months later, in a case similar to the one it filed against Hamilton Growers, the EEOCfiled suit against J&R Baker in federal court, accusing the grower of giving American workers fewer hours than guest workers and then firing them.

Among the plaintiffs who received $2,200 in the 2012 case is Fuller, the woman who said she wound up homeless after being laid off. Fuller said her firing was particularly painful because of her long relationship with the Baker family. She grew up on the farm, she said, and her grandmother was a nanny for the family. She said she took care of Jerod and Rodney Baker, the two current owners, when they were kids.

Back then, she said, they were “sweet little boys.” Sitting on a rickety lawn chair in front of her tiny home in Moultrie, Fuller frowned. “They grown now. They can do what they want.” She paused. “They mean.”

In an interview, Jerod Baker said his former workers’ allegations were false. They weren’t fired, he said — they quit.

“They’ll say anything, believe me. Half of them was either on drugs or coming to work late or smelling like a brewery,” he said. “They literally come out here with baggy pants, and they have to hold their pants up, and the other ones either have a cigarette in their mouth or a cell phone. How are they going to be able to work like that?” He added, “85% of them told me, ‘Screw this, we’ll keep getting our government check.’”

Baker vowed never to settle the lawsuit filed by the EEOC, even though, he said, fighting it is costing him a fortune. “The word on the street is go get a job with J&R Baker or Southern Valley, work for a few days, and quit — you can go sue them and then get you a check. That’s exactly what’s going on.”

As for Fuller, he said the idea that she was his babysitter was “the craziest bull sense of crap I ever heard.”

The heart of the issue, Baker said, is that domestic workers “can’t keep up with the Mexican workers. It’s just a disaster,” he said. “We would much rather hire American people in our own country to work, but they will not work.” Without legal guest workers or “illegal people” to work the fields, Americans are “either going to have to buy all our food from another country, or we’re going to have to all starve to death.”

A cabbage field near Moultrie, Georgia. Kevin D. Liles for BuzzFeed News

The H-2 program often pits one vulnerable group against another.

Last year, the South Carolina watermelon and blueberry producer Coosaw Farms was suedin federal court by black workers who allege their bosses told them “colored people just don’t work as fast as Mexicans.” The suit charges that Coosaw officials called its American employees “niggers” and made it easier for Mexican workers to meet production quotas. The farm also gave its H-2 workers access to nicer bathrooms, letting them wash their hands before lunch, the lawsuit claims.

Angela O’Neal, who helps direct the H-2 program at the farm, said she could not comment on the litigation, which is still pending, but added, “I can say that we do not, nor would we ever, tolerate a work environment that is anything less than respectful toward each and every employee.”

She added that “independent, third-party audits” — performed on behalf of buyers — “confirm that the company has a strong record of providing a positive and fair work environment for our employees, regardless of their nationality.” She declined to provide the audits, saying, “We do not own them and do not have the legal authority to share them.” In 2013, Labor Department investigators looked into a complaint that Coosaw had displaced domestic workers in favor of guest workers but found it was unsubstantiated.

Downtown Moultrie, Georgia. Kevin D. Liles for BuzzFeed News

Around Moultrie, the resentment goes both ways. Inside a sweltering school bus near the Hamilton Growers labor camp, Mexican workers complained that U.S. workers don’t have to work as hard as they do, aren’t required to work on Sundays, and often get released early — apparently unaware that the American workers want more hours, not fewer.

Many American workers, meanwhile, are resentful because they claim guest workers are stealing their jobs. But some Americans note that the workers who replace them get a raw deal too.

“It ain’t hard to see. As long as they out there on that farm, they must work, and they never get to leave. I felt bad for them,” Green said.

His uncle-in-law, Davis, said he feared that the lack of jobs might eventually force him to leave his home. Standing next to a trailer he is refurbishing on a family plot of land, Davis gestured out at the lawn and the quiet country roads slicing through green fields that stretch to the horizon.

“This is my country,” he said, “and I can’t get a break for nothing.”

 

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This group of Australian students has invented a new way to diagnose diseases — and it could lead to a tool that’s better than what we’ve got now.

It’s got the power to save lives, and in a few years you may even see it on a cellphone.

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These dudes did it! And they’re clearly pumped about it. Image courtesy of Dr. Lawrence Lee.

In 2014, the team of undergrads entered a prestigious biomolecular design competition at Harvard University from halfway around the world — and took home first place.
They call themselves Team EchiDNA. They’re a group of Australian undergrads led by Dr. Lawrence Lee of the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in Sydney.

So how did they win? They looked at nature.
Together with Lee, the team designed the Cooperative Molecular Biosensor that can detect viruses and diseases. They drew their inspiration from the design models found in nature.

“By copying nature, we’re constructing new technologies that can potentially be used to drive a rapid diagnostic device,” Lee explained to me via email.

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Team members at the BIOMOD contest at Harvard’s Wyss Institute. Image via Jacob Klensin/Wyss Institute.

The Cooperative Molecular Biosensor is a tiny sensor made up of a ring of beacons that light up when they bind to the target DNA — of a virus, pathogen, or even mutation.

Is the virus present? If yes, the ring lights up. That’s all there is to it. You can see more of a scientific explanation in their project video.

But the bottom line: more sensitive testing and fewer false positives. Yes!

 

A group of students pulling this off is impressive. The short time frame they did it in is even more so.
The team was made up of undergraduates, and as Lee describes, had many other student responsibilities to worry about.

“We started the project quite late with only a few months for everything to come together,” he says, explaining the challenges they’ve faced. “The team consisted of undergraduate students who still had to attend lectures, submit assignments, and sit exams.”

Giving hope to procrastinators everywhere!

Winning the contest was just the beginning. This invention has the potential to revolutionize the way we diagnose diseases like Ebola.
At the same time the students were busy winning awards for their invention, Ebola was wreaking havoc on parts of the world. And flat-out scaring the rest of it.

 

During the outbreak, Lee says, “there was a clear need for definitive and rapid diagnostics of Ebola so that patients could be identified, isolated, and treated quickly to stem the spread of the disease.”
Because the initial symptoms of Ebola are so similar to those of other diseases (malaria, typhoid fever, other bad stuff), diagnosis in the early stages can be very difficult. With current technology, a patient may be in the hospital for multiple days before a positive Ebola diagnosis is made.

Team EchiDNA saw the need to rapidly diagnose Ebola and tailored their design to help fill that void.
The team created their design to target the DNA of the Ebola virus — although, as Lee explains, “I must stress that the capacity to detect Ebola DNA sequences in laboratory setting is a long way from robust and accurate diagnostics in patient samples.”

 

In other words — the device is a long way from being sent into the field. But they are working to get there.

And once the design is perfected, it can be tailored to diagnose a wide range of other specific diseases: tuberculosis, HIV, or even a common flu.

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So what’s next? Lee said he and his lab (which still includes a couple members of the winning team) are working to refine the sensor and make it “so sophisticated you can test for bacteria or viruses by plugging a blood sample into your mobile phone,” according to their press release.

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Can you imagine!? A cell phone that diagnoses disease. Whoa. Image via Thinkstock.

These students should be so proud — and we should be so thankful for the young brains around the world helping to transform the future.
The technology being developed could drastically change the course of an Ebola outbreak — and other diseases — and stop it in its tracks before it can get out of hand. Life-saving!

 

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