Wednesday, March 30, 2016


Photographs by David Bacon
The Nation, 3/30/16

In a craft factory on the highway to the coast from Hanoi, a worker polishes a stone statue. (Photos by David Bacon)

A welder carries his tank of gas in a rig on the side of his motorbike, with his other equipment behind the seat.

A man makes keys for the omnipresent motorscooters on the sidewalk.

At 4 AM in the Long Bien Market, vegetable sellers pick up their produce for the day from farmers bringing it in from the countryside. Two women carry theirs in a sling hanging from bamboo poles.

Two vegetable sellers sort their produce early in the morning, before loading it on their bicycles.

Construction workers on scaffolding built from a combination of metal pipes and bamboo.

Bui Anh Tuyet (left) is in charge of reader relations for the Lao Dong newspaper, and Nguyen Thi Huyen (right) is a young education reporter. Tuyet receives and answers e-mails and letters from readers, and answers the hotline that receives 10-15 calls from readers every day.


A woman has a manicure given by a roving manicurist who works on the street.

At the end of the workday in the Dong Xuan Market, a woman in a clothing stall can't quite keep her eyes open.


A woman who works in a small clothing store carries the cloth for new garments purchased in the Dong Xuan Market.

A street seller with her chestnuts.

A street seller wheels her bicycle with its load of oranges.

By the railroad tracks in central Hanoi a woman begins cooking the meals she'll serve to her customers at lunchtime in her sidewalk cafe.

Nguyen Thi Binh was a fisherman, and now rows boats for tourists, taking them through the floating village that was her former home in Ha Long Bay.


The May 10 garment factory has a school on the grounds, where this teacher tries to keep order in her classroom.

A construction worker carries rebar to a building project in Sapa, a town in the mountains near China in a region where most people belong to the Hmong and Zhao national minorities.

Hanoi's streets are filled with motorbikes, many like taxis on two wheels. One driver relaxes on his bike, reading the paper, waiting for a fare.


A Hanoi city worker cuts apart the tree branches trimmed from trees overlooking the street.

Two Hanoi city workers arrange the flowers into a display in Lenin Park.

The engineer of the night train waits to leave on the run from Hanoi to Lao Cai, in the mountains near the Chinese border.


Where a Staff of 200 Reports on Abuses at Home and Abroad
Lao Dong belongs to the official union federation, but it maintains an independent critical voice.
By David Bacon
The Nation, 3/30/16

The road from Hanoi to the airport and south to the coast crosses the Red River a few miles from the Long Bien railroad bridge. Forty-five years ago, US B-52s bombed it repeatedly, pounding it with more explosives than were ever dropped on any Nazi factory in World War II. Today, trucks and motos crowd a multi-lane highway running atop the dikes. Below it, neat fields of bananas and vegetables spread to the edges of new towns-multi-story houses and apartment blocks rising suddenly from the flat delta landscape.

As Vietnam moves further down the road of a market economy, old and new collide in every aspect of life. People drive to the airport on a freeway, but mostly on scooters, not in cars. That might be better for the environment, but double and even triple lines of parked scooters already choke the downtown sidewalks. Bicycles are still part of the traffic mix, but people's expectations about how to get around have moved way beyond them. A working couple can have their wedding photo taken in front of Hanoi's Prada outlet, whose display rivals anything on Union Square in San Francisco. But who can afford to buy anything inside? Buildings go up, but housing costs force lots of young adults to live at home with their parents.

Vietnam's history with the United States is woven into all these contradictions. Ho Chi Minh quoted our own Declaration of Independence in Vietnam's 1945 independence proclamation; its 70th anniversary was celebrated last year. Despite that tribute, the United States first funded the reinstallation of the French colonial regime from the end of World War II to its defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Then the United States, together with symbolic forces from a few anti-Communist allies, fought one of the bloodiest wars in its history against Ho and the Vietnamese revolution. The United States was forced to withdraw its troops in 1973, and the South Vietnamese government it funded fell in 1975, after which the country was reunited.

Postwar, the market economy was launched in 1986, but it only really took off after President Bill Clinton dropped the US trade embargo in 1994. Vietnam and Washington signed their first trade agreement in 2000.

Now, with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) multilateral trade agreement on the horizon, economic integration will likely have as great an impact on the people of both countries as NAFTA did on workers in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. And just as that trade agreement produced closer cross-border relationships between labor in the NAFTA countries (although this was not the intention of the treaty's corporate authors), some US and Vietnamese activists would like to see similar relationships develop across the Pacific.

 "Increasingly, the same multinational corporations are operating in both our countries, and our economies are more integrated," says Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center and vice-president of the California Federation of Teachers. "We need to work together to defend worker rights and economic justice. The Vietnam War ended 40 years ago. In those years millions of people in this country stood with the people of Vietnam for peace. That same spirit of solidarity is needed to support a common agenda for peace and justice today."

American unions, however, know very little about Vietnamese workers or the country's labor movement. It might surprise unionists here, for instance, to discover that Vietnam not only has a labor newspaper, Lao Dong (Labor), but that it has a staff of about 200. It's a mainstream publication and the second most widely read newspaper in Vietnam, with a print run of 40,000 and another 200,000 digital subscribers. And Lao Dong has deep roots, having been published since 1930. This is in remarkable contrast to the United States, where we have no national labor newspaper.

Lao Dong is published by the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL), the country's official union federation. It was founded as the Red Federation of Trade Unions in 1929, part of the resistance movement to French colonialism, and has had a close relationship with the Vietnamese Communist Party from the beginning. Its president, Dang Ngoc Tung, is a member of the party's central committee. Under Vietnam's labor law, all unions must belong to the VGCL, although language in the TPP may end that requirement. The federation has about 9 million members, about half the country's estimated 18 million wageworkers, in an economically active population of 50 million.

Lao Dong, however, gets no subsidy from the VGCL, and its budget is paid by ads and subscriptions. "That gives us our independence," says its editor-in-chief, Tran Duy Phuong. Last year the paper needed its independence. Throughout 2014, it had published a series of stories about the abuses suffered by Vietnamese migrant laborers working abroad. Many stories were based on investigations by reporters of letters, e-mails, and phone calls on its hotline from relatives of people working as contract laborers, especially in Saudi Arabia.

One came from Ms. Le Thi Bien, whose sister Le Thi Khanh left Vietnam in October 2014 for a job as a domestic worker in Riyadh. "My sister had to work constantly, even at night, with no time to rest," Bien wrote. "She got an eating disorder due to the stress of being insulted all the time." When she asked for her pay, the son of the family employing her held a gun to her head.

The family tried complaining to Vietnam's Department for Management of Overseas Labor, part of the Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs (MOLISA), but got no reply. Lao Dong reporters tracked down the recruiting company based in Vietnam, whose representative, Lai Thi Ha Thu, claimed the incident "wasn't deliberate intimidation or malice, just joking." The government labor department admitted it had no representatives in Saudi Arabia to monitor conditions. The case caused an uproar in the Phu Tho province, where Khanh's family lives, and the provincial labor federation there demanded tighter restrictions on labor contractors in the law governing recruitment of foreign workers, and monitoring by the government to ensure better treatment.

Other domestic workers reported similar abuse. In Saudi Arabia, To Thi Dung had to wake up at 6 every morning and work until 2-3 AM the next day. After two months of nosebleeds, vertigo, and dizziness, she told her family in Vietnam she couldn't take it anymore. Focusing on labor contractors, Lao Dong showed that Dung's recruiter, Hai Duong Branch, was given government certification to recruit laborers to foreign countries, despite the reported mistreatment. When Dung asked to go home, she was threatened and her family had to borrow 23 million dong (over $1,000) to compensate the company for breaking her two-year contract.

Another Vietnamese overseas worker, Ma Thi Yen, was beaten, sexually abused, and had to work 16 hours a day. After she wrote to Lao Dong, the paper exposed her mistreatment and Yen finally received 23 million dong from the contractor, but her mother-in-law told a reporter, "I would rather my child stay home, eat vegetables with vegetables, or porridge with porridge, than ever dare think of leaving as a migrant laborer."

Lao Dong eventually sent three teams of reporters to countries where Vietnamese women were working as domestics, developing its main story on semi-bondage conditions in Malaysia. As a result of it, 200 women were freed there and repatriated to Vietnam.

The articles stirred up controversy. "We got pressure for running the stories," says editor-in-chief Phuong. "A lot came from the recruiting agencies, who weren't taking responsibility for the conditions faced by people they'd recruited. But we also got pressure from the embassies and the higher-ups." Authorities were embarrassed over the exposé of their failure to protect workers abroad. The paper was accused of endangering the government's labor-export policy and its increasing dependence on foreign remittances, which in recent years reached $2 billion annually, according to a report by the International Labor Organization.

That report found an extensive network of labor brokers, placement agencies that recruit the workers, and even individual agents in rural areas working for the recruiters. Workers are very vulnerable in this system. They have to pay fees to the labor brokers and leave a large deposit to guarantee they'll work to the end of their contract. Quitting or getting fired can be an economic disaster. MOLISA is responsible for licensing labor recruiters in Vietnam and for regulating and monitoring their activity and fees. The department is also responsible, however, for expanding the overseas market for Vietnamese labor by signing contracts with foreign employer groups, while at the same time enforcing minimum standards. That can produce a conflict of interest, since aggressively protecting workers can lead foreign employers to find sources of workers from other countries that cause fewer problems or are willing to accept lower wages.

*  *  *

Migration is not a new issue in Vietnam. Its domestic population is 93 million, and about 4 million Vietnamese live abroad. In the years following the American War (as Vietnamese call it), most of those who left the country did so as refugees. During the Cold War, tens of thousands of Vietnamese also studied and worked in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, and other then-socialist countries. Many stayed on afterward and live there still. According to the (US) Migration Policy Institute, Nguyen is now the ninth most common surname in the Czech Republic.

After the 1986 Doi Moi economic reforms loosened restrictions on emigration, the number of people leaving Vietnam as contract workers rose sharply. In 2000, the government reported that 118,000 people were working abroad as migrants. The number went up by 5.5 percent a year from 2000 to 2010, and shows no sign of slowing.

Like many developing countries, Vietnam has become a labor exporter. In 2014, over 100,000 Vietnamese got jobs in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. This growth is partly a result of limited employment at home, partly of international wage differentials. A million and a half young Vietnamese enter the labor force each year, and the economy, despite an average 6.5 percent growth rate, can't produce jobs for them all. Vietnam is not the country with the lowest wages in Southeast Asia-agricultural labor in Malaysia, for instance, pays less than Vietnam's lowest wages, and garment jobs in Bangladesh pay even less. But a domestic job in the Middle East can pay what a good job in Vietnam might-$300-400 a month. A factory job in South Korea or Japan can pay $700-900.

To get those jobs, many families pay huge fees or bribes to labor contractors-the system investigated by Lao Dong. Despite glowing promises, the paper found a sordid record of unpaid wages, withheld passports and earnings, filthy labor camps where workers were virtually imprisoned, and other abuses.

*  *  *

Lao Dong reports on labor abuses in Vietnam as well. Five years ago it won a national prize for a series about workers in private coal mines, called "Pirate Mines." After workers sent letters to the paper denouncing dangerous conditions, the paper sent reporters to work undercover to investigate. Coal operators later put a $5,000 price on the head of the lead reporter for exposing the abuses.

According to Angie Ngoc Tran, political economy professor at California State University Monterey Bay, "The Lao Dong newspaper, a dynamic pro-labor press, has been covering the strikes and worker grievances throughout Vietnam closely. They have journalists stationed in Ho Chi Minh City who go to the strike scene on a daily basis to cover the strikes and report them promptly to support workers. However, because this newspaper belongs to the VGCL, Lao Dong has to walk a delicate balance between championing workers' rights and promoting the interests of the state and the labor unions."

When 90,000 workers struck foreign-owned factories in Ho Chi Minh City in March 2015, one was quoted declaring, "With the wage of 3.48 million dong/month [about $167], every month I pay 380,000 dong to the social insurance fund. If I work for 10 more years, until I reach 40, I no longer have good health [enough energy] to work."

 "Our method of work is to first pay attention to what workers tell us," one Lao Dong editor told me. "We'll verify the information we're given, and then assign a reporter to follow up." If there's no danger to the workers, and with their consent, the paper will use their names. But it will protect the confidentiality of its sources if necessary. According to Vietnam's media law, reporters don't have to provide the names of sources unless they are demanded by a national government prosecutor. Chief editor Phuong says Lao Dong has had many fights prosecutors over the disclosure of sources.

Photographs in Lao Dong also document the lives of working people. Some come from workers themselves, but staff photographer Duong Quoc Binh also develops full-page photo-essays. Not all are about labor disputes. A recent one looked at the indigenous custom of fire-walking, which dates back 3,000 years to India and Sri Lanka. "Today the Pa Then ethnic people in Ha Giang Province celebrate this festival from October's first full moon to the end of January," he says in the introduction to the photo-essay.

Photo by Duong Quoc Binh, courtesy of Lao Dong

The most prominent photo in the series shows sparks flying in a night-time scene, while a silhouetted figure walks across the burning ground. Its most dramatic images show the soles of the feet and the palms of the hands of dancers, gray with the ash from coals. The young people who participate are paid 200,000 dong (less than $10) for their labor by the religious figure who organizes the event.

Workers at Lao Dong belong to the Vietnam Public Sector Union. Like most unions in socialist countries, its members include people in management. In US labor law, management is excluded from unions that represent workers. Most US unions feel that a union would not be able to fight for workers with complaints or grievances if the managers creating problems were also union members, nor would the organization be able to successfully fight for better wages and conditions.

According to Chau Nhat Binh, who recently retired as the deputy director of the international department of the VGCL, wages for a reporter at Lao Dong start at about $500 per month and can go up to $2,000. When workers have complaints against a manager in their own workplace or disagree with a decision, they can go to an inspectorate, or audit committee. "They quite often overrule the manager," Binh says. "Three years ago, workers at Lao Dong were unhappy with the then-editor in chief. They went to the inspectorate, and eventually were able to remove him."

Other pressures faced by Lao Dong workers would sound familiar in a US newsroom or to freelancers here. Staff reporters and photographers are expected to multitask-that is, to write and take pictures, and post material on the paper's website and blog. Over the years, women pushed for more and better jobs, and today, Lao Dong's staff includes more women than men. And while it has 200 permanent full-time employees, the paper also uses material from about 50 freelancers. Some are regular contributors and are covered under its labor agreement, but occasional contributors are not.

Despite their differences, both US and Vietnamese unions are worried about the impact of the TPP and corporate domination of trade and investment policy. "I'm really not sure about the promised benefits of TPP," Binh says. "It sounds like investors will certainly benefit, and the garment industry will expand, but what will the benefits be for workers?" The VGCL has been actively organizing workers in the foreign-owned factories for the past five years, he explains, and the federation's membership has grown. He wonders whether the intention of the TPP's prohibition on a single union for all workers is an invitation to set up rival unions.

Kent Wong of UCLA has even sharper doubts. "TPP is a pro-corporate trade agreement that lacks worker-rights protections," he emphasizes. "It's also a US-led corporate and military alliance to oppose China." The agreement has the formal support of the VGCL, which is tied politically to Vietnam's governing Communist Party and formally supports its policies. But Wong cautions that "many Asian labor unions, including those in Vietnam, feel compelled to participate given the economic pressures on their countries and their need to seek foreign investment."

The most effective response, Wong believes, is solidarity: "Now more than ever, the US labor movement needs to strengthen global solidarity in the Pacific Rim, and propose alternative trade policies that support worker rights."

Tuesday, March 29, 2016


Photographs by David Bacon

Playas de Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, 2014

"En Los Campos del Norte" or "In the Fields of the North" is an exhibition of photographs of farm workers in the U.S., almost all migrants from Mexico, taken by David Bacon. They are hung on the iron bars of the border wall, on the Mexican side of the wall between Mexico and the U.S. in Playas de Tijuana. The exhibition was organized Jose Manuel Valenzuela and Gabriela Zamora of the Colegio de la Frontera (COLEF), and was printed and mounted by the Centro Cultural de Tijuana (CECUT).

Thursday, March 17, 2016


March 04, 2016
By David Bacon, unit vice-chair
Guild Freelancers, A Unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, CWA Local 94521


This is the first of several articles published by the webpage of Guild Freelancers, the part of our union for freelance writers, photographers, graphic designers, interpreters and other media workers.  In these articles we will look at what life is like for freelancers, and how we can solve our problems by working together in the union.

As freelancers, we know we do the work. Ad while the way we work is what defines us, it's also the root of many of our problems.

We provide the content, but because we don't have a traditional employer-employee relationship with the publications that run our articles or photos, we don't get regular paychecks.

Some of us used to be staff writers or photographers or graphic artists. Maybe we took a buyout, or got downsized and laid off. Others of us are just beginning our careers as digital natives, and never had the chance to work on staff.

We've always had to sell what we produce, article by article, photo by photo, drawing by drawing. And at some publications, we have to ask to use our own words or images because we're forced to surrender all copyright claims in order to work.

Many of us are also living without a parachute.

Freelancers in dangerous countries have to survive without the expense accounts and protections afforded to foreign correspondents and photojournalists on staff. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, freelancers comprised 17 percent of all journalists killed worldwide since 1992. In 2015, over 25 percent of all journalists imprisoned were freelancers, and at least six freelancers have "disappeared" since 2004.

For most of us, that lack of support is evident in many ways. No single employer takes responsibility for our healthcare, nor provides a consistent income that can pay the rent. It's up to us to piece together enough work to survive on.

It's like living on a roller coaster: our income swings wildly, and we constantly have to look for a new editor to buy our pictures or stories.

That gives the gatekeepers in our lives a lot of power. We survive on personal relationships, and if they go sour we're in trouble. All of a sudden we're too old, not the right color or gender, or just not friendly or humble enough - and the door closes. Off we go down the digital street looking for another buyer for our skills and product.

Since we're dealing as individuals with the people who pay us, we really have no power in this situation. The proof is the rates we're paid.

Dollars and cents

In the pre-digital era, one print article might've paid $1,000 - a month's rent in those days - and a photo assignment could've paid the same. Now print assignments are disappearing along with the print publications themselves. That leaves us with the web, and the rates there are just a fraction of what we used to make.

One or two hundred dollars for an article, or even less for a photo, pays about a day or two's worth of of a market-rate rental in San Francisco. That means squeezing three or four people into two-bedroom apartments, or having a partner with a good job. We ourselves take other jobs to survive.

The bottom line is that most of us can't live on what we're making.

So if this is due to our lack of power in economic relationships - bargaining as individuals with the media that use what we produce - the big question is: Can we get together? After all, even for staffers, it's the same question.

Without the ability to act together, we can't change anything.

But for freelancers especially, getting together means overcoming some serious obstacles. To begin with, even if we're given a contract at all (and mostly we work on a handshake or verbal commitment) the first thing it says is that we're independent contractors, not employees.

We believe that if we look at The Newspaper Guild's history, we can see that it used to be like this for direct employees, too. That's why they organized, at the risk of losing jobs or getting blacklisted. In those early days, publishers said reporters and photographers would never be able to get together, and even if they did, the big papers would never sit down and agree to change wages and conditions.

Today's publishers are still saying it. That's what our members heard at the Contra Costa Times, for instance, when they first joined the union. They persisted in spite of threats and dire predictions, and today they have a contract.

That we have a union today is proof our predecessors in the union were right and the publishers were wrong.

Greater than the sum

If we can find a way to get together as freelancers, no piece of paper that says we're independent contractors, and no high priced lawyers saying we're legally barred from bargaining, will be able to stop us. After all, the companies we work for need what we produce. They need our content to fill those blank pages, whether on paper or on the web.

What could we gain as a union that we couldn't get otherwise?

We can raise rates. Many of us have been talking about trying to make $1-a-word a new standard for our industry. For a photo, it might be $100 for an image. These are just ideas - we need to talk about rates and agree on what we want to fight for.

We need a way to complain effectively about mistreatment or discrimination. This could mean help getting paid if we get stiffed, or support if we're not treated fairly.

We've already been able to negotiate better dental and vision insurance than we could have gotten as individuals, through the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Freelance members also have access to press passes.

That's a starting point.

If we could get collective agreements for freelancers, we could get publishers to take responsibility for better healthcare. And since we will all want to stop working at some point, we might even be able to negotiate a modest retirement plan.

Our union already provides training programs for journalism students, and free training courses to members.

We are often pitted against each other as freelancers. This creates an unhealthy atmosphere in which we look at each other as competition.

Instead, we need to see that we are all in this together.

Let's find in each other the strength to make our lives better.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016


U.S. market ideology is undermining human rights for elders.
By David Bacon
Dollars and Sense, March 2015, New America Media

Dallas lives in the camp outside the old Berkeley City Hall, called by the residents an occupation.  It is a protest against the Berkeley City Council passing an anti-homeless ordinance.

Is there a human right to age in dignity? Some countries think so.

Unfortunately, ours isn't one of them.

The Organization of American States recently adopted the first international convention on the human rights of older people (though the United States did not endorse it). The Organization of African Unity is debating its own convention, and is expected to adopt it next year.

It is ironic that the world's poorer countries, presumably those with the fewest resources to deal with aging, are in the vanguard of establishing this set of rights. Meanwhile, the richest countries with the most resources, including the United States and the European Union, are arguing against applying a human rights framework to aging. In part, their contrarian stance reflects the dominance of market ideology. In a corporate economy, people lose their social importance and position when they are not working and producing value. In the United States, the resulting set of priorities has a devastating impact on older people.

While some countries are creating a new definition of human rights to include aging, and passing conventions that incorporate it, millions of seniors in the United States live in very vulnerable and precarious conditions, which are violations of their human rights as viewed in this context.

In another 15 years, 18% of the people in the United States will be over 65 years old. Though their numbers may be increasing, however, their security is not. In fact, the future of the nation's elders is growing ever more precarious.

According to a recent study, Senior Poverty in America, by Rebecca Vallas, director of policy in the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress, 10% of seniors (4.6 million people) fall below this country's official poverty line.

In 1966 it was 29%. That sounds like progress. Vallas attributes the decline mostly to Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs established during this period. But this appearance of progress, she says, doesn't account for the desperate situation of millions of seniors today. The programs helped people, but their success at lowering poverty among some seniors masks the desperate situation of millions of others. The official poverty line is too low, has grown increasingly out of whack over the years from the real cost of living, and uses a faulty method (3x the basic food budget) that does not correspond to current spending patterns for low-income people.

James Kelly lives in a camp outside the old Berkeley City Hall, called by the residents an occupation - "Liberty City".

The official poverty line defines poverty for a single person as an income less than $11,770, and for a couple, $15,930 (for Alaska and Hawaii it's slightly higher). Rent alone absorbs a huge portion of this. Even seniors at 125% of the poverty line spend more than three quarters of their income on rent, Vallas found-$11,034 for singles, and $14,934 for a couple. It's hard to imagine finding an apartment in many urban areas with rent that low.

According to Vallas, seniors across the board spend 14% of their income on medical costs. Adding that to rent, poor seniors are left with about 10% of their income for food, bus fares, and everything else. It's no wonder that so many people in line at county food banks are old.

Even an income of twice the official poverty line is hardly enough to make ends meet, and the number of seniors under this line is much greater-32% of those over 65 and 40% of those over 75.

A better criterion for poverty is the Supplemental Poverty Measure. The U.S. Census Bureau created this yardstick in response to criticism that the official poverty line grossly underestimates poverty (see Jeannette Wicks-Lim, "Undercounting the Poor," Dollars & Sense, May/June 2013). The SPM is based on real-life expenditures for basic necessities like food, housing, clothing and utilities. It varies from place to place and isn't meant to qualify or disqualify people for government programs. Vallas found that about 15% of seniors fall below this line, and 45% are "economically vulnerable"-below twice the SPM.

Poverty is no more evenly distributed among seniors than it is among people in general in the United States. Nearly 12% of older women (3.1 million) live below the official poverty line (vs. 7% of men), and 17% live below the SPM (vs. 12% of men), according to a 2015 Kaiser Family Foundation report. "The typical woman suffers an earnings loss of $431,000 over the course of a 40-year career due to the gender wage gap," Vallas says. "The gap is even larger for women of color." Black and Hispanic seniors are poorer in general-19% and 18% respectively are under the official poverty line, and 22% and 28% are under the SPM.

The income of seniors is overwhelmingly dependent on Social Security. The number of seniors who receive pensions from employers is declining rapidly, as corporations divest themselves of the "defined benefit" plans that pegged payments to pre-retirement earnings for an earlier generation. Today, the average Social Security benefit is just over $16,000 per year-not far above even the official poverty line. "For nearly two-thirds of seniors, it is their main source of income, and for one-third it is their only income," Vallas notes. Without it, half of all seniors would fall below the SPM.

Hermilo Lopez, a Mixtec immigrant from San Juan Mixtepec, Oaxaca, works in a crew picking bell peppers near Fresno. He's 69 years old.

The official poverty statistics do not even account for people who have been left out of the Social Security system entirely. Many workers do not make contributions, including workers in the informal economy, like day laborers.

Two million seniors get Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, which are based on low income rather than contributions made while they were working. But the maximum is $8,796 per year, well below the official poverty line. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, "for nearly three-fifths of recipients, SSI is their only source of income."

Getting left out of the safety net has devastating consequences. As of 2010, roughly 45,000 adults over age 65 were homeless, according to Vallas, who projects that that will increase by 33% by 2020 and more than double by 2050. The homeless population is getting older as well. The median age of single homeless adults was 35 in 1990, and 50 in 2010.

Immigration status is an even greater barrier to benefits. According to the Migration Policy Institute, about five million immigrants 65 and over make up 12% of the total U.S. immigrant population. For those who haven't become citizens, the safety net has huge holes.

Most lawful permanent residents (LPRs) can't receive SSI or food stamps (SNAP) for their first five years in the United States, although they can collect Social Security if they've managed to accumulate any qualifying earnings. People with no legal immigration status (an estimated eleven million people) can't even apply for a Social Security card. In order to work they have to give an employer a Social Security number they've invented or that belongs to someone else. Payments are deducted from their paychecks, but these workers never become eligible for the benefits the contributions are supposed to provide.

The Social Security Administration estimated in 2010 that 3.1 million undocumented people were paying about $13 billion per year in contributions into the benefit fund. Undocumented recipients, mostly people who received Social Security numbers before the system was tightened, received only $1 billion per year in payments. Stephen Goss, the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, told VICE News in 2014 that that surplus of payments versus benefits had totaled more than $100 billion over the previous decade.

Excluded undocumented immigrants, however, get old like everyone else. Without Social Security, they have to find some other way to survive-primarily by continuing to work or relying on family.

Consuelo Mendez worked forty years at Brokaw Nursery near Oxnard, then retired, but came back to work because Social Security benefits didn't cover her bills.

According to Lia Daichman, president of the Argentina chapter of the International Longevity Alliance, and the ILA's representative at the United Nations, "governments should guarantee that all people have a non-contributory pension, to be able to live without the support of younger people." Her own country, Argentina, began paying nearly every old person a pension in 2003, with medical and social benefits, even to those who made no contributions. "This is good for women," she emphasizes, "because we often work in the home and weren't able to contribute, or because we worked in the informal economy." Even Nepal, one of the world's poorest countries, has instituted a non-contributory pension of 700 rupees a month.

Daichman doesn't view elders as needy people asking for charity. "People have a right to income and a dignified life," she asserts. "They worked all their lives for it." This perspective underlies her work trying to convince the international community to codify this right. The convention adopted by the Organization of American States is a step towards the goal, she believes, in part because it will cover such a large area. In Latin America and the Caribbean, nearly 71 million people were older than 60 in 2015; by 2030 that figure will increase by over 70%, to 121 million people, according to a 2015 United Nations study of the aging of the world population.

Adopting new definitions and conventions on human rights (especially economic ones), even if they are not immediately implemented, helps to set a goal-a vision of how we want the world to work. Passing human rights treaties is also an important step in establishing rights in international law.

The OAS convention enumerates 27 specific rights, with many sub-categories, from the right to independence, political participation, and freedom from violence to the right to a healthy environment. Some of the key rights it asserts are economic. Older people, it says, "have the right to social security to protect them so that they can live in dignity," and governments should provide income "to ensure a dignified life for older persons." Seniors also have the right to "dignified and decent work" with benefits, labor and union rights, and pay equal to all other workers. Older people have the right to healthcare, housing, education and to "participate in the cultural and artistic life of the community, and to enjoy the benefits of scientific and technological progress."

The U.S. government does not recognize many of these rights, however-to housing, income, education, and healthcare, for instance. In this country these are all commodities, bought and sold on the market. Yet Social Security itself is a product of an earlier era in U.S. political life, in which President Franklin Roosevelt postulated that all people had the right to "freedom from want." Today a "cost/benefit analysis" is the more likely framework-weighing the need to ensure a dignified life for seniors against the cost of providing it.

Social welfare programs in the United States are the product of popular struggle against the inherent dynamic of a market economy to demand as high a rate of profit as possible. Old people, children, the disabled, and others who don't immediately produce profit are a social cost, and vulnerable in a system like this. Popular struggle is necessary to demand their needs be met. When popular movements weaken, the safety net then starts getting pulled apart. U.S. opposition to a human rights treaty for the aged is based not on a lack of morality, uncaring politics, or bad intentions, but on the way the system functions.

Lucas Carina, the oldest and most experienced worker in a crew of farm workers grafting pistachio trees in an orchard near Caruthers, a small town in the San Joaquin Valley.

In declining to endorse the OAS convention on aging, the U.S. inserted a note declaring: "The United States has consistently objected to the negotiation of new legally binding instruments on the rights of older persons. ... We do not believe a convention is necessary to ensure that the human rights of older persons are protected. ... The resources of the OAS and of its member states should be used to identify practical steps that governments in the Americas might adopt to combat discrimination against older persons." In other words, instead of having to abide by a binding agreement, each country should be free to do as it chooses.

As radical as they might sound to U.S. ears, these economic rights don't even test the limits of the ways a globalized economy now affects the aged. Enormous movements of people, for instance, fleeing war and poverty, have led to the separation of families. UN conventions, and almost all countries, recognize the right to migrate because of war and persecution. Should this be expanded to recognize a right of old people to reunite with their families, if they're separated by war or previous migration? Should the U.S. recognize the right of a migrant in California's Central Valley, for instance, after a lifetime working in the fields, to travel home to Mexico, and then return to their family putting down roots in Fresno?

"Of course it should," says Susan Somers, president of the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse. "All we need is a little political will. But get it into a convention? That's a hard road, because of every nation's immigration laws. We're not trying to force countries to change their culture or ways of life. But when they come into conflict with harm, culture and tradition are no excuse."

A proposed U.N. convention has been stalled over these disagreements, and Daichman and Somers say opposition is coming from the United States, Australia, Israel and the European Union. "They are really trying to push us back," Somers fumes. "They think it's going to cost them something, and that older people aren't deserving. Yet the budget item for treaties is so small compared to peace keeping and the Security Council-almost nothing."

A growing and vocal constituency is not simply waiting for wealthy nations to come around, however. Among Asian countries, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh, and even Myanmar have made statements about the human rights of older people. "Human rights are at the core of everything," Daichman says. "The rights of people getting old should be considered human rights because they're human beings."

David Bacon is a journalist and photographer covering labor, immigration, and the impact of the global economy on workers. For this article, he received a Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, sponsored by The Scan Foundation.

Sources: Draft Resolution-Inter-American Convention on Protecting the Human Rights of Older Persons; Organization of American States, "The Americas Becomes First Region in the World to Have an Instrument for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Older Persons,"press release, June 15, 2015 (; Rebecca Vallas, "Senior Poverty in America: The Looming Crisis No One's Talking About," Center for American Progress (; Interview with Rebecca Vallas, November 2015; Juliette Cubanski, Giselle Casillas, and Anthony Damico, "Poverty Among Seniors: An Updated Analysis of National and State Level Poverty Rates Under the Official and Supplemental Poverty Measures," Kaisar Family Foundation, June 10, 2015 (; Social Security Administration, "Effects of Unauthorized Immigration on the Actuarial Status of the Social Security Trust Funds" (; Roy Germano, "Unauthorized Immigrants Paid $100 Billion Into Social Security Over Last Decade," VICE News, August 4, 2014 (;  National Immigration Law Center, "Overview of Immigrant Eligibility for Federal Programs,"  (; National Immigration Law Center, "A Quick Guide to Immigrant Eligibility for ACA and Key Federal Means-tested Programs," (; Interview with Susan Somers, November 2015; Interview with Lia Daichman, November 2015; Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "Policy Basics: Introduction to Supplemental Security Income"(; United Nations Department of Social and Economic Affairs, "World Population Ageing 2015" (

Thursday, March 3, 2016


An anatomy of a free market disaster
By David Bacon, Equal Times, 1 March 2016

In spite of the growing sense of disbelief and horror surrounding the lead contamination of drinking water in the Michigan city of Flint, at least one thing is clear: that the catastrophic levels of pollution and destruction are a direct result of the extreme policies pursued by the Michigan's right-wing leadership.

A very conservative group has controlled Michigan since the election of Governor Rick Snyder and a Republican majority in its legislature in 2011. At the heart of their policies has been a concerted effort to remove control over cities and communities by the people who live in them, and to impose austerity and free market measures on populations who are mostly African American and people of colour.

Some of the key opponents to that threat to democracy, however, have been Detroit's teachers. This January, the Detroit Federation of Teachers filed lawsuit, and some educators even staged a walkout of the city's schools, to protest against the "deplorable, dangerous, unhealthy and unacceptable" conditions for children that have emerged from the wreck of Michigan's autocratic rule.

The key to the conservative's strategy has been the emergency manager law. While a version of it was passed in 1988 under a Democratic administration, new Republican office holders passed Public Law 4 in 2011, which was much more radical. It gave virtually unlimited powers to unelected managers appointed by the governor in times of financial distress, while elected city councils and school boards lost all decision-making power.

With none of the constraints of public accountability, emergency managers in several cities then proceeded to nullify union bargaining agreements and sell off public assets. Detroit itself was forced into bankruptcy in July 2013.

In nearby Flint, Governor Snyder appointed Darnell Earley as emergency manager in October 2013. Over the next 16 months, Earley laid the groundwork for switching Flint's water supply from the municipal utility that serves Detroit to pumping water from the Flint River - a waterway that is highly-polluted as a result of decades of toxic waste dumping by auto plants and other heavy industry.

Earley, a Democrat, justified the move as a measure to reduce costs. It has since become clear, however, that his action was connected to a plan to drive Detroit even further into bankruptcy.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has operated with budget deficits that averaged US$57 million a year; debt servicing took up half of its budget. Bondholders, facing the loss of Flint as a customer, pressured for cutting off delinquent customers and raising rates to avoid writing down their investments in bankruptcy proceedings. The French waste and water management multinational, Veolia, was waiting in the wings.

Flint is the biggest customer for Detroit's water

When Detroit's water agency offered to halve its rates to keep supplying the city, Earley and his successor refused. Instead they signed an agreement to put Flint into the hands of a new water supplier connected to Veolia.

Without Flint as a customer, Detroit residents now have to pay higher rates. Detroit itself may have to sell its public water system - one of its main assets - to private investors.

One year ago, under the decree of Detroit's emergency manager Kevyn Orr, the water district began to shut off water services to poor residents behind on their bills. Only a global outcry stalled the move. At the same time Orr began negotiations with Veolia.

In February 2015 Veolia was then hired by Flint to study its water, after the switch in sources had been made. Public health doctors were already warning state and federal authorities that the level of lead in the drinking water pumped from the Flint River was alarmingly high. Lead is a recognised cause of learning disabilities in children, and the damage to their cognitive development is permanent.

Veolia announced that Flint's water was safe. It echoed similar false safety claims by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, an agency under the control of Governor Snyder. However, last year even General Motors stopped using Flint water in its car manufacturing plant because it was causing corrosion.

Eventually Snyder was forced to admit that corrosive river water was dissolving the lining of Flint's ancient lead pipes, causing a spike in the metal's concentration.

Embarrassing emails revealed knowledge by state authorities of the lead contamination, at the same time they were ridiculing parents and public health officials who warned of the danger.

Eventually a state of emergency was declared, and President Barack Obama offered US$80 million in relief, although replacing the city's pipes is likely to cost over US$1 billion.

Emergency in Detroit's schools

After leaving Flint, in January 2015 Earley was appointed by Governor Snyder as emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools (DPS) - the system's fourth emergency manager in seven years.

The main program of all four has been the privatisation of Detroit schools. By the end of the 2009-2010 school year, 36 per cent of students (50,139 students) were already attending private charter schools, and another 41 schools (30 per cent of the district serving 16,000 students) were converted into charters.

The Deficit Elimination Plan - agreed between managers and the state of Michigan in a bid to erase DPS' US$20.4 million deficit by the end of 2021 - required the district to close a further 70 schools over two years, and raise class sizes to 60 students at high school level.

Voters rebelled and repealed Public Law 4 in the 2012 election. The legislature moved even further to the right, however, passing a law forbidding contracts that require union membership as a condition of employment (a so-called "Right to Work" law), and then passed Public Law 4 again in a slightly modified form, as Public Act 436.

In a recent opinion piece, Pamela Pugh, treasurer of the (elected) State of Michigan Board of Education, wrote: "After more than six years of a failed state takeover, Detroit Public Schools have deteriorated into a destabilised education system, marred by decreased academic outcomes and increased deficit, upward of US$3.5 billion. Just as Flint's water crisis occurred under emergency management, so did the demise of the Detroit school district."

Last month, the Detroit Federation of Teachers finally filed a lawsuit to force Earley to resign, and to return the schools to control by an elected school board. "Asking a child to learn or a teacher to instruct in classrooms with steam coming from their mouth due to the cold in the classroom, in vermin-infested rooms, with ceiling tiles falling from above and buckets to catch the rainwater, or in buildings that are literally making them sick, is more than what is legally or constitutionally tolerable", the suit says.

Other conditions named in the action include black mold, bacteria, freezing cold or boiling hot classrooms, rats and insects, exposed wiring and falling debris.

At the beginning of this February Earley finally resigned, telling Governor Snyder he'd completed his work of "comprehensive restructuring" months ahead of schedule. And as hundreds of teachers staging a'sickout'rallied in front of the school district offices, Snyder announced he'd appoint a 'transition leader' to move the schools back toward local control.

"Educators and parents have been raising the red flag for years about dangerous school conditions, only to be snubbed, ignored and disrespected by DPS and the emergency managers, including Earley", said Ivy Bailey, interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, in a statement. "The state has brought the school district to its knees, and now it's time to give up the reins."

Michigan cities like Detroit and Flint have been used as a laboratory for market-based policies and the most extreme forms of austerity. The results have been deadly.

Detroit remains in bankruptcy and emergency managers still wreak havoc in several other cities. Detroit schools, even without an emergency manager, will take many years to recover from the devastation caused by disinvestment and privatisation. The water in Flint still has lead, and the children damaged by its pollution will never fully heal.

As Americans go to the polls to vote this year, they must remember that conservative candidates all over the country are proposing to extend policies like those enacted in Michigan. The actions of politicians shouldn't just be debated in the abstract; when people are forced to suffer the very real consequences of political negligence such as that wrought on Flint and Detroit, individuals must be held to account.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016


Dear friends,

This coming year is going to be a watershed for farm workers.

Wages have been going down, people are living in crowded conditions - sometimes even outside under the trees, in tents and in cars. The communities of indigenous migrants who harvest our food up and down the Pacific Coast have been rising in protest, and last year organized strikes from Baja California to Washington State.

In this crucial year I'm going to travel through the Pacific Coast's indigenous farm worker communities, working with and guided by community activists as we document peoples' lives.  We will produce a reality check - the hard work, the bad housing, but also the vibrant culture and the way people organize in response. 

I'm writing to ask you to help me.  I need to raise at least $20,000 to make this happen.  Beacon Reader has generously offered to help raise the money, and even to match every contribution made on its website, dollar for dollar.  But I only have a month, starting today.  Here's the address for the site where you can make your donation:

The money will be used in the following ways:
---   It will produce large photographic prints that will travel through urban and rural communities
---   It will produce written narratives by indigenous migrants that will accompany the photographs
---   It will produce an interactive website combining the photographs and voices
---   It will publish the photographs and narratives in mainstream media, and eventually collected as a book.

You can make this photojournalism and deep reporting possible, by making a donation to this crowdfunding campaign.  I've been doing this work for over a decade, and your pledge will be carefully used.

This is work that will have an impact on people's lives.  It will be used to help reduce anti-immigrant hysteria, and support indigenous migrant communities as they seek understanding and justice.  It will educate people living in cities, concerned about the food they eat, about the lives of the people who put it on the table.

All donations are appreciated and will be acknowledged.  But if you donate at least $100, you can get an 8.5x11" print from the series we'll take this year.  If you donate more, we'll send you a larger print and books.  I'll even come and talk about the project with you.  The website explains it all.

On the site there's a short, 90-second video that also shows you the power of combining the voices of community leaders with photographs that document their reality.

Please be as generous as you can, and put me on the road this coming year.  You won't regret it.


David Bacon