Easter Candy — How to buy worker-friendly sweets?

7-gallery-easter_candy-peepsWith Easter nearly upon us, consumers will be purchasing a lot of candy over the next several days. In recent years, the chocolate industry has been rocked by a child labor scandal, when it became known that 80 percent of chocolate derives from the West African nations of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, where large numbers of children help harvest cocoa–the main ingredient of chocolate–under conditions that are extremely dangerous and difficult. In many cases, they use razor-sharp machetes and work without pay under circumstances that some advocates have likened to slavery.

How can consumers buy responsible candy—candy free from slavery and abusive child labor?

First, we recommend you check this chocolate scorecard developed by the group Green America in 2010. The groups that have been given an “A” grade are making a substantial effort to eliminate child labor and ensure that workers and farmers are fairly treated. We know “Divine” chocolate the best; they work with farmers cooperatives to reduce child labor and help farmers earn better prices.

The scorecard also explains various consumer certification programs like Fair Trade that try to ensure decent livelihoods for farmers and take steps to protect against child labor, although many child labor advocates recognize that monitoring efforts may not successfully ensure products are child-labor free.

In addition to purchasing chocolate the is child-labor free, NCL also advises consumers to purchase union-made products because we believe collective bargaining helps guarantee fair wages and decent benefits for workers. Check out this list of union-made candy, complied by Union Plus. The list represents the products produced by members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM); the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW); and the fruit and nuts from members of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW).

Included on the list, which Green America compiled in 2010, are Hershey and Nestle – two companies that produce union made candy but have received poor grades on the chocolate scorecard. Hershey’s products (excluding “Hershey’s Bliss”) have been given an “F” grade in large part because of its extremely slow, lackluster response to child labor allegations.  More recently, the company announced a certification scheme to ensure their products are child-labor free by the year 2020, but it doesn’t seem to be making any progress in enacting that scheme. Hershey currently is also facing a shareholder lawsuit over its refusal to release documents about the presence of child labor in its supply chain.Additionally, a few years ago, Hershey’s used a contractor that was accused of trafficking foreign students, essentially tricking them into signing up for a cultural exchange program and then forcing them to work in a factory. In 2009, a 29-year-old worker drowned in a vat of chocolate in a New Jersey factory that supplied chocolate to Hershey, raising questions about the company’s willingness to risk worker safety in its pursuit of low product cost.

You’ll note that Nestle, another major manufacturer of chocolate, received a “D” grade. The company was long criticized for its slow response to child labor allegations. In 2011, after it received the poor grade,Nestle took a step forward by hiring the Fair Labor Association (FLA), an independent third party monitoring group that is helping it identify supply chain problems.

University of San Francisco Professor Beth Hoffman, a Forbes contributor has recently accused the chocolate industry of undercutting prices to farmers and farm workers.Prices for cocoa stand at less than half of what they were in 1980, her piece notes. She adds that in the 1970s, “fifty percent of the cost of a chocolate bar went to pay for cocoa, today that is less than 6 percent.”

For more information about the list of union-made candy, please visit Union Plus and if you’d like a mobile version of the Union Plus list sent to your phone, please text CANDY to 22555.

Closer look at Tax Day

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Tomorrow is Tax Day. People resent the Internal Revenue Service because they take your money. Republican candidate for president Mike Huckabee said during a 2008 candidates debate, “People would love to see the IRS abolished. The harder you work, the more you earn, the more the IRS and the government wants from you.” That’s called “the progressive taxation” system. The more money you make, the more you can pay. Seems fair to me.

So I’m not of the Huckabee school – I much prefer this quote, from Progressive era Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. — and in fact, it is emblazoned on the front of the IRS building in Washington DC: “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.”

Indeed. And this is also good time to take a look at where our taxes go. Thanks to Campaign for America’s Future and their “National Priorities Project” for excellent information on this topic.

Across the United States, the average taxpayer paid $11,715 in 2013 federal income taxes. The military received the largest share that of tax payment: 27 cents on every dollar, compared to 22.5 cents for health care. Defense spending doubled from 2001 to 2011. So we’ve doubled defense spending in one decade. I was surprised to see that military spending outpaced money going to support social programs, given all the griping and grumbling from conservatives about “entitlement programs.”

This means the average taxpayer paid $3,174.25 to the military in 2013. Health care received $2,662 for programs like Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Meanwhile, only $238 went to education programs, and just $15.84 and $6.56 went to the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program and National Forest System, respectively.

National Priorities has also looked at each state’s average taxpayer and calculated where taxes from every state are going. These state-by-state tax receipts show the state with the highest average taxes paid (Connecticut, $18,988) and lowest (Mississippi, $7,402), and everything in between.

Although these state receipts show the average taxpayer’s contribution to the budget, Americans don’t all pay taxes equally. In theory the tax code is progressive, meaning those who make more money pay higher tax rates – yet in practice that’s not always the case. As Warren Buffett made famous, billionaires sometimes pay lower rates than middle-class workers. And some corporations, like Bank of America and Citigroup, have gotten away with paying zero federal income taxes, even when they make billions in profit. That’s because the tax code is chock-full of tax breaks.

Ten of the largest tax breaks that together totaled more than $750 billion in tax savings in 2013 overwhelmingly benefited the top 1 percent of households, with 17 percent of the benefits going to those top earners. That’s in part because tax deductions – one important type of tax break – are far more likely to benefit the wealthy than middle- and low-income folks, because deductions only offer savings to taxpayers who itemize deductions. Only 16 percent of households making between $25,000 and $30,000 itemize tax deductions, while nearly 100 percent of those making over $200,000 itemize.

Mega-breaches and the importance of the Wyndham decision

By John Breyault, Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud

Consumers can be excused for not following the minutiae of U.S. district court decisions, but developments this week in New Jersey marked an important victory for data security. On Monday, Judge Esther Salas allowed a lawsuit brought by the Federal Trade Commission against Wyndham Worldwide Corp. (the parent entity of Days Inn, Howard Johnson’s and Ramada, among other hotel chains) to move forward. From 2008 to early 2010, hackers breached Wyndham’s computer network, stealing credit and debit card information of approximately 500,000 customers. In 2012, the FTC sued Wyndham for the company’s alleged failure to adequately protect its customers’ information from theft.

To date, the FTC has settled more than fifty similar cases resulting from businesses’ failure to put in place reasonable data security measures.  However, in the Wyndham case, the company is challenging the FTC’s authority to regulate corporate data security practices. This is important because the FTC is the only federal regulator charged with holding companies accountable for failure to protect their customers’ data. Had Judge Salas agreed with Wyndham, it would have threatened to eliminate the FTC’s authority to hold companies to account.

The importance of Judge Salas’ decision was put in stark relief yesterday when security firm Symantec published its latest Internet Security Threat Report. The report, one of the most comprehensive security assessments in the industry, didn’t mince words when they called 2013 the “Year of the Mega Breach,” when “cybercriminals unleashed the most damaging series of cyberattacks in history.”

Headlines from the report include:

  • 91% increase in targeted attacks campaigns in 2013
  • 62% increase in the number of breaches in 2013
  • Over 552 million identities were exposed via breaches in 2013
  • Spear-phishing campaigns saw a 91% rise in 2013
  • 38% of mobile users have experienced mobile cybercrime in past 12 months
  • 8 of the breaches in 2013 exposed more than 10 million identities each
  • 1 in 8 legitimate websites have a critical vulnerability
  • 500% increase in ransomware scams in 2013

The Symantec numbers are just the latest in a string of warnings coming out of the cybersecurity community about the growing threat from hackers. For example, Tuesday also marked the end of Microsoft’s support for the Windows XP operating system, which may still be installed on nearly 28 percent of desktop computers, as well as ATMs and government computer systems. Reports indicate that this could result in a field day for hackers as remaining security vulnerabilities in the operating system are exploited. News about a major vulnerability in the widely used OpenSSL security technology could expose the two-thirds of websites that run it to hackers. And those are just the warning coming out this week!

While Monday’s decision in the Wyndham case was encouraging, the issue is far from resolved. Wyndham has stated that it will continue to challenge the FTC’s authority to regulate companies’ data security practices. This means consumers are still in danger of losing the most important data security cop on the beat. Given the constant stream of data security warnings, it’s imperative that uncertainty about the FTC’s ability to regulate data security be addressed. A number of bills currently pending in Congress would do just that. The FTC should also convene a workshop to examine the issue in depth, as NCL and others suggested last month.

To be clear, there isn’t just a cybercrime wave going on right now. What consumers and businesses across the country are experiencing is more like a cybercrime tsunami. Policymakers in Washington need to make sure the FTC can continue to respond to this threat before we’re all washed away.

Nearly 100 days into 2014, women finally earn what men earned in 2013

 

FBBy Michell K. McIntyre, Outreach Director, Labor and Worker Rights

“Today, women make up about half our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment. … It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode.”

Today is the day we can start to put these words from President Obama during his State of the Union address into action. In a matter of hours, the U.S. Senate will vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act — a bill that would deter wage discrimination.

Today, 98 days into 2014, is Equal Pay Day. This day symbolizes the extra time needed for women to earn the same salary as their male counterparts in 2013.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would deter wage discrimination by updating the nearly 50-year-old Equal Pay Act, in part by barring retaliation against workers who disclose their own wages to coworkers. It’s ridiculous, but right now, no federal law broadly prohibits employers from penalizing and even firing employees just for talking about their salaries.

The wage gap does not only affect women, it affects whole families. At a time when women increasingly are the breadwinners, 71 percent of mothers are part of the labor force, a pay gap unfairly targets children in households with single mothers or where both parents work. The pay gap, when calculated over the course of a year, means women receive on average $10,784 less than males performing similar work. The pay disparity is increased among African American women and Hispanic women, who make $19,575 and $23,873 less respectively than a white non-Hispanic male performing the same job. Using these figures, the Department of Labor estimates that women make on average $380,000 less over the course of their careers. That is a huge sum of money when trying to put a child through college, buying healthy groceries for the dinner table, or paying the rent.

Despite the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill signed into law by President Obama in 2009, more work needs to be done to ensure women have the resources and tools they need to confront discrimination and challenge unfair practices in the courts. Current law forces women to jump through too many hoops in order to make claims of gender discrimination.

For Lilly Ledbetter, she was told on her first day of work at Goodyear never to discuss her salary with anyone. It wasn’t until she found an anonymous note in her locker years later that Lilly realized she was being paid as much as 40 percent less than her male colleagues in the same position. This is exactly why these pay-secrecy policies that punish employees and hide discrimination must go!

It’s time to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act!

 

FTC crackdown on telemarketing scams is a reminder that the phone is a potent weapon for fraudsters

EWEvelyn Wong – Public Policy Intern

The Federal Trade Commission this week announced that it has pulled the plug on a multi-million dollar cross-border telemarketing scam operation that can be traced back to 2009.

The FTC’s complaint against First Consumers, LLC, Standard American Marketing, Inc., and PowerPlay Industries LLC alleges that the companies used telemarketing boiler rooms in Canada to “cold call” tens and thousands of consumers claiming to sell fraud protection, legal protection, and pharmaceutical benefits services. These unsolicited services would often charge anywhere between $187 to $397. Between May 2011 and December 2013 the scheme brought in $20 million.

The defendants are said to have targeted senior citizens who were given false information and were compelled to reveal their bank account information. The scammers used scare tactics and sometimes even went so far as to impersonate bankers and government officials. The account information would then be used to create “remote checks” drawn on the consumers’ bank accounts. These remotely created checks were then deposited into a network of corporate accounts established in the United States. The U.S. based defendants then transferred money to the Canadian accounts.

The Internet has certainly become a haven for scam artists, but this case is a reminder that consumers need to be on guard for scammers contacting them via the “old-fashioned” telephone. In fact, according to Fraud.org’s 2013 Top Ten Scams report, the telephone was the most-frequent way that consumers reported being contacted by scammers in 2013.

Tips to avoid being a victim of telemarketing scams include:

  1. Never give out sensitive personal information such as Social Security Numbers, bank account numbers or credit/debit account numbers in response to an unsolicited telephone call.
  2. Telemarketing scammers will often try to pressure the person on the other end into making a quick decision. Remember, if it sounds like a good deal today, then you should be able to take the time to research it thoroughly.
  3. Be wary of any telemarketed who requests payment via wire transfer, cash or prepaid card.
  4. Information on spotting telemarketing scams targeting seniors is available at “They Can’t Hang Up,” a joint educational initiative between NCL and AARP.
  5. For more tips from Fraud.org on spotting telemarketing scams, click here.

Last day! Visit healthcare.gov to sign up for health insurance before it’s too late.

The last day to sign up for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is here! Monday, March 31 is the last day that eligible adults can enroll in health insurance without being penalized.

For those who miss the deadline, most won’t be able to sign up for Marketplace health insurance again until the next open enrollment period, which starts on November 15, 2014.

Important things to know:

  • The penalty for those who don’t sign up for health insurance this year is $95 for each adult for the year ($47.50 per child) or 1% of your annual household income (whichever number is higher). This penalty is only for those who can afford health insurance. For more information on, who is exempt from this penalty, visit HealthCare.gov.
  • More than 6 million people have signed up for private health insurance coverage since ACA’s care’s open enrollment began in October 2013. More are expected to sign up before the March 31 deadline. It’s expected that federal and state health exchange will be swamped over the next week as procrastinators try to make the deadline. If you need extra help signing up and access the federal or state hotlines, you may experience longer wait times as the deadline approaches.
  • If you have had a “qualifying life event” such as losing your employee health insurance, having a baby, or getting married, you will be able to sign up for health insurance after the March 31 deadline.
  • The March 31 deadline does not apply to those eligible for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program. These programs are open year-round to those who are eligible.

One important note, there has been media buzz over the last few days about an ACA extension. Basically, if you are not signed up by March 31 because of website glitches and delays, or if you have started the process on the Marketplace website but have not finished, you will be allowed to enroll after the March 31 deadline. You can do this by asking for an extension on the HealthCare.gov website, which will give you until mid-April to finish your enrollment.

For more information on the March 31 deadline, the next enrollment period, qualifying life events, and any other questions you may have about the ACA and signing up for health insurance, visit HealthCare.gov for more information.

Amidst a flurry of economic theories about the minimum wage, personal struggles tell the story

By Michell K. McIntyre, Outreach Director, Labor and Worker Rights

These days, issues of economic security are finally getting their due. Cities and states – and in some cases counties – have decided to strike it out on their own and take matters into their own hands. Thirteen states and a few cities and counties have increased their minimum wages in the past year. Still, the federal government lags behind.

A few weeks ago, the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee held its first hearing on the Senate Fair Minimum Wage Act (S.460 & H.R. 1010) that would increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour, increase the tipped minimum wage from a paltry $2.13 an hour to 70% of the ‘regular’ minimum wage ($7.07), and index both to the rate of inflation – thus stopping this vital wage from being used as a political football.

The hearing witness list included the usual heavyweights: the U.S. Department of Labor‘s (DOL) Secretary Tom Perez and the Director of the Congressional Budget Office Douglas Elmendorf as well as Dr. Heather Boushey, the Executive Director and Chief Economist of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of the NETWORK, but most importantly, Alicia McCrary – a mother of four trying to make ends meet as a fast food worker on a minimum wage salary.

Alicia McCrary’s voice brought the discussion out of the battling economic studies, partisan posturing, and election year sound bites and back to reality. McCrary simply told her truth and the truth of many families. She spoke of how she moved her four boys out of Chicago after leaving an abusive relationship and shared with the Committee the routine of deciding each month which of her four sons would be the lucky one to get a haircut because she can’t afford for them all to have haircuts in the same month.

Alicia is a good example of what life is like for millions of American families struggling on the minimum wage. Besides demands from work, these working parents face many hurdles at home from finding affordable housing and childcare to feeding their growing children and providing them with health care. With the federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 an hour, a single mother that works full time and has one child, lives in poverty at $15,080 (before taxes) a year. This qualifies them for food stamps because without it, they would have little left after paying rent, utilities, transportation, and health care.

The New York Times and the Economic Policy Institute have both released minimum wage calculators/budgets that demonstrate just how far a minimum wage paycheck goes. They highlight the many costs faced by families and just how unlivable the current minimum wage is. Not surprisingly, the numbers show the writing on the wall that families across the country already know. With the recent cuts to the federal food stamp program, low-wage workers are seeing their budgets get stretched even farther. In many metropolitan areas affordable housing is a myth – in a recently published report Out of Reachfrom the National Low Income Housing Coalition – in no state can a full-time minimum wage worker afford a one-bedroom or a two-bedroom rental unit at Fair Market Rent. In Washington D.C., where a District minimum wage earner makes $8.50 an hour – more than the federal minimum wage, it would take that same worker 137 hours per week to afford rent. How many hours would a minimum wage earner need to work in your state to afford rent

?

If raised to $10.10 an hour, as those in both houses of Congress and worker advocates are calling for, then 30.3 million workers would get a raise. American families need a break – we need to raise the minimum wage!