Low minimum wage a global worry; Ten months to save Detroit; ‘Social supermarket’ for UK poor; India’s statues and statesmen; Why new party’s win is big deal for India





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1 Low minimum wage a global worry (Andrew S Ross in San Francisco Chronicle) Last week 3.5 million Bangladeshi garment workers got their minimum pay raised to $67 a month, an 80 percent increase. It was one of the Bangladeshi government’s responses to April’s collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building that killed 1,100 mostly female garment workers, prompting an international uproar and leading Western retailers to improve working conditions at their supplier factories there.

In the US, similar concerns are being raised as the call to raise the minimum wage gets ever louder. Now, there’s no misunderstanding: The US is not Bangladesh. Working conditions at McDonald’s can in no way be compared to those of garment and other workers in Bangladesh. There are light years between the two. But something is radically wrong in the richest country of the world when McDonald’s has a “McResource” help line directing employees to government resources to help supplement their wages; when Walmart has food bins outside some of its stores so its “associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner”; and when one-third of the nation’s bank tellers are on some form of taxpayer assistance.

“We are creating a situation in which only the elite of the elite can be successful – and that is not sustainable,” says David Blair, a former head of Goldman Sachs Asset Management. Back to Bangladesh. Last month, H&M, the Swedish apparel chain that sources from Bangladesh and Cambodia, said it would begin paying higher wholesale prices to manufacturers to enable them to pay workers a “living wage.”

Gap has long pushed for “wage reviews” for workers in Bangladesh, including in letters to the prime minister’s office. “These letters were co-signed by other retailers as well as industry associations, highlighting the increased costs of living that workers were facing,” said Laura Wilkinson,  a Gap spokeswoman. Ring a bell?


2 Ten months to save Detroit (Monica Davey & Bill Vlasic in The New York Times) Kevyn D. Orr is the man who must now revive Detroit. Mr. Orr, 55, who has never run for political office, finds himself in an extraordinary role. He holds power even more concentrated than that of the emergency control board that intervened when New York City was teetering near bankruptcy: an unelected lawyer chiefly responsible for the reinvention of a major American city in decay. And there’s a deadline — 10 months.

The job could not be more politically fraught. Mr. Orr’s harshest critics call him a “dictator” (his authority trumps that of the city’s elected leaders); an “Uncle Tom” (he is black and was sent to run this mostly-black city by a white governor); and a “pension killer” (he has said the city can no longer afford the pensions it promised retirees). But Mr. Orr, who was a partner at the law firm Jones Day until his wife and a mentor helped talk him into taking the Detroit job, seems unfazed by the storm around him — he is full of smiles and quips, coolly pressing on.

“If we don’t do something to address the unfunded liability that we have, the 700,000 residents — don’t they deserve better services?” Mr. Orr said. “There has to be some balance here. This is our chance.” Not long ago, Mr. Orr’s mother, a retired school administrator from Florida who receives a pension, met a Detroit retiree at a conference. “They were crying together,” Mr. Orr said. “She said, ‘Kevyn, do you have to do this?’ ” “If we don’t do something in the next 10 or 12 years,” Mr. Orr said, “There won’t be pensions for the 30-, 40- and 50-year olds. Is that fair?”

By next October he hopes the city will have emerged from court with eased debts and reinvestment in services, from streetlights to garbage pickup. It is a tall order. He expects a new agency to put thousands of working streetlights on key roads and near bus stops. He wants a remade police department to drive down crime. He wants a “supercharged” effort to remove tens of thousands of abandoned buildings. “In three years, hopefully the blight is gone,” Mr. Orr said. “That would be my dream.”


3 ‘Social supermarket’ for UK poor (Rebecca Smithers in The Guardian) Britain’s first “social supermarket” opens its doors on Monday, offering shoppers on the verge of food poverty the chance to buy food and drink for up to 70% less than normal high-street prices. If successful, the Community Shop, in Goldthorpe, south Yorkshire, which is backed by large retailers and supermarkets, could be replicated elsewhere in Britain.

Community Shop is a subsidiary of Company Shop, Britain’s largest commercial re-distributor of surplus food and goods, which works with retailers and manufacturers to tackle their surpluses sustainably and securely. It sells on residual products, such as those with damaged packaging or incorrect labelling, to membership-only staff shops in factories. The new project goes one step further, located in the community for the first time and also matching surplus food with social need.

Membership of the pilot store – in Goldthorpe, an area of social deprivation – will be restricted to people living in a specific local postcode area who also get welfare support. Individuals who shop at Community Shop will not only get access to cheaper food, but will also be offered programmes of wider social and financial support, such as debt advice, cookery skills and home budgeting. The scheme is being supported by retailers, brands and manufacturers, including Asda, Morrisons, Co-operative Food, M&S, Tesco, Mondelez, Ocado, Tetley, Young’s and Müller. All are diverting surpluses to the pilot.


4 India’s statues and statesmen (Neeta Lal in Khaleej Times) India is a nation of statue builders. At a time when the Indian economy is facing ferocious headwinds, and there’s a critical need to focus on a developmental agenda, the Indian politicians are busy turning the country into a necropolis! Claims for building the world’s largest temple, the highest statue and other such inanities are dominating the larger political narrative.

Take the man who nurtures a naked ambition to helm the country one day — Narendra Modi. He is laying claim to building the world’s tallest statue at a cost of $340 million in honour of one of the country’s founding fathers, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. It will, says Narendra Modi, force the world to look at India in admiration. Never mind that a whopping 70,000 villagers will be displaced for developing the gigantic project. Modi’s rival in this context — Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar — has unveiled the model of the world’s largest Hindu temple in his state.

The fact of the matter is such memorials benefit no one. Not one of the world’s most iconic structures — the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the pyramids — commemorate any personality. Rather, they celebrate human endeavour and a nation’s collective aspirations.  On the other hand, India has become a statue-obsessed nation. By pandering to a personality cult, India’s leaders are forgetting one vital fact — that such personal worship is more suited to a dictatorship than a democracy.

Providing infrastructure — like roads, bridges, airports and sea ports — which are choking economic growth, is the need of the hour. With the Indian population destined to reach 1.5 billion by 2026, 20 million new jobs are required each year to prevent the country’s poverty from worsening. Where will these come from? If you really want to honour past heroes, or respect religious sensibilities, build schools, hospitals, provide food to the poor and shelter to the homeless. Constructing grand monuments with other people’s money is a shortcut to self-glorification that fools nobody.


5 Why new party’s win is big deal for India (Niharika Mandhana & Preetika Rana in The Wall Street Journal) It may not have won the largest number of seats in Delhi’s state assembly, but the Aam Aadmi, or Common Man, Party notched up some major successes in the Indian capital Sunday. So far, the debutant party has won 23 of Delhi’s 70 seats, far outstripping expectations even before the count is over. The showing embarrassed Congress’s most senior leader in the state, three-time chief minister Sheila Dikshit, who lost to the AAP’s founder Arvind Kejriwal in her constituency. And it blunted the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

“This election shows that honest politics can win over corrupt politics,” said Mr. Kejriwal at a televised press conference Sunday evening. “In many ways, this is a historic election.” For months, the novice party ran a relentless and unique campaign, upending the longstanding assumption of Indian politics that caste, money and muscle determine electoral results. Instead, the party made graft in government the centerpiece of its campaign, tethering issues like price rises and growing inequality to corruption.

Many of its candidates – some of whom defeated Congress and BJP heavyweights Sunday – were first-time politicians with a background in public service, journalism and teaching. In a country where a third of lawmakers have criminal cases pending against them, the AAP vowed party candidates wouldn’t be allowed to run for office if evidence of wrongdoing against them was presented to the party. The AAP was born out of a popular movement in 2011 that exposed widespread anger against big and petty corruption in India.

Now, the test for the party’s candidates, Mr. Kejriwal said, will be to transition from being political outsiders criticizing traditional politics to performing as representatives to change the way Delhi is governed. “Who are we?” Mr Kejriwal asked a jubilant crowd of supporters Sunday. “We are common, ordinary people,” he continued in answer to his own question. The party’s senior leaders will also have to brainstorm about its next steps and whether it will contest in national polls next year.



About joesnewspicks

This blog captures interesting news items from around the world for those strained by information overload and yet need to stay updated on global events of significance. The news items displayed are not in order of merit. (The blog takes a weekly off — normally on Sundays — and does not appear when I am on vacation or busy.) I am a journalist for nearly three decades.
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