In Paris this week on an official visit, Azerbaijan’s autocratic President Ilham Aliyev has already scored one photo op. Anyone reading yesterday’s Azeri media could see dozens of photos of Aliyev posing with leaders of top French companies, including Airbus, Suez, and Credit Agricole.

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev (L) shakes hands with his French counterpart Francois Hollande as they visit a local French school under construction in Baku, May 11, 2014.

© 2014 Reuters

Today, President Hollande will receive President Aliyev and host an official dinner at Palais de l’Elysee. Again, Parisian photo ops abound. But amid the flashing cameras, one has to wonder where Azerbaijan’s repression of critics and the jailing of opponents fits in the new relationship between Paris and Baku?

In the past few years, Azerbaijani authorities have aggressively gone after the country’s once vibrant civil society, jailing dozens of activists, journalists, and political opponents. It also adopted draconian legislation making it virtually impossible for independent non-governmental organizations to operate.

One year ago, as Azerbaijan’s economy started to suffer from falling oil prices, several of those detained on political grounds were released. That was an important first step, but hopes for progress were short-lived.

Many of those released face travel bans or obstacles to their activities. Dozens are still locked up on political grounds, including opposition activist Ilgar Mammadov, despite repeated calls by the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe for his immediate release. And more activists have been thrown in jail. Recently, one of the country’s most popular journalists and bloggers, Mehman Huseynov, was sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly defaming the police, in response to his brave public denouncement of the police abuses he suffered.

When visiting Paris, Brussels, or other European capitals, President Aliyev hopes to get more business opportunities and investment in Azerbaijan. But he prefers to ignore that the people of Azerbaijan want human rights protections, transparency, and good governance. Those standing up for these values are routinely exposed to attacks and harassment.

Yet what more clear message that Azerbaijan’s crackdown cannot be ignored by potential investors than last week’s decision by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an international coalition promoting better governance of resource-rich countries, to suspend Azerbaijan – precisely because of its actions against civil society.

President Hollande should reject a narrative that only finance and economy matter in Azerbaijan. Human rights should be as central to France’s foreign policy as other topics.

Hollande should publicly call for the release of Ilgar Mammadov and all those detained in retaliation for their activism and criticism. A failure to explicitly support human rights principles would be the worst message to those unjustly waiting behind bars.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Arvind Ganesan is the director of Human Rights Watch’s Business and Human Rights Division. He leads the organization’s work to expose human rights abuses linked to business and other economic activity, hold institutions accountable, and develop standards to prevent future abuses. This work has included research and advocacy on awide range of issues includingthe extractive industries; public and private security providers; international financial institutions; freedom of expression and information through the internet; labor rights; supply chain monitoring and due diligence regimes; corruption; sanctions; and predatory practices against the poor. Ganesan’s work has covered countries such as Angola, Azerbaijan, Burma, China, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, India, Indonesia, the United States, and Nigeria. His recent research has focused on predatory lending practices and governance issues on Native American reservations in the United States. He has written numerous reports, op-eds, and other articles and is widely cited by the media.

Ganesan has also worked to develop industry standards to ensure companies and other institutions respect human rights. He is a founder of the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights for the oil, gas, and mining industries and is a founding member of the Global Network Initiative (GNI) for the internet and telecommunications industries, where he also serves on the board. Ganesan has helped to develop standards for international financial institutions such as the World Bank, and regularly engages governments in an effort to develop mandatory rules or strengthen existing standards such as the Kimberley Process. He serves on the board of EGJustice, a nongovernmental organization that promotes good governance in Equatorial Guinea, and is a member of the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR)’s steering committee.

Before joining Human Rights Watch, Ganesan worked as a medical researcher. He attended the University of Oklahoma.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech at an investment seminar organized by the Japan External Trade Organization in Tokyo on October 8, 2018. 

© 2018 Kyodo via AP Images

(Tokyo) – The Japanese government should publicly hold Myanmar to account for military atrocities committed against Rohingya and other ethnic minorities, Human Rights Watch said today. It should discourage Japanese investment that would benefit the military or at the expense of minority groups.

On October 21, 2019, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, is slated to speak in Tokyo at a conference sponsored by the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) to promote investment and business opportunities in Myanmar. When she has spoken at previous investment forums in Japan, Aung San Suu Kyi has downplayed or ignored the military’s serious abuses against the Rohingya.

“The Japanese government has been pitifully reluctant to speak out against abuses by Myanmar’s military, so officials should use Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to raise these issues directly,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Japan’s recent re-election to the UN Human Rights Council should encourage the government to improve its human rights foreign policy, including by calling on Japanese companies not to contribute to rights violations in Myanmar.”

In August 2017, the Myanmar military began a large-scale campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine State, committing crimes against humanity and forcing more than 740,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. Nearly one million Rohingya now live in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh, while another 600,000 remain in Myanmar, confined to camps and villages without basic rights.

Japan has not acted to hold the Myanmar government accountable for abuses, but instead has continued business as usual. Earlier in October 2019, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met in Tokyo with Myanmar’s military commander-in-chief, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, whom the United Nations-mandated Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar said should be among those investigated for “genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes” against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in Myanmar. Abe told Hlaing the military should address the allegations of human rights violations in Rakhine State by acting on the proposals of the government’s discredited International Commission of Enquiry, but ignored international efforts to address accountability.

The UN Fact-Finding Mission, in August, released a report on the Myanmar military’s control over the country’s economy and the main military conglomerates – Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC). The two entities help the military, the Tatmadaw, generate considerable revenue and influence by strengthening “the Tatmadaw’s autonomy from elected civilian oversight and provid[ing] financial support for the Tatmadaw’s operations with their wide array of international human rights and humanitarian law violations.” The Fact-Finding Mission pressed for the international community to urgently take steps toward the financial isolation of the military.

Japanese investors should abide by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which provide that business enterprises have a responsibility to respect human rights by avoiding causing or contributing to human rights abuses through their own activities, and by seeking to prevent abuses that are directly linked to their operations by their business relationships. That would mean doing no business with Myanmar companies that have ties to the military and ensuring that investment did not worsen the human rights situation for Rohingya in Rakhine State.

The Japanese government should cooperate with international efforts to pursue accountability for the Myanmar military’s crimes against the Rohingya. This includes voting in favor of Myanmar-related human rights resolutions at the UN, calling for access to the country for the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, and closely cooperating with the UN’s new Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar.

“Encouraging foreign investment while ignoring human rights will only embolden the Myanmar government and military to further whitewash the heinous acts committed against the Rohingya,” Robertson said. “Not only have military commanders evaded justice for their widespread crimes but they have done so while sabotaging the country’s economic and democratic growth.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Demonstrators march outside the US Capitol during the Poor People's Campaign rally in Washington, DC, June 23, 2018. 

© 2018 AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

(New York) – Governments should heed the call of the United Nations’ leading expert on poverty to fully integrate human rights protections into their efforts to digitize and automate welfare benefits and services, seven human rights groups said today.

In a report released this week, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, warns that the rapid digitization and automation of welfare systems is hurting the poorest and most vulnerable people in society. Although governments have pledged to use these technologies to create more equitable and inclusive welfare programs, Alston found that the technologies have been used in ways that “surveil, target, harass, and punish beneficiaries.”  

“The UN expert’s findings show that automating welfare services poses unique and unprecedented threats to welfare rights and privacy,” said Amos Toh, senior artificial intelligence and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Using technology to administer welfare has risks and is not a panacea for rights-based reforms that safeguard the dignity and autonomy of society’s most vulnerable people.”

The human rights groups are Access Now, AlgorithmWatch, Amnesty International, Child Poverty Action Group, Human Rights Watch, Irish Council for Civil Liberties, and Privacy International.

In the first global UN survey of digital welfare systems, Alston found that governments increasingly rely on automated decision-making and other data-driven technologies to verify the identity of welfare beneficiaries, assess their eligibility for various services, calculate benefit amounts, and detect welfare fraud. But the use of these technologies can create serious harm to human rights, the groups said.

The automation of key welfare functions without sufficient transparency, due process, and accountability raises the specter of mass violations of welfare rights. In the United Kingdom, errors in the Real Time Information System, which calculates benefits payments based on earnings information reported to the tax authority, have caused potentially catastrophic delays and reductions in benefit payments for impoverished families. Design flaws in automated fraud detection systems in Australia and the United States have also triggered debt notices to scores of beneficiaries, wrongfully accusing them of welfare fraud.

“Automated decision-making should be made more transparent, as highlighted by the rapporteur, in three important ways,” said Matthias Spielkamp, executive director of AlgorithmWatch. “Citizens need to be able to understand what policies are implemented using algorithms and automation. The administration has to keep a register of all complex automation processes it uses that directly affect citizens. Also, there needs to be transparency of responsibility, so that people know who to contact to challenge a decision.”

The development of digital identity systems to screen welfare beneficiaries also increases the risk of unnecessary and disproportionate surveillance, and attendant risks to people’s security. In India, Human Rights Watch has found that the government’s mandatory biometric identification project, Aadhaar, imposes invasive data collection requirements as a condition for getting allotments of subsidized food grains and other essential public services.

In Kenya, Amnesty International has raised concern about the lack of adequate privacy protections and independent oversight in the national biometric identification system, Huduma Namba. Registration with the system is a condition of accessing welfare benefits and other government services.

“Before forcing entire populations into using digital identity programs, governments must first ask themselves, ‘Why ID?’, and prove these systems are necessary and will actually provide the intended benefits,” said Peter Micek, general counsel at Access Now. “With ill-conceived digital identity programs, authorities force communities to give up fundamental rights such as privacy in exchange for their rights to food, shelter, and well-being.”

Alston found that government agencies around the world undertake a wide range of “crucial decisions to go digital” without meaningful transparency or even a legal basis for doing so, denying “opportunities for legislative debate and for public inputs into shaping the relevant systems.”

“Independent oversight findings of illegality are being completely ignored,” said Elizabeth Farries, information rights program manager of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. “In Ireland, the government refuses to halt its compulsory rollout of the biometric Public Services Card for a wide range of services, despite being ordered to stop by the Irish Data Protection Commissioner.” 

The groups also endorsed the UN expert’s recommendation that governments should establish laws ensuring that the private sector incorporates transparency, accountability, and other human rights safeguards in the development and sale of technologies to facilitate the delivery of welfare services and benefits.

"Whilst governments have been the ones increasingly pushing for digital welfare policies, we must also consider the other stakeholders driving this agenda,” said Alexandrine Pirlot de Corbion, director of strategy at Privacy International. “As pointed out by the special rapporteur, the private sector plays a role, but we maintain that we must also address the role of investment structures, such as the World Bank and the World Economic Forum, and leading funders. All those in the ecosystem must be held to account to protect people and to ensure they can live with dignity and autonomy, free from undue surveillance and exploitation. ”
 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Three girls play the game isolo on the ground in the lead-affected township of Waya in Kabwe. Soil is the main source of lead exposure in Kabwe.

© 2018 Zama Neff/Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch appreciates the opportunity to provide a submission to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on children’s right to a healthy environment, in advance of its 2020 annual full-day meeting on the same topic.

The impact of environmental degradation and pollution on children’s rights (question 1)

For over a decade, Human Rights Watch has documented how governments have failed to protect children from environmental harm.

Exposure to toxic substances

Human Rights Watch has documented children’s exposure to hazardous substances in many contexts. Around the world, children are exposed to hazardous substances while playing, bathing, going to school, eating, drinking, or working. Many hazardous substances have particularly harmful consequences for children, whose developing bodies absorb them more readily than those of adults and are especially vulnerable to certain toxins, leading in some cases to irreversible long-term damage, disability, or even death.

Children’s exposure as result of business activity

Business activity has been the source of significant environmental damage that harms children through pollution of air, soil or water, and other pathways of exposure. Governments often fail to regulate companies sufficiently. For example, children living near or working in leather tanneries in Bangladesh have been exposed to chemicals that flowed off tannery floors into open gutters of nearby streets, and had severe health problems as a result. Smelters or battery factories have caused lead poisoning in children in China and Kenya; yet, protests by parents have sometimes been met with government repression. In agriculture, children have been exposed to harmful fertilizers and pesticides in Brazil, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, the United States, and Israel/Palestine.

Children’s health has also been severely affected by exposure to chemicals from large-scale and small-scale mining operations. In Zambia and Kosovo, children living near former industrial lead mines have suffered from lead poisoning as a result, and in some cases died. In small-scale gold mining regions in Mali, Ghana, Tanzania, the Philippines, and elsewhere, children have been exposed to toxic mercury used to process gold, and in some cases developed symptoms that are consistent with mercury poisoning. And in one of the worst environmental health disasters in recent years, over 400 children died in Nigeria in 2010 from exposure to lead-contaminated dust produced inadvertently during artisanal and small-scale gold mining.

Hazardous substances in water supply systems

In several countries that Human Rights Watch investigated, governments have failed to protect children from hazardous chemicals in the soil, groundwater, or water supply system. In Bangladesh, millions of children have been exposed to harmful arsenic via well water. In Canada, Indigenous communities have been exposed to water containing naturally occurring uranium, E.coli, or coliform, as a result of systemic water and wastewater challenges facing First Nations, including lack of regulations to protect drinking water on reserves. In Harare, Zimbabwe, Human Rights Watch found that children were at risk of contracting dangerous waterborne diarrheal diseases as they were drinking water from shallow, unprotected wells that are contaminated with sewage. In Basra, Iraq, government failure to ensure sufficient safe drinking water has resulted in an acute water crisis that sent at least 118,000 people to the hospital in 2018, and that has not been solved. 

Climate change

Human Rights Watch has documented government failures to address climate change, its impact on the realization of children’s rights, as well as human rights violations in the context of coal mining and deforestation—two drivers of climate change.

Child rights impacts of climate change

Government inaction on climate change impacts children’s rights to life, water, food, and health. Children from Indigenous communities are often particularly vulnerable to climatic changes because their culture and livelihood is tied to their land, and such marginalized groups typically lack the resources and government support to adapt to climate change impacts.

In Kenya, Human Rights Watch found that climate change has limited local Indigenous communities’ access to food and clean water and contributed to children’s ill-health. Girls often have to walk long distances to find water, exposing them to dangers along the route and leaving them with less time to attend school or rest. In Bangladesh, families have arranged child marriages for their daughters under 18 in part because of extreme poverty, compounded by natural disasters that are linked to climate change. In Brazil, where climate change is likely to increase the spread of mosquitos carrying vector-borne diseases, the government has responded inadequately to the outbreak of the Zika virus. 

Coal mining and deforestation

Children have suffered serious human rights violations in the context of coal mining and deforestation. In the United States, the government has failed to mitigate health risks associated with mountaintop removal, a form of coal mining, by protecting streams from mining pollution. In South Africa, coal mines and coal-fired power plants have contributed to air pollution that threatens the health of local communities, particularly children. In Malawi, residents living near coal mines have faced forced resettlement and harmful impacts on their livelihood; health information about coal mines has been kept secret. In Brazil, the government has largely failed to act against criminal networks responsible for deforestation, including forest fires. Deforestation robs Indigenous peoples and local communities of their livelihood and the forest fires can cause serious health issues among children. In Indonesia, Indigenous peoples have lost ancestral forests to oil palm plantations, resulting in violations of their rights to livelihood, food, water, and culture.

Inadequate regulation of the coal industry and the failure to prevent deforestation risk undermining government commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, thereby further threatening the realization of children’s rights.

Examples of good practice towards ensuring children’s rights to a healthy environment, including child participation (questions 2 and 5)

Human Rights Watch has come across initiatives that appear promising. Here are some examples:

  • The recent youth movement for climate activism has managed to shift the debate over climate change in many countries. For example, in Germany, it helped push the government to decide upon a series of mitigation measures.
  • In the Philippines, the government launched an initiative to withdraw child laborers between the ages of 15 and 17 from small-scale gold mining and offered them vocational training in the tourism sector. The government, the International Labour Organization (ILO), and a local nongovernmental organization (NGO) partner also set up a mercury-free and child labor-free gold mining operation called “Compassionate Gold.”  
  • In Zambia, a local NGO supported the creation of youth groups and school youth clubs that inform residents about environmental risks and have participated in a home remediation program that served as pilot for a larger World Bank program. The youth group is also regularly on the radio and has engaged with local officials over pollution concerns.

Laws and other measures to ensure companies do not harm the environment or contribute to child rights abuse—as well as challenges in this regard (questions 3 and 4)

 

  • Due diligence laws: France has adopted a law requiring companies to conduct human rights due diligence in their global supply chains, including children’s environmental health rights. The Netherlands in 2019 passed a law for child labor due diligence, which has the potential to protect children from child labor-related toxic exposures.
  • Challenge: Most countries do not have mandatory human rights due diligence laws
  • Access to information laws: In 2017, Malawi adopted a law that enables people to request and obtain vital information such as water-quality testing results. In the Philippines, a newspaper has used a freedom of information law to obtain publication of a government report on mercury poisoning of local communities at a former mercury mine site.
  • Challenge: Some countries lack functioning freedom of information laws; some do not have any such laws altogether.
  • Court action: In a Chile court case over air pollution, the Supreme Court ruled that the administration had neglected the health and well-being of the region’s residents for years, resulting in violations of people’s rights to life, health, and a pollution-free environment. A court in Thailand has ruled that the company responsible for lead pollution in Klity Creek has to pay for its cleanup. The country’s Supreme Administrative Court has also ordered the government’s Pollution Control Department to pay approximately US$125,000 in compensation to plaintiffs affected by the toxic legacy.
  • Challenge: Some court rulings remain unenforced.
  • Government regulation of businesses: Laws in the United States require high-risk industries to provide financial assurances to ensure they have the resources to clean up potential pollution. Brazil has prohibited all work by children in tobacco, largely because of the risk of exposure to hazardous substances, and established penalties for farmers and companies purchasing the tobacco, creating an incentive for the tobacco industry to ensure that children are not working on farms in their supply chains.
  • Challenge: Government regulation is very lax in many countries and sectors. One example is that the US default body weight for regulating drinking water contaminant levels is 80 kilograms, the mean adult weight. Regulations should be set to ensure drinking water is safe for babies.
  • Close coordination of institutions dealing with child rights, labor rights, environment, health, and business when formulating policies: A recent ILO project on child labor in small-scale gold mining brought actors from these different spheres together and facilitated coordination this way.
  • Challenge: There is frequently a lack of coordination among UN agencies dealing with environment or child rights, as well as among agencies and ministries on the national level. As a result, laws and policies on the environment do not always consider child rights, and vice versa.

Monitoring of environmental risks to children (question 6)

In the countries where Human Rights Watch has done research, we found that environmental risks to children are being poorly monitored at the national level. This is particularly concerning because health effects may not be manifest for years after exposure, or exposure to carcinogens or climate change occurs slowly. Accountability can also be hampered by the lack of solid data.

Recommendations to States:

  • States should review their environmental laws, standards, policies and programs to determine if they reflect their obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and take into account the ways in which children are more susceptible to environmental harm, and amend (if necessary), implement and enforce them.
  • States should strengthen childhood exposure-monitoring efforts, particularly for those living in extreme poverty or in low-income, minority, indigenous, stateless, migrant, or refugee communities. States should also establish population-based surveillance systems for adverse health impacts linked to the environment and strengthen regulatory agencies and ministries responsible for the oversight of standards relevant to children’s rights, such as health, consumer protection, education, environment, food, and labor. (See similar recommendations by the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights.)
  • States should publish and disseminate disaggregated information on the result of monitoring and surveillance, and develop tailored environmental education and information programs.
  • States should ensure that businesses respect the rights of the child in the environmental context and comply with the General Comment 16 by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

States should make the necessary arrangements to facilitate public participation in decision-making on the environment, with a particular emphasis on ensuring meaningful participation of children.            

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong supports prominent blogger Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, who is serving a 16-year prison sentence. His sign reads, "I recommend the government of Vietnam to release Tran Huynh Duy Thuc." © Private 2018

© Private 2018

(New York) – Vietnamese police arrested a pro-democracy activist on September 23, 2019 based on his Facebook postings, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should immediately release the activist, Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong, and drop the charges against him.

Police in the southern province of Lam Dong have charged Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong with “making, storing, disseminating or propagandizing information, materials and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” under article 117 of the country’s penal code. Under articles 173 and 74 of Vietnam’s Criminal Procedure Code, the national security charge means he can be both detained and denied access to legal counsel until the police conclude their investigation, a situation that is conducive to mistreatment or torture.

“The government thought to silence Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong by detaining him for expressing his opinions on Facebook,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “But this has only focused more attention on his views, and the government’s repressive efforts to censor online material.”

While it is unclear exactly which of his Facebook postings the government objected to, his account reflects a wide range of independent views that the Vietnam Communist Party and government might find objectionable. None, however, involve incitement to crime, violence, hate speech, or other content that can be subject to any criminal charge consistent with the right to freedom of expression, which Vietnam pledged to respect by joining the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong has expressed views supporting democracy in Vietnam and criticized the Communist Party of Vietnam for corruption and monopolizing power. In one of his livestreams he said: “I am not certain that the entire state apparatus is corrupt, but I am 100 percent certain that those who have been involved in corruption are Communist Party members. Vietnam only allows one single party and does not allow any competing opposition.”

In other posts or livestreams, he has shared news about protests in Hong Kong and voiced support for a change of government in Venezuela. He has also shared stories about land confiscation issues in Vietnam and raised cases of various Vietnamese political prisoners including Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Nguyen Viet Dung, and Phan Kim Khanh.

Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong, 28, lives in Don Duong district, northeast of Ho Chi Minh City. According to an official communist party journal, in June 2018, he participated in a major protest in Ho Chi Minh City against the draft law on special economic zones and the newly passed cybersecurity law. The police reportedly fined him 750,000 VND (approximately US$32).

After his September arrest, state media quoted police, saying: “[O]ver the last two years, Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong has used social media to make and distribute materials, propagandize and distort, blacken and slander the regime, offend the memory of President Ho Chi Minh and oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” Police officials said they had warned him not to post critical material online, but that he did not stop.

His arrest is a part of an ongoing crackdown against critics and pro-democracy campaigners. During the first nine months of 2019, the Vietnamese authorities convicted at least 11 people, including Nguyen Ngoc Anh, Vu Thi Dung, and Nguyen Thi Ngoc Suong, and sentenced them to between two and nine years in prison for criticizing the government.

Others arrested for Facebook posts and shares include Nguyen Nang Tinh, a rights activist, in May and Pham Van Diep, a critic of the government, in June.

Vietnam’s problematic cybersecurity law went into effect in January. This overly broad and vague law gives the authorities wide discretion to censor free expression and requires service providers, including Facebook, to take down content the authorities consider offensive within 24 hours of receiving a request.

As of October 7, Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong’s past posts remained on Facebook; but other posts by detained human rights defenders have often been taken down.

Several internet companies, as well as concerned governments and donors, have privately raised serious concerns with Vietnam’s new cybersecurity law and other abusive laws, and pushed back on some requests for content restriction. They should now publicly speak out against Vietnamese laws used to stifle free expression, Human Rights Watch said.

“Facebook, as one of the most widely used communications platforms in Vietnam, has leverage to publicly raise human rights concerns with the government,” Sifton said. “While the company is subject to pressure from Vietnam, it also has clout because of its immense popularity in the country.”

In August, Information and Communications Minister Nguyen Manh Hung said Facebook had complied with “70 to 75 percent” of the government’s recent requests to restrict content, up from “about 30 percent” previously. Among the materials Facebook removed, according to the ministry, were “more than 200 links to articles with content opposing the Party and the State.” It is unclear how the ministry arrived at these figures. The ministry did not disclose the bases for requests, and whether they were reported as violations of Vietnamese law or of Facebook’s “Community Standards.” (It is likely that authorities sometimes report material they consider “illegal” not as legal violations but instead under unrelated Community Standards violations, and then count removal as compliance.)

The ministry also said it asked Facebook to limit live-streaming capabilities on its platforms to accounts that Facebook has authenticated. It is unclear how Facebook will be expected to do that, or what criteria authenticated accounts would have to satisfy. The ministry said it told the company to “pre-censor” online content and remove advertisements “that spread fake news related to political issues upon request from the government.”

Facebook has previously told Human Rights Watch that its standards relating to takedowns and geographic blocking of content “are global.” The process for taking down or blocking content, Facebook said in a written communication, is the “same in Vietnam as it is around the world.” Reported content is first reviewed against the company’s Community Standards; if it passes muster, Facebook says it will then assess whether the government request is legally valid under local law and international human rights law.

Vietnam should bring its laws into line with international human rights standards, which require any restrictions on freedom of expression to be necessary and proportionate to fulfill legitimate aims, Human Rights Watch said, and internet companies should publicly press the government to do the same.

 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the proposed changes to the Coal Combustion Residual Rule.

My name is Sarah Saadoun and I’m a researcher at Human Rights Watch, a non-profit independent organization that investigates and reports on human rights abuses in 90 countries around the world, including the United States.

I plan to submit a more detailed written submission, so I’d like to use this time to highlight a few points.

Every person has the right to safe water and an environment that does not harm their health. Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to protect these rights, including by regulating business activity to prevent pollution that poses an unacceptable level of public health risk. Moreover, a necessary component of any policy framework that aims to adequately protect the right to water is that existing protections should not be removed or weakened without careful consideration and a showing that full use is being made of all available resources.

We strongly oppose the EPA’s proposed changes to the coal ash rule as a step backward that threatens the water, air, and health of people living near coal ash piles.

In fact, according to the EPA, it is proposing change to the rule regarding coal ash piles “in response to the May 2017 petitions from AES Puerto Rico LP and Utilities Solid Waste Activities Group,” an industry trade group. AES is a Virginia-based company operating a coal plant in Guayama, Puerto Rico, that is the site of a nearly half-million-ton coal ash pile. AES testing found that the coal ash is leaching arsenic, molybdenum, selenium, and lithium into the groundwater—all but arsenic at levels above what the EPA considers to be safe. Test results from the following year showed that levels of all but lithium had increased. The groundwater forms a part of an aquifer that is the sole source of drinking water for thousands of residents.

Moreover, residential areas near the plant are exposed to fugitive dust from the coal ash pile. Studies have shown air pollution from coal ash to be a significant health concern. For example, a study by two University of Louisville scientists found that children living near a coal ash landfill—which presumably has less impact than an uncontained coal ash pile—in Louisville, KY were significantly more likely to have health and behavioral problems than those in a comparison group, even after controlling for age, gender, and second-hand smoke exposure. An ongoing study of the same Louisville community found coal ash containing toxic metals in two-thirds of the 162 homes tested, all of which had children living there.

Studies conducted by public health scientists from University of Puerto Rico have documented a worrisome trend of increased incidence of cancer and other chronic diseases in Guayama in recent years.

Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 were a blunt reminder that the more frequent and heavier storms due to climate change exacerbate the threat piles of toxic waste pose to public health.

In light of all this, the EPA should be redoubling its efforts to ensure AES meticulously complies with its obligation to remediate, monitor, and prevent pollution. Instead, it appears to be weakening these rules at AES’ behest.

The EPA is proposing to subject coal ash piles located on a utility site to the same rules as coal ash already delivered for beneficial reuse. But to do so would effectively mean that a half-million-ton coal ash pile, which has already been shown to be dangerously contaminating groundwater, would be subject to the same minimal environmental requirements as a small, temporary pile of coal ash awaiting reuse.

The EPA’s original justification for distinguishing between “on-site” and “off-site” coal ash piles was to address precisely situations like this one: coal ash is typically stored in greater quantities at a utility site and its presence is permanent, even if there is a constant cycle of removing and adding coal ash to the pile. Not only does the proposed change fail to address this problem, it specifically opts not to place limits on what qualifies as “temporary” coal ash storage, rather than permanent disposal. Even as AES’ efforts to sell its coal ash have faltered, and the vast majority will almost certainly remain in place, the efforts themselves may be sufficient for the utility to claim that its pile should be regulated as storage.

In other words, the proposal seems to be tailor-made to allow AES to avoid properly managing the environmental impacts of its coal ash. To allow it to do so not only endangers the health of Guayamans, but of all people living near coal ash sites. What’s to stop other utilities from taking advantage of the loophole EPA is proposing to create?

We urge the EPA to protect and maintain a strong coal ash rule that protects people’s rights to clean air, water, and health.

 

 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

© Flickr/Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

In a surprise move, the United States Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) has announced it will keep its consumer complaints database open to the public following uncertainty over whether it would do so. The database is a crucial resource containing over a million complaints about consumer financial products, including student loans, mortgages, and debt collection, providing critical information for people living in poverty directly affected by abusive lenders and collectors.

Though the CFPB is legally required to receive complaints and provide information to consumers about financial products, it is not required to make that information publicly accessible. Consumer advocates have argued a public database is an important transparency measure, providing information to consumers and the public about financial products and the companies that market them, and incentivizing businesses to respond. Nearly 98 percent of complaints to the database receive a timely response from the company.

Mick Mulvaney, then CFPB’s acting director and now acting White House chief of staff, had threatened to close the database last year. In its statement reversing that intention, the CFPB said it would keep all existing information public, including consumer narratives and tools to analyze complaints data. The bureau also announced plans to launch new tools for data visualization and explore possibilities for making company responses public as well.

The CFPB also announced changes to address criticisms raised by the financial services industry. The database will now display language indicating it does not represent a statistical sample of consumer experiences. It will also provide answers to commonly asked questions and information on how consumers can contact companies directly.

Though the bureau’s announcement is a positive development, other recent issues at the CFPB signal much larger problems. Delays on payday lending regulation and weak proposed debt collection rules could cause irreparable harm to ordinary people, particularly those living in poverty who are most affected by predatory and abusive lending practices. Retaining a public complaints database is an important step, but the CFPB has much work to do to protect people from these and other abusive practices.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

© 2016 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) – The Trump administration’s proposed rule on debt collection companies in the United States would severely undermine protections for consumers, Human Rights Watch said today. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) rule would give wide leeway to abusive debt collectors and collection attorneys by allowing them to try to collect debts by using false, deceptive, or misleading representations, even after the statute of limitations has ended.

Human Rights Watch joined 232 organizations from across the United States in a statement calling for the CFPB to increase protections for consumers against harassment and abuse of rights by debt collectors. Between a quarter and a third of adults with a credit report has a debt in collection. Debt collection abuses are regularly among the top reason for consumers to complain to the CFPB.

“The Trump administration’s proposed rule better protects abusive debt collection companies than consumers,” said Komala Ramachandra, senior business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The CFPB should do more to rein in debt collectors’ abusive practices and ensure that federal law is enforced.”

Debt collectors buy third-party debt, often for pennies on the dollar, and often without documentation of the original debt. Many collectors use aggressive legal and collection tactics to recoup the whole debt, plus interest, even though they never lent any money to the alleged debtors. Collection attorneys file thousands of lawsuits every year without adequate review, and sometimes against the wrong person, for the wrong amount, or by an entity without legal authority to collect that debt.

Courts decide many of these lawsuits without the debtors present or without adequately scrutinizing the claims. These result in default judgments in favor of debt collectors, with some judges entering hundreds of judgments in the space of a few hours. This can lead to wage garnishment and other consequences for debtors, sometimes without their knowledge. Human Rights Watch examined the devastating financial impact of collection lawsuits on the poor in a 2016 report, “Rubber Stamp Justice: US Courts, Debt Buying Corporations, and the Poor.”

Federal law prohibits false, deceptive or misleading representations by debt collection attorneys. However, the proposed rule is so vague on the steps required by lawyers to verify information in a debt collection lawsuit that it may be meaningless to protect consumers from frivolous litigation. Civil society groups called on the CFPB to require collection attorneys to review original documentation of the debt they are attempting to collect and make an independent determination that they are filing a lawsuit against the right person, for the right amount, based on accurate information about the age of the debt, and that their client has the legal authority to file the lawsuit.

Residents in communities of color are more likely to have debt sent to collections. A CFPB survey found that 44 percent of borrowers of color reported having been contacted about a debt, compared to 29 percent of white respondents. Strong rules on debt collection practices are needed to protect consumers living in poverty and communities of color, Human Rights Watch said.

“Debt collection lawsuits not only threaten the rights of people living in poverty, but also disproportionately impact communities of color,” Ramachandra said. “The proposed rule should be significantly strengthened for the sake of all consumers.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

September 18, 2019

Director Kathy Kraninger

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Comment Intake-CFPB

1700 G Street, NW Washington, DC 20552

 

Re: Docket No. CFPB-2019-0022, Debt Collection Practices

The 232 undersigned consumer, civil and human rights, labor, community and legal services organizations from all 50 states and the District of Columbia submit the following comments on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB or Bureau) proposed debt collection rules.

The rule as proposed does far more to protect abusive debt collectors than consumers. The proposal opens consumers up to harassment, abuse and violations of their privacy by telephone, email, text and other means; obscures information about consumers’ rights; and protects debt collectors and collection attorneys who pursue debts after the legal deadline or with false, deceptive or misleading representations. CFPB must strengthen the rule to fulfill the Bureau’s obligation to faithfully implement the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act’s (FDCPA).

Background

Between one in three and one in four adults with a credit report has a debt in collection.1 Medical debt accounts for more than half of debts in collection.2 Debt impacts everyone, but the impacts are particularly strong in some communities:

  • Debt collection and debt collection litigation perpetuate and are symptoms of the racial wealth gap. Debt collection, collection lawsuits and judgments, and wage garnishments are more common in communities of color, due to systemic and historical discrimination in financial services, housing and employment. Forty-five percent of borrowers living in areas that are predominantly communities of color had debt in collections versus 27 percent of borrowers living in predominantly white areas. In addition, in a survey, the CFPB found that 44 percent of borrowers of color reported having been contacted about a debt, compared to 29 percent of white respondents.3These statistics highlight the disproportionate impact communities of color face, and the proposed debt collection rule will only widen these disparities and the existing racial wealth gap.
  • Louisiana tops the states with an astounding 46 percent of adults with a credit report having a debt in collection. Other states with high rates of debt include Texas (44 percent), South Carolina (43 percent), West Virginia (42 percent), and Nevada (41), followed by several other states at 40 percent: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Mexico and Oklahoma.4
  • For military personnel, consumer debt can negatively impact their careers. Debt also adds to the stress and suicide risk of servicemembers and veterans. 39% of complaints by servicemembers, veterans and their families to the CFPB are about debt collection, compared to 26% for other consumers.5
  • Student loan debt is a growing crisis in this country. Two in three students graduate with significant student debt, and more than one million borrowers default on their student loans each year.6
  • Debt is a growing problem for older consumers. One out of every two families headed by someone aged 75 or older were in debt, more than twice the rate reported by older consumers in 1989. The National Council on Aging found that elders skip meals, discontinue medications, miss medical appointments, or forgo home and auto repairs to pay debt.7

Despite the 1977 passage of the FDCPA, debt collection abuses have year in and year out been one of the top, and often the top, complaints of consumers to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and now the CFPB. More than half of the debt collection complaints compiled by the FTC are about collectors who call repeatedly, including after getting a stop calling notice.8Nearly a quarter of the complaints to the FTC are that the collector has made a false representation about the debt.9 Another top complaint to the FTC is identity theft, which can lead to collection efforts for a debt that the person never incurred.10At the CFPB, the top debt collection complaint is attempts to collect debt not owed, which together with false statements or representations comprise half of all debt collection complaints.11

Yet despite this compelling evidence of a serious problem, the CFPB has proposed a rule that in many ways will make matters worse. The rule will do far more to help debt collectors – often at the expense of harassment, privacy violations, and the pursuit of debts against the wrong person, for the wrong amount, or beyond the time-limit to sue – than it will to protect consumers.

This proposal will impact far more than those who have a debt in collection. The proposal may also lead to increased burdens and less productivity for employers, increased nuisance contacts with friends and family, and even cybersecurity threats and increased identity theft.

While the proposal does have some positive elements, they are far outweighed by the negative ones. We urge the Bureau to go back to the drawing board and develop a rule true to the CFPB’s mission of protecting consumers. In particular, as discussed in more detail below, we urge the Bureau to:

  • Impose stricter limits on telephone calls, clarify that consumers can simply say “stop calling,” and prohibit messages left with employers or other third parties.
  • Prohibit emails, texts or direct messages without people’s consent, allow consumers to simply reply “stop,” and prohibit use of hyperlinks to deliver notices.
  • Eliminate any “safe harbor” for collection attorneys who make false, deceptive or misleading representations and require them to review original account documents before filing lawsuits.
  • Prohibit debt collectors from threatening or filing lawsuits after the legal deadline, and also from other efforts to collect time-barred debt, which is too old to collect without mistakes or deception.
  • Improve the model validation notice.
  • Improve the ban on “parking” debts on credit reports by requiring notice by mail unless the consumer consents to electronic communication, and extend the ban on sale of certain debts to include time-barred and disputed debts as well.

1. Telephone calls

The Bureau has proposed to allow collectors to make seven attempted calls to a consumer and to have one actual conversation per week for each debt in collection. The same limit would apply to calls to friends or family members seeking the consumer’s location information.

We support the concept of a clear, specific limit on the number of both attempted calls and conversations. But constantly ringing phones, and actual conversations with collectors, can be deeply disturbing, and collectors need clear limits. Hearing the phone ring so often is likely to cause significant stress and harassment. It could also interfere with work, potentially jeopardizing the consumer’s ability to pay her debts, and could also disturb business places and employers.

However, in order to provide clear and reasonable limits, the limits must be per consumer, not per debt. Many if not most consumers facing debt collection have more than one debt in collection. People also should not have to listen to the phone ringing from collectors every single day. Thus, the rule should be amended to limit collectors to three attempted calls and one conversation per consumer per week.

We support the right of a consumer to tell a collector to stop calling. However, the CFPB should clarify that consumers can stop calls through an oral request, and that collectors should stop calling any phone number unless the consumer specifies a particular number.

The proposed rule allows collectors to leave “limited-content messages” with a third party who answers the phone. Even without specific information about the debt, people are likely to know that a message urging a consumer to call back “to discuss an account” is from a debt collector. CFPB should not exempt any form of communication, including limited-content messages, from privacy rules.

Especially alarming, the proposal could be read to allow debt collectors to deliberately contact third parties such as employers, neighbors, family or friends to convey a message for the consumer.

Collectors should not be allowed to call or leave messages with employers or other third parties to convey a message for the consumer. Limited-content messages, if allowed, should only be left on a private voicemail, email or text belonging to the consumer.

2.Emails, text and social media messages

A.The CFPB should not allow emails, texts or social media messages without the consumer’s consent by full compliance with the E-Sign Act.

The Bureau has proposed to allow debt collectors to contact consumers through email, text messages, and private social media direct messages. As long as the collector follows minimal procedures that are unlikely to ensure either that the consumer will actually see a message or that it is private, the rule would allow collectors to send legally required notices electronically without complying with the E-Sign Act (which requires consumer consent and a demonstration that the consumer is able to access the information) and would not be responsible if a message is seen by third parties. Yet the mere fact that the consumer gave an email address or cell phone number to the creditor at some point in the past says nothing about whether it is appropriate for a debt collector to communicate that way.

As a result, it is likely that some consumers will never see the important information detailing the debt and the consumer’s right to dispute it. Email addresses and phone numbers often change. Many low income people do not have a computer or sufficient data access, and may only be able to access email, if at all, sporadically at libraries or work. The millions of low income consumers with Lifeline, pay-as-you- go or limited data cell phones are often not able to receive emails or access the internet, or may incur costs for texts and emails. Emails with the word “debt” may be sent to spam or consumers may automatically delete messages coming from an unknown party. Some older consumers who have cell phones may not be able to access texts, or they may have forgotten how to access texts or email. People simply may not regularly monitor email and may prefer to receive information by mail. Even those who can access emails and texts through smartphones may have trouble reviewing legal notices on small screens or printing and saving them to review later, making it more difficult for consumers to understand the notices or to seek help in dealing with them.

Collectors also should not be exempt from privacy rules when they send emails, texts or direct messages without the consumer’s consent. We support the proposed ban on communications on public social media platforms, but far more is needed to protect consumer privacy. Mobile phones or email may be shared among family members, including children who can see text and social media messages. Phone numbers can be reassigned. Collectors may be using work email addresses that are not private, even if the collector claims not to know that it is a work email. Collectors may have the wrong person and may send an email, text or social media message to a third party.

All of these problems would be avoided by requiring collectors to get the consumer’s consent and comply with the E-Sign Act before sending electronic communications.

B. Collectors should not be allowed to convey legally required information through hyperlinks, which risks consumers not receiving information or subjecting themselves to viruses and identity theft.

The proposal contains an especially alarming proposal to allow debt collectors to send validation notices through hyperlinks. Many consumers will not recognize the debt collector and will be reluctant to click on a hyperlink that could expose the consumer to a virus, malware or spyware. As the CFPB itself notes, “federal agencies have advised consumers against clicking on hyperlinks provided by unfamiliar senders,” and “consumer email services can be configured to block hyperlinks from unrecognized senders.” The minimal procedures proposed to give consumers notice and opportunity to opt out of hyperlinks do not give any reasonable assurance that the email will not be sent to spam or that the consumer will recognize an email or text from a debt collector or be comfortable clicking on a hyperlink.

Requiring the validation notice to be accessed through a secure website – while intended to protect the consumer’s privacy –will also make it less likely that a consumer will see the notice, especially if they are required to provide personal information to access the site. People will fear that the hyperlink is a phishing email. If the collector does not require additional steps, the consumer’s private information could potentially be viewable by the public.

Allowing debt collectors to send unsolicited texts or emails with hyperlinks will also put everyone at greater risk of viruses and identity theft. It will complicate or be inconsistent with warnings from government, employers and advocates that people should never click on a hyperlink from an unknown party. Scammers and criminals are likely to impersonate debt collectors and use collection messages to spread viruses and to induce consumers into turning over personal information. Business computers could also be exposed if consumers – especially those who do not have computers at home – access supposed debt collection emails at work. Debt collectors should not provide legally required written information through hyperlinks without the consumer’s consent.

C. Consumers should be able to opt out of emails, texts and direct messages through any convenient channel.

To the extent that consumers do receive emails, texts or direct messages from collector, we support the proposed right to opt out of those messages. However, some collectors could make opting out difficult. Collectors should be required to accept an opt-out sent through any reasonable method – such as by replying “stop” to an email, text or direct message, or orally by phone. Collectors should be required to describe the opt-out right in clear, conspicuous and simple language accessible to the least sophisticated consumer. The CFPB should provide model opt-out language.

D. The CFPB should monitor and consider limits on texts, emails and direct messages.

The proposal does not impose any specific limits on the number of texts, emails, or direct messages. The CFPB should carefully monitor and require reporting on collectors’ use of emails, texts and direct messages and should consider specific limits if collectors abuse these media.

3. The proposed rule protects false, deceptive, or misleading practices by collection attorneys.

Some collection attorneys file thousands of collection lawsuits a year without adequate review. Debts are often sold and resold without accompanying records. As a result, lawsuits may be filed against the wrong person, for the wrong amount, or by an entity without legal authority to collect that debt.

The FDCPA prohibits false, deceptive or misleading representations by debt collection attorneys. Yet the proposed rule gives collection attorney a “safe harbor” from liability as long as the attorney reviews unspecified “information” and somehow “determines” that the claims in the lawsuit are correct. This weak to nonexistent standard is not strong enough to protect consumers.

Filing a lawsuit against a consumer is a serious business. Many lawsuits will result in judgments, often default judgments, and credit report damage even if the collector has the wrong person or wrong amount. Consumers who are forced to fight these lawsuits will incur the burden, stress, and expense of doing so, and even the potential risk to their job of taking time off work.

The CFPB should require collection attorneys to review original account-level documentation of alleged indebtedness and make independent determinations that they are filing a lawsuit against the right person, for the right amount, based on accurate information about the age of the debt, and that their client has the legal authority to file the lawsuit.

4.The proposed rule could encourage abusive collection of time-barred zombie debt.

The proposed rule prohibits collectors from filing or threatening a lawsuit if the collector “knows or should know” that the legal time limit to sue has expired, instead of holding the collector responsible for knowing the time limit, as courts have done. The vast majority of debt collection lawsuits end up with default judgments, and consumers who show up in court frequently lack attorneys. Collectors should not be allowed to file or threaten lawsuits knowing that very few consumers will object and the few that do may have difficulty showing the collector knew or should have known that the debt was time-barred. No collector should be allowed to threaten or file a lawsuit unless they have determined that the debt is still within the legal statute of limitations.

Even out of court, collecting older debts pose too high a risk of mistake, deception and abuse. Consumers, especially older consumers, may pay even if they do not recognize a debt simply out of fear or to stop harassment. Collectors may also try to trick people into making a small payment that, in many states, will revive the debt and re-start the statute of limitations. The CFPB should prohibit out-of-court collection of time-barred debt, which is too old to collect without mistakes or deception. At a bare minimum, the Bureau should restore its earlier outline proposal that would have prohibited lawsuits on “revived” debt.

5.The CFPB must improve the proposed model validation notice.

We support the concept of a model validation notice. A clear, understandable consumer-tested notice will support the requirement of the FDCPA that consumers be given information about the debt and their rights. However, several aspects of the proposed notice fall short.

First, collectors should not be allowed to provide the notice orally. Consumers are unlikely to be able to accurately remember all of the information that they are provided in a stressful call. Second, the notice should make clear that the consumer may dispute the debt “at any time,” not by a specified date. Third, the validation notice should include a statement of rights, as the Bureau proposed earlier, not just a link to the CFPB website. Fourth, the CFPB should restore the prior proposal to develop a model validation notice in Spanish and other languages and to require collectors to provide notice in the language of the original transaction if the Bureau has a validation notice in that language.

6.We support but urge the Bureau to strengthen proposals regarding parking debts on credit reports and sale of debt.

We support the proposal that prohibits collectors from “parking” debts on credit reports – reporting debts to credit bureaus without first informing a consumer that they are attempting to collect the debt. However, collectors should be required to provide notice about the debt by mail before credit reporting unless the consumer has opted in to electronic communications.

We also support the proposal to prohibit collectors from selling accounts that were paid, discharged in bankruptcy, or where an identity theft report was filed. These debts are either not owed or are highly likely to be fraudulent, and the collectors who are willing to buy these types of debts are likely to engage in unscrupulous and unlawful efforts to collect. The Bureau should also prohibit the sale of time- barred debts and disputed debts for the same reasons.

* * *

Overall, this proposal does far more to protect abusive collectors and to encourage harassing and abusive collection practices than it does to protect consumers. We urge the Bureau to go back to the drawing board, reject the proposal rule, and start over again.

Yours very truly,

National groups:

Action Center on Race and the Economy AFL-CIO

Allied Progress

American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) Americans for Financial Reform Education Fund

Center for Digital Democracy Center for Justice & Democracy

Center for Responsible Lending Center for Survivor Agency and Justice

Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, U.S. Provinces Consumer Action

Consumer Federation of America Demos

Human Rights Watch

Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) NAACP

National Association of Consumer Advocates

National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (NACBA) National Center for Law and Economic Justice

National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (National CAPACD) National Consumer Law Center (on behalf of its low income clients)

National Consumers League National Disability Institute National Fair Housing Alliance National Health Law Program National Housing Law Project

National Legal Aid & Defender Association National LGBTQ Task Force

National Urban League Public Citizen

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

U.S. PIRG Woodstock Institute

 

State groups

Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice Southern Poverty Law Center (Alabama) Alaska AFL-CIO

Alaska Community Action on Toxics

Alaska Public Interest Research Group (AkPIRG) Native Peoples Action (Alaska)

American Council on Consumer Awareness (Arizona)

Arizona PIRG

Center for Economic Integrity (Arizona) Community Legal Services, Inc. (Arizona) Southwest Fair Housing Council (Arizona)

Wildfire: Igniting Community Action to End Poverty in Arizona

Arkansans Against Abusive Payday Lending Arkansas Community Institute

California Reinvestment Coalition CALPIRG (California)

Consumer Advocacy and Protection Society (CAPS) (California) Consumer Federation of California

Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (California) Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California Greater Napa Valley Fair Housing Center (California) Housing and Economic Rights Advocates (California)

Justice & Diversity Center of the Bar Association of San Francisco (California) Legal Aid Society of San Diego

Maternal and Child Health Access (California) Media Alliance (California)

Public Counsel (California) Public Law Center (California)

Western Center in Law & Poverty (California) Colorado Center on Law and Policy

COPIRG (Colorado)

The Bell Policy Center (Colorado) Connecticut Legal Services, Inc. ConnPIRG (Connecticut)

Delaware Community Reinvestment Action Council, Inc. Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Prosperity Now (District of Columbia)

The Equal Rights Center (District of Columbia) Tzedek DC

Florida Alliance for Consumer Protection Florida Consumer Action Network Florida PIRG

Legal Services of Greater Miami, Inc. (Florida) St. Johns County Legal Aid (Florida)

Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Inc. Georgia PIRG

Georgia Watch

Metro Fair Housing Services, Inc. (Georgia)

Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law & Economic Justice United Vision for Idaho

Heartland Alliance (Illinois) Illinois PIRG

Legal Aid Chicago

Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana Indiana Institute for Working Families Indiana Legal Services, Inc.

Indiana PIRG

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Iowa PIRG

Kansas Appleseed Kansas Legal Services

Kentucky Equal Justice Center

Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center Louisiana Budget Project

Coastal Enterprises, Inc. (Maine) Legal Services for the Elderly (Maine) Maine Center for Economic Policy CASH Campaign of Maryland Maryland PIRG

Public Justice Center (Maryland)

Chronic Illness Advocacy & Awareness Group, Inc. (Massachusetts) Greater Boston Legal Services, on behalf of its low-income clients

Greater Boston Legal Services, on behalf of its low-income clients (Massachusetts) Justice Center of Southeast MA

MASSPIRG (Massachusetts)

The Midas Collaborative (Massachusetts) Center for Civil Justice (Michigan) Michigan League for Public Policy

PIRG in Michigan (PIRGIM) Mid Minnesota Legal Aid Prepare + Prosper (Minnesota) Mississippi Center for Justice Empower Missouri

Missouri Faith Voices, A Faith in Action Federation MoPIRG (Missouri)

Organization for Black Struggle (Missouri) AFSCME Montana Council 9

Angela's Piazza (Montana)

Big Sky Central Labor Council (Montana) Billings First Congregational Church (Montana) Billings Rises (Montana)

Bitterroot RC&D (Montana) Cheyenne Tailriders (Montana)

Greater Yellowstone Central LABOUR Council (Montana) Har Shalom (Montana)

Harvest House Inc. (Montana) Homeword, Inc. (Montana)

Missoula Area Central Labor Council (Montana) Montana AFL-CIO

Montana Fair Housing

Montana Federation of Public Employees Montana Human Rights Network Montana Native Vote

Montana Organizing Project Montana Voter Policy Institute MontPIRG (Montana)

Rural Dynamics (Montana) SEIU 775 (Montana)

ST. Paul Lutheran Church Western Native Voice (Montana) Nebraska Appleseed

Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada New Hampshire PIRG

NHPIRG (New Hampshire) Consumers League of New Jersey CWA Local 1081 (New Jersey)

La Casa de Don Pedro (New Jersey) Legal Services of New Jersey

New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center New Jersey Citizen Action

NJ Communities United NJPIRG New Jersey)

Centro Savila (New Mexico) Encuentro (New Mexico)

Enlace Comunitario (New Mexico) New Mexico Caregivers Coalition New Mexico Center on Law & Poverty New Mexico Legal Aid, Inc.

NMPIRG (New Mexico) Prosperity Works (New Mexico)Empire Justice Center (New York)

Housing and Family Services of Greater New York, Inc. Legal Services NYC

Lincoln Square Legal Service, Inc. (New York) Mobilization for Justice (New York)

New Economy Project (New York)

New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) Equality North Carolina

NCPIRG (North Carolina) North Carolina Justice Center

Reinvestment Partners (North Carolina)

North Dakota Economic Security and Prosperity Alliance Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio, LLC

Ohio Domestic Violence Network Ohio PIRG

Policy Matters Ohio Oklahoma Policy Institute Innovative Changes (Oregon)

Metropolitan Family Service (Oregon) Oregon Food Bank

Oregon PIRG (OSPIRG)

Community Legal Services of Philadelphia PennPIRG (Pennsylvania)

The One Less Foundation (Pennsylvania) Economic Progress Institute (Rhode Island) Rhode Island PIRG

SC Appleseed

Bread for the World - South Dakota chapter Take it Back (South Dakota)

Tennessee Citizen Action

Brazos Valley Affordable Housing Corporation Center for Public Policy Priorities (Texas) Foundation Communities (Texas)

Greater Houston Fair Housing Center (Texas) Helping Hands Ministry of Belton (Texas)

His Sanctuary Community Development Corporation (Texas) Lubbock Housing Finance Corporation (Texas)

North Texas Fair Housing Center Pathfinders (Texas)

Project LIFT (Texas)

RAISE Texas

San Gabriel Christian Church (Texas) Texas Appleseed

Texas Association of Goodwills Texas Legal Services Center Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc. TexPIRG (Texas)

Young Invincibles (Texas) Crossroads Urban Center (Utah) Vermont Legal Aid, Inc.

Vermont Public Interest Research Group Blue Ridge Legal Services, Inc. (Virginia) Virginia Citizens Consumer Council Virginia Organizing

Virginia Poverty Law Center Solid Ground (Washington)

Statewide Poverty Action Network (Washington) WASHPIRG (Washington)

Mountain State Justice, Inc. (West Virginia) West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy

West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition West Virginians for Affordable Healthcare

WV Citizen Action Group Wisconsin PIRG

Montana – North Wyoming Conference United Church of Christ Wyoming State AFL-CIO

 

 
   

1 Data compiled by the Urban Institute shows that one in three adults with a credit report had a debt in collection. Urban Institute, Debt in America: An Interactive Map, https://apps.urban.org/features/debt-interactive- map/?type=medical&variable=perc_debt_collect (“Urban Institute, Debt in America”).   A newer report by the CFPB puts the number at one in four. CFPB, Market Snapshot: ThirdParty Debt Collections Tradeline Reporting (July 2019), https://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/documents/201907_cfpb_third-party-debt-collections_report.pdf (“CFPB, Market Snapshot”).

2 CFPB, Market Snapshot.

3 See National Consumer Law Center, Racial Disparities in Consumer Debt Collection (citing Urban Institute, Debt in America, https://www.nclc.org/images/pdf/debt_collection/fact-sheets/fact-sheet-racial-disparities-in-debt- collection.pdf; CFPB, Consumer Experiences with Debt Collection: Findings from the CFPB’s Survey of Consumer Views on Debt (Jan. 2017), https://s3.amazonaws.com/files.consumerfinance.gov/f/documents/201701_cfpb_Debt-Collection-Survey- Report.pdf); and Annie Waldman & Paul Kiel, ProPublica, Racial Disparity in Debt Collection Lawsuits:

A Study of Three Metro Areas (Oct. 8, 2015), https://static.propublica.org/projects/race-and- debt/assets/pdf/ProPublica-garnishments-whitepaper.pdf).

4 See National Consumer Law Center, Debt Collection in the States, https://www.nclc.org/images/pdf/debt_collection/fact-sheets/fact-sheet-debt-collection-complaints-in-states.pdf (summarizing data from Urban Institute, Debt in America).

5 See National Consumer Law Center, Servicemembers, Veterans, and Debt Collection, https://www.nclc.org/images/fact-sheet-servicemembers-and-debt-collection.pdf (citing CFPB, 50 state snapshot of servicemember complaints (Oct. 2017), https://s3.amazonaws.com/files.consumerfinance.gov/f/documents/cfpb_monthly-complaint-report_50-state- snapshot-servicemembers_102017.pdf).

6 See National Consumer Law Center, Student Debt Collection, https://www.nclc.org/images/Student-Debt- Collection.pdf (citing The Institute for College Access & Success, Student Debt and the Class of 2017 (Sept. 2018), https://ticas.org/sites/default/files/pub_files/classof2017.pdf and Kristin Blagg, Underwater on Student Debt: Understanding Consumer Credit and Student Loan Default (Aug. 2018), https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/98884/underwater_on_student_debt_0.pdf).

7 See National Consumer Law Center, Older Consumers and Debt Collection, https://www.nclc.org/images/Fact- Sheet-Older-Consumers-and-Debt-Collection.pdf (citing Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances, https://www.federalreserve.gov/econres/scfindex.htm and National Council on Aging, Older Adults and Debt: Trends, Trade-offs, and Tools to Help (2018), https://www.ncoa.org/wp- content/uploads/NCOA-Older-Adult-Issue-Debt-Brief.pdf).

8 See National Consumer Law Center, Consumer Complaints about Debt Collection: Analysis of Unpublished Data from the FTC (Feb. 2019), https://www.nclc.org/issues/analysis-of-unpublished-data-ftc.html.

9 Id.

10 FTC, Imposter Scams Top Complaints Made to FTC in 2018 (Feb. 28, 2019) (listing top three categories as imposter scams, debt collection and identity theft), https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press- releases/2019/02/imposter-scams-top-complaints-made-ftc-2018.

11 CFPB, Fair Debt Collection Practices Act: BCFP Annual Report 2019 (Mar. 2019), https://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/documents/cfpb_fdcpa_annual-report-congress_03-2019.pdf.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
 

One meatpacking worker I interviewed cried telling me how an industrial bag sealer seared away the flesh from her fingers. Another got emotional telling me about her supervisor’s constant screaming and the stress of keeping up. One told me that when she is on the line trimming chicken wings, she is terrified of breaking the cardinal rule that workers from meat and poultry slaughtering and processing plants across the United States shared with me: Don’t stop the line. 

Over the past year, I interviewed current and former workers from chicken, hog and cattle slaughtering and processing plants in Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina and Tennessee. The interviews were part of an investigation into the conditions for the hundreds of thousands of women and men who kill, cut, debone and package American-grown meat.

It's risky work and getting riskier

These workers suffer some of the highest rates of occupational injury and illness in the country. We found workers at risk of serious, potentially life-threatening injury. Some told me they are pushed by supervisor insults and humiliation to work beyond their physical and mental limits to keep the line moving. Most told me the speed of the work is what makes their job dangerous.

The Trump administration threatens to make these already dangerous conditions worse by weakening oversight of the industry and lifting limits on slaughter line speeds.

Animal slaughtering and processing is inherently difficult work, in environments full of dangers. Moving machine parts can cause traumatic injuries by crushing, amputating, burning and slicing. The tools of the trade — knives, hooks, scissors and saws, among others — can cut, stab and infect. The cumulative trauma of repeating the same, forceful motions tens of thousands of times each day can cause severe and disabling injuries.   

 

According to severe injury data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), between 2015 and 2018, a worker in the industry lost a body part or was sent to the hospital for in-patient treatment about every other day. Each year between 2013 and 2017, eight workers in the industry died, on average, because of an incident at their plant. Disabling musculoskeletal disorders were alarmingly common among the workers who talked with me. Almost all of them said their lives revolved around managing chronic pain.

The buck has to stop somewhere

Despite these conditions, the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which oversees food safety in slaughterhouses, is rolling back regulations on slaughter line speeds. It’s expanding the number of poultry companies that can increase the speed at which they slaughter chickens beyond existing limits. This week, it enacted a rule that will completely eliminate caps on slaughter line speeds for pork producers operating under a new slaughter inspection system. The facilities that use this new system will produce 90% of the pork consumed in the United States. It has been reported that similar speed limit increases in cattle plants are next.

FSIS has been reluctant to take responsibility for the impact on workers that these policies will have. I met with the acting head of FSIS, Dr. Mindy Brashears, to talk about the experiences that workers shared with me and the concerns that they and workers’ rights advocates have about these policies. In short, she reiterated what FSIS has consistently said about the impact of their policies on workers: That’s not our job. 

FSIS argues that it doesn’t have jurisdiction to regulate conditions for workers. But it doesn’t have to impose any new regulations that could make conditions in the industry even worse.

OSHA, not FSIS, is the agency charged with overseeing U.S. workplace safety. But it has long failed to put standards in place to regulate practices and conditions that put workers at risk in the meat and poultry industry. In 2015, the agency denied a petition from a coalition of concerned organizations to regulate work speeds in a manner that would protect workers’ safety and health. It cited a lack of resources for conducting the necessary rulemaking effort. One study found that it takes OSHA, on average, more than seven years to research and promulgate standards for an industry. 

But under the current administration, OSHA has even less capacity to promulgate new rules that would protect workers, to enforce existing regulations and to ensure that employers are accurately reporting information about workers injuries. OSHA now has the fewest inspectors in its history. And OSHA’s budget for setting new safety and health standards is lower than it was when it denied that work speed petition for lack of resources. It was slashed soon after Trump took office in the 2017 omnibus spending bill, and it hasn’t risen since. OSHA did not respond to our requests to comment on our findings and clarify our questions. 

Congress should equip OSHA to do a lot more to improve conditions for meatpacking workers, but that should not exempt FSIS from doing what it can now to decrease risks to workers. Line speed increases can put workers’ safety and health at risk. The United States has an obligation not to place workers at greater risk and it should not deal away these responsibilities under the guise of FSIS’ food safety mandate. FSIS should revoke its line speed waivers for poultry plants and withdraw the Modernization of Swine Slaughter rule. Workers shouldn’t have to live in fear of serious injury or death to do their jobs.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The most common ailments for workers in the industry are musculoskeletal disorders—cumulative trauma injuries like carpal tunnel or tendinitis that develop through repeated stress over time. 

2019 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) – A Trump administration final regulation announced on September 17, 2019 to allow increased slaughter line speeds in hog processing plants in the United States threatens to put workers in grave danger of serious injuries, Human Rights Watch said today.

The “Modernization of Swine Slaughter Inspection” rule promulgated by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) revokes maximum slaughter line speeds for pork producers and could open the door to plants operating as fast they want. Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch released a report, “‘When We’re Dead and Buried, Our Bones Will Keep Hurting’: Workers’ Rights Under Threat in US Meat and Poultry Plants,” which describes line speed as a major factor contributing to high rates of serious injury among workers in meat and poultry processing plants.

“Nearly all the workers we interviewed described how intense pressure to keep up with the pace of production has led them to suffer debilitating pain and injury,” said Komala Ramachandra, senior researcher in the Business and Human Rights division at Human Rights Watch. “Removing limits on line speed for pig slaughter will make already dangerous work conditions even more hazardous.”

Workers in the meat and poultry slaughtering and processing industry suffer some of the highest rates of occupational injury and illness in the country. Between 2015 and 2018, a worker in the industry lost a body part or was sent to the hospital for in-patient treatment about every other day, according to severe injury data published by Occupational Safety and Health Administration at the US Department of Labor (OSHA). Each year between 2013 and 2017, eight workers in the industry died, on average, because of an incident at their plant.

USDA is charged with ensuring animals are slaughtered and processed in a manner commensurate with food safety. USDA inspectors have the power to reduce slaughter line speeds if they believe line speeds are too fast for them to adequately inspect the animals. Under the new rule, however, some of the responsibility for meat inspection is transferred to the company employees to do some of the work previously conducted by federal inspectors, and the rule reduces the number of USDA inspectors in a facility.

Human Rights Watch is concerned that the new inspection system has weakened USDA inspectors’ ability to slow down line speeds in hog processing plants that were involved in the pilot program allowing for privatized inspection, as well as in poultry processing plants that have adopted similar systems under an earlier new rule.

While FSIS claims that the system put in place by the new rule improves food safety and the effectiveness of hog slaughter inspection systems by removing unnecessary regulatory obstacles to innovation and making better use of the agency’s resources, it also removes one of the only safeguards on line speeds.

In proposing the rule, FSIS concluded that a privatized inspection system led to lower average, annual rates of worker injury in the plants participating in the pilot program. In June 2019, the USDA’s inspector general opened an investigation into whether this analysis was based on flawed data. That investigation remains open.

“These industries need more oversight and transparency, not less,” said Ramachandra. “This rule represents an abdication of the administration’s responsibility for protecting American workers’ health and safety.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The bathtub, discolored by iron and manganese in water, in a home near a mountaintop removal mine on Coal Mountain in Wyoming County, West Virginia.

© 2018 Human Rights Watch

As a candidate, Donald Trump promised that he'd shake up the economy to benefit "the forgotten man." But his economic policies have included deregulation in ways that can harm the very people he promised to help. The repeal on September 12 of a major clean water regulation is only the latest example.

As human rights advocates working in a number of countries, including the U.S., we have seen how policies that reduce regulation of dangerous industries can increase health and safety risks for workers and communities, while offering them little in return. This is as true in the U.S. as it would be anywhere; in fact, in one recent study in the coalfields of Appalachia, we examined how deregulation left communities exposed to the health risks of coal mining pollution. And in another, in the Eastern European country of Georgia, we found that unsafe practices contributed to a rise in mining accidents and deaths after labor and safety laws were gutted.

Cutting regulations in the US was supposed to revive the coal industry, which largely blamed Obama-era rules for its economic woes. One of the first laws Trump signed as president repealed the Stream Protection Rule, which would have helped monitor and mitigate water pollution from mountaintop removal, a particularly destructive form of coal mining.

Since 2009, public health researchers at West Virginia University and elsewhere have published over a dozen studies showing significantly higher rates of cardiovascular disease, lung and other types of cancer, birth defects, and overall mortality in counties with mountaintop removal compared to other Appalachian counties, even after they controlled for factors such as poverty, smoking, obesity, education, race, and rural disadvantages.

Soon after throwing out the Steam Protection rule, the Trump administration quashed further study into mountaintop removal mining's health risks by abruptly canceling funding for a National Academy of Sciences study that had already been halfway completed.

We found that hundreds of families living near such mines found toxic metals such as lead and arsenic in their tap water, consistent with mining pollution. One family we visited showed us the brown stinking water that began to run from her faucet after the mining began. "I'm worried about my babies," the mother said. "Is it safe to bathe them?"

Our research into other areas the Trump administration is deregulating had similar findings. We have found the EPA's two-phase effort to weaken rules on the disposal of coal ash, a toxic byproduct of coal combustion contaminating groundwater across the United States, poses a serious threat to drinking water, especially the 13 million households that rely on private wells.

Of course, mining is not the only sector where deregulation dramatically increases risk to life and limb. In the meatpacking industry, our colleague recently published a 100-page report documenting how deregulation of slaughter line speeds endangers workers. Workers consistently blamed the alarmingly high rates of traumatic injuries and chronic illness, such as cuts, burns, and disabling pain on rapid work speeds, yet the Trump administration is permitting companies to accelerate production even further.

Strikingly, our research findings in the United States echo those from our research on coal and manganese mining in Georgia, despite the two countries' very different economic and political contexts. In 2003, the peaceful "Rose Revolution" forced out the Soviet era president and replaced him with Mikhail Saakashvili, an American-educated lawyer who promised to jumpstart the country's stagnant economy. Saakashvili slashed entire sections from Georgia's Labor Code in 2006, including abolishing the labor inspectorate and removing key protections for workers' safety, pay, and rest.

The reforms helped Georgia gain a more business-friendly reputation, but since then worker accidents have skyrocketed. One study found that deaths at work soared by 74 percent over the 10 years from 2007 to 2017, as compared with the period from 2002 to 2005. Most of these deaths were in mining and construction.

Last year, ten miners died in two separate incidents within months of each other in a coal mine in western Georgia. Human Rights Watch spoke to dozens of coal and manganese miners who described intense production pressures that they said exposed them to unacceptable risks. Many blamed these pressures or insufficient rest for accidents that resulted in deep cuts and concussions, lost limbs, and being buried under rocks as roofs collapsed.

And what about the promises of prosperity? The Trump administration lauded the repeal of the Stream Protection Rule by saying it would save thousands of jobs. But since the beginning of 2019, three coal producers employing around 3,800 miners have declared bankruptcy. And while many of these jobs will most likely vanish, polluted streams and groundwater will remain, in part because the Stream Protection Rule has been repealed. Similarly, while increasing production speeds at meatpacking plants may help corporate profits, workers' wages continue to decline.

In Georgia, a recent World Bank study found that in Chiatura, where the manganese mine is a main employer, the direct poverty rate, a measure of poverty that tracks people's ability to pay bills, buy food, and the like, was a striking 50 percent, among the highest in Georgia.

While foreign investment increased, Georgia has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the region. And unemployment increased by over 3 percent between 2006 and 2013, the period when labor regulations were at a nadir.

Deregulation of mining in the country of Georgia and the United States illustrate how slashing rules may cut costs for industry—but when it shifts the risks of doing business to workers and communities, people can pay the price with their safety and their health.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Bangladeshis work at Snowtex garment factory in Dhamrai, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 19, 2018. 

© 2019 AP Photo/A.M. Ahad

Knowing where products are made is key to stopping human rights abuses in the global supply chain.  An alliance of 64 NGOs and trade unions in Germany – including Human Rights Watch – has launched a Supply Chains Law Campaign urging the German government to propose a bill by 2020 that would ensure German companies put in place human rights safeguards in their supply chains.

Seven years ago to this day, on September 11, 2012, a fire ripped through Ali enterprises garment factory in Pakistan, killing 255 workers and injuring 57. The factory supplied KiK, a well-known German clothing brand with shops offering affordable fashion on many German highstreets. While labor rights organizations successfully demanded that KiK compensate victims of the fire, the company has yet to ensure its supply chain is transparent. Human rights and environmental tragedies continue to surface in the global supply chains of German companies. 

Now is a crucial moment to push for a robust law. Germany’s government of conservatives and social democrats has already agreed to consider legislation on human rights safeguards in supply chains in its coalition agreement. The next national elections are scheduled for September 2021, which means that any new bill would have to be tabled soon. The campaign hopes to convince wavering MPs and mobilize the public to support a petition addressed to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

It will not be easy. Conservative and social democrat coalition partners have struggled to agree on a national action plan to protect human rights in company supply chains, and a mechanism to monitor its implementation. A German law would be vital to regulating company behaviour in Germany and protecting rights in the supply chains of one of the world’s largest export economies.

But a German law could prove a positive influence across the European Union. Germany will have the EU Presidency in the second half of 2020 and would be in a great position to help pave the way for EU-wide mandatory due diligence, ensuring strong, rights-respecting business practices in many more countries.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

View of a former mine pit, now flooded, at the old mine site in Kabwe. In the foreground is an area where small-scale miners still work today. © 2019 Diane McCarthy for Human Rights Watch

“Henry” is thin and small for his age. The 10-year-old, his mum and I are sitting outside in the dusty, poor township of Waya in the Zambian city of Kabwe on a hot, dry afternoon.

His mum, looking weary, describes their life near the city’s former lead and zinc mine. She worries about her children’s health and tells Henry and his siblings to avoid the dust that blows over from there.

A few years ago, Henry was found to have extremely high amounts of lead in his blood, high enough to warrant immediate treatment, according to medical experts. But he never received any medical care.

Kabwe’s mine dates to the colonial period: a British company opened the mine in 1904. Anglo American took over in 1925 and remained in charge for nearly 50 years. Early on, doctor’s certificates revealed that smelter workers experienced lead poisoning, but the company continued to mine, smelt and poison the environment.

In 1974, Zambia nationalised the mine and closed it 20 years later. A comprehensive cleanup was never undertaken. The government subsequently issued several licences for companies to mine the site, allowing them to further harm people and the environment.

And so, 25 years after the mine closed, children’s homes, schools and play areas are highly contaminated, resulting in extremely high levels of lead in their blood.

More than 6-million tons of mining waste remain in place, and dust from these uncovered waste dumps blows over nearby residential areas. The most visible dump is known locally as the “Black Mountain”.

About half of children living in the affected neighbourhoods need medical treatment, experts say. Lead can cause stunted growth, anaemia, learning difficulties, organ damage, coma and convulsions, and even death. Children are particularly vulnerable.

When Human Rights Watch visited Kabwe in 2018 public health facilities had no kits for lead testing, nor any medicine. Many residents said they felt fearful, and helpless. “You see dust is everywhere. It is all over. So, this lead just can’t stop spreading,” Henry’s mother told me. “The president should bring us medicine,” Henry added.

The Zambian government has issued a large-scale mining license to British company Berkeley Mineral Resources (BMR), which is planning to reprocess lead, zinc and vanadium from the mine’s waste in a joint business venture with SA company Jubilee Metals

Human Rights Watch wrote to both companies asking what they were doing to prevent harm; BMR referred us to Jubilee Metals, and Jubilee Metals did not respond.

An environmental impact assessment submitted by a BMR subsidiary in 2015 was grossly insufficient, according to experts consulted by Human Rights Watch. It lacked vital information and failed to demonstrate how the new venture would protect the community from harmful effects.

The government recently said it will require a new environmental and social impact assessment. The government is indeed responsible for ensuring that any waste-reprocessing activities comply with Zambia’s environmental laws and are scrutinised for harmful human rights and environmental consequences.

The government has also issued a few licences for small-scale mining in Kabwe. Such mining in lead-contaminated soil carries huge health risks for miners’ families and the wider community as it produces more dust, and workers carry dust home.

So far, efforts by the government to clean up residential areas and test and treat children have been insufficient; even the World Bank, which funded the efforts a decade ago, has acknowledged problems. A new World Bank-funded project began in December 2016. After a slow start, testing and treatment are to be made available in the coming months, which should bring relief to the families of Henry and many others. There are also plans to clean up homes and possibly schools.

But unfortunately, this new effort is not the proper, lasting, and comprehensive cleanup Kabwe needs. That would include the former mine — the source of the contamination — as well as roads, schools, and all homes and public places nearby. The government told Human Rights Watch it does not have the resources for such a cleanup.

The UK law firm Leigh Day has announced it is preparing a class-action case against Anglo American SA on behalf of people from Zambian communities near Kabwe mine who are suffering from lead exposure.

Leigh Day and its SA partner attorneys are seeking compensation for victims of lead poisoning, including the cost of an effective medical-monitoring system for blood lead levels among the community.

Win or lose, the case is a powerful reminder that the Kabwe legacy and the children who are still being poisoned as a result can no longer be ignored.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am