Global Glance: December 7, 2015
A quick look at intriguing international stories
By John Bostwick, Managing Editor, Radius
Welcome back to Global Glance. This week we look at:
Locking In Workers in the US and India
US-based employers new to operating abroad are often surprised by the relative stringency of non-US worker-protection laws. For example, outside the US at-will employment typically doesn’t exist, and terminations may in some cases cost an employer a year’s salary or more per employee. Furthermore, workers generally speaking are aware of their rights and not timid about exercising them. Global Glance readers will recall a recent story involving union workers in Spain taking their employer to court to preserve their soda-bottling jobs in the face of a merger in which the plant was slated for repurposing.
In the US, of course, we’re more likely to hear about feeble or nonexistent worker protections, including the fact that the US ranks low in all types of mandatory paid time off, from vacation, to maternity leave, paternity leave and sick time. So far in this century, maybe the most resonant story about weak US worker protections is a 2004 New York Times piece. That article describes how Wal-Mart and its subsidiaries locked overnight workers inside their stores, leading in some cases to injured employees having to wait hours to receive medical attention. It includes this doozy of a passage: “The federal government and almost all states do not bar locking in workers so long as they have access to an emergency exit. But several longtime Wal-Mart workers recalled that in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the fire doors of some Wal-Marts were chained shut.” Where was Charles Dickens when you needed him?
I was reminded of that Wal-Mart story — and the broader subject of worker protections in different countries — when I read an article earlier this month in the India-based Economic Times. That story also involves a worker being held against his will. Only in this case, the hostage in question was one of the founders of the company, a food-delivery software company called TinyOwl. And he was being held by employees that he’d just laid off. As this TechCrunch article explains, TinyOwl had recently received funding that was contingent on restructuring, including layoffs.
The Economic Times reported that the standoff was mediated by police and lasted over two days: “The 25 employees in TinyOwl's Pune office had demanded two months’ salary to compensate for the layoffs … and refused to let [company cofounder Gaurav Choudhary] leave the premises without settling their dues.” There’s more to the story, including this from TechCrunch: “Afterward, police insisted that Choudhary stay the night in the office, after taking statements from him and numerous employees. Some of them then reportedly took Choudhary out for dinner — nice captors to have! — before returning to the office.”
One final passage is worth quoting as a reminder of the importance of cultural expectations when operating abroad. After noting that the layoffs may have been hastily conducted by India standards, The Economic Times quotes an HR expert on the situation. Here he is: "In India, culturally there is a lot of stigma attached to losing your job... Therefore, employees get more worried. … With such young founders, investors also need to be advisers and help in this process. They have a responsibility to not pressurise founders to take these calls [i.e., communicate and make layoffs] immediately.”
China’s Smog Crisis
For a good summary of the UN’s annual global climate-change talks now underway, check out this Washington Post piece, “The Paris Climate Change Summit, Explained in Four Charts.” It describes the backdrop of the conference — including the 1997 Kyoto Protocol — and indicates that the primary task of the countries involved is “figuring out how to build a mechanism that will reduce carbon dioxide output fairly across multiple counties.”
One of the more fascinating — not to say alarming — charts in the Post article shows carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels by country, including China, India, Indonesia, Russia, the UK and the US (presumably the world’s top emissions culprits). While it’s hard to read the chart precisely, the trends are clear. In the mid-1990s, China’s output was about half that of the US. Starting around 2004, China’s line on the graph assumes a near vertical trajectory, and the chart now shows China’s emissions to be about one and a half times the US’s. (Also remarkable: For whatever reasons, Russia’s emissions are now about half of what they were in the mid-1990s, and about two times less than the US’s current emissions and some five times less than China’s.)
An AP story published in last Monday’s Los Angeles Times speaks strongly to China’s profligate fossil fuel consumption. (And yes, I know as an American I have a lot of nerve writing that.) Beijing authorities placed the city on an orange alert last week due to dangerous air-pollution levels. The AP article indicates: “The city said the levels of hazardous tiny PM2.5 particles in the air exceeded 600 micrograms per cubic meter at several monitoring sites late Monday afternoon. The US Embassy in Beijing reported 666 micrograms per cubic meter at 8 p.m. … Outside Beijing, the readings were as high as 976 micrograms.” To put that into context, a 2005 World Health Organization report on air-quality sets a target of 25 PM2.5 for 24-hour concentrations. The WHO recommends “that countries with areas not meeting the 24-hour guideline values undertake immediate action to achieve these levels in the shortest possible time.” Given that Beijing’s air-quality levels were at about 30 times the WHO’s target amount, one wonders what “the shortest possible time” might be, not to mention the nature of that “immediate action.”
The New York Times last week reported that one Beijing-based artist — who intriguingly calls himself Brother Nut — began an environmental protest project that ran for 100 days and culminated last week. (Nice timing, Brother Nut.) Here’s the Times on “Project Dust:” “Brother Nut dragged a roaring, industrial-strength vacuum cleaner around the Chinese capital’s landmarks, sucking up dust from the atmosphere. He has mixed the accumulated gray gunk with red clay to create a small but potent symbol of the city’s air problems.” That symbol is a brick, made from the dust in a Chinese factory. The artist is quoted as saying, “Dust represents the side effects of humankind’s development, including smog and building-site dust. … When I first arrived in Beijing, I wore a hygienic mask for a few days, but later I stopped. In smog like this, there’s no escaping.”
China’s Soccer Aspirations
City Football Group (CFG) — which owns the English Premier League team Manchester City — announced in a press release last Monday that it had partnered with the Chinese investment group China Media Capital Holdings (CMC). City Football Group is the epitome of an organization that sees true commercial success as a product of global rather than simply domestic operations and appeal. It already owns soccer clubs in Australia, Japan and the US, and its new partnership with CMC is simply an extension of its existing commitment to global expansion. The release says the deal “will create an unprecedented platform for the growth of CFG clubs and companies in China and internationally, borne out of CFG's ability to provide a wealth of industry expertise and resources to the rapidly developing Chinese football industry.”
That bit about China’s “rapidly developing football industry” isn’t mere PR prattle. While China isn’t known as a soccer power, that could change within a generation or two. An International Business Times article reported earlier this year that Chinese president Xi Jinping loves soccer. And earlier this year he and other Chinese government officials released a — what else? — "50-point plan that seeks to turn the country into a ‘soccer powerhouse,’” including a promise “to establish 50,000 soccer schools in the country in the next decade, and to set up a soccer lottery to help fund them.”
The story highlights the growing and seemingly insatiable hunger around the world for soccer. As the expanding FIFA corruption scandal makes clear, soccer’s popularity involves untold amounts of money and opportunities for bribery and other criminal activities. It also influences politics, apparently even in one-party China. The International Business Times article makes the good point that Xi may love soccer, but “he will be well aware that, in a nation with the world’s highest number of soccer supporters, there is much frustration at the poor performance of the men’s national team … and anger at the bureaucracy that is often blamed for its failures.” The article mentions another point, no doubt germane to the introduction of China’s new 50-point plan: “Sport is one of the few areas of Chinese life where media and Internet users are relatively free to criticize the authorities.”