Other countries eagerly await U.S. immigration reform

Apple harvest
They design our electronics, harvest our food, staff our research labs and care for our children. Immigrants -- legal and illegal, skilled and unskilled -- by all accounts are vital cogs in the wheel of the U.S. economy, and the money they send back to their families improves the quality of life throughout their homelands.

GlobalFocusSo why, when both sending and receiving countries benefit, is the quest for comprehensive immigration reform in the United States so politically divisive and often pushed to the legislative back burner?

Immigration policy experts say the caustic partisan debate over who can stay and who must go has been ratcheted up by the lingering joblessness inflicted by the Great Recession and the searing spotlight of Campaign 2012 that illuminated only candidates' points of contention rather than those of convergence.

Now that the election is over and President Obama purportedly is beholden to the 71% of Latino voters who helped propel him to a second term, the more sober analysts of immigration dynamics are predicting that lawmakers of all political stripes will make a priority of devising more fair, efficient and mutually advantageous practices for integrating foreign labor.

"Immigrants operate on supply and demand, like everyone else. If there is a huge supply of jobs, they will come to the United States and look for them. If, as the case has been recently, there is not a huge supply of jobs or work opportunities are declining, then they either don’t come here or they go back," said S. Lynne Walker, vice president of the Institute of the Americas and an immigration policy analyst for more than 20 years. She pointed to a Pew Hispanic Center report in April that tracked the steady decline of undocumented workers, who have been kept at bay by the recession.

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Spain puts off burning all of its 'bridges'

Spain has put off a promised reduction of its number of pubic holidays and a rewriting of the work calendar because of objections from interested parties such as the Roman Catholic Church and unions
MADRID -- As Spain's economy sputters, the 2013 calendar is helping the country do what its politicians can't: cut down the number of public holidays.

In a move to boost productivity, the cash-strapped Spanish government announced earlier this year that it would eliminate Spaniards' beloved puentes, or "bridge" weekends. That's when a holiday falls on a Tuesday or Thursday and, to make a long four-day weekend, workers take off the Monday or Friday in between. Many employers tacitly acquiesce to an extra vacation day, and some close their offices altogether.

With Spain's economy ailing, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has called the puentes a luxury his country simply can't afford. So with some exceptions, such as Christmas or New Year's Day, most holidays will be moved to the nearest Monday, creating a three-day weekend instead.

But the government has been mired in negotiations with the Roman Catholic Church, regional governments and labor unions -- all of which want their holidays celebrated on fixed dates, regardless of the day of the week. So despite an agreement with Spain's largest business federation back in January, the calendar of public holidays was not altered in time for the start of the school year two months ago.

By lucky coincidence for the government, most of Spain's 2013 holidays fall on Monday, Friday or weekends anyway, saving politicians the headache of rejiggering the calendar for now. However, two "bridge" weekends will remain, with more in certain regions.

The holiday shuffle will commence in earnest in 2014, Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría announced Friday. She outlined possible compromises: The Catholic Church, for example, may agree to celebrate All Saints' Day (traditionally Nov. 1) on a Monday, in exchange for having the Day of the Immaculate Conception fixed on Dec. 8. Unions are pushing for Labor Day to remain on May 1, in accordance with most of Europe. Disagreements persist over at least three other holidays.

Spain has an average of 14 religious and municipal holidays per year, 40% more than the United States. Germany has between eight and 11 public holidays, depending on the federal state. France has between 11 and 13, again depending on the region.


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Photo: A swimmer on the beach last week in San Sebastian, Spain. Credit: Juan Herrero / EPA

Mexican union reform effort stays alive -- for now

MEXICO CITY — A dramatic vote in the Mexican Senate has kept alive a plan to reform this country’s corrupt and politically powerful unions, despite opponents’ attempts to smother the idea in the legislature.

But the senators' move late Tuesday could also torpedo a broader labor-reform bill, of which the union reforms are only one part. That left Mexicans pondering two very different futures Wednesday: one that could see a diminished role for the country’s king-making union bosses and another in which nothing much changes.

The reforms in question would require union elections to be held with secret ballots and open the books of big labor to public scrutiny. That, in theory, could undermine the virtual fiefdoms of labor leaders like Elba Esther Gordillo, the head of Mexico’s national teachers union, whose salary is unknown, but who is known to carry $5,000 Hermes purses and once gave out Hummers to loyal followers.

The reforms could also undermine an important source of political power for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which managed to co-opt big labor for most of the 20th century, when it ran Mexican society in a top-down, semi-authoritarian manner.

The teachers union and the powerful syndicate representing workers in the state oil company, PEMEX, both remain closely linked to the PRI. Critics consider both unions to be warrens of corruption, and hindrances to the modernization of two key elements of Mexican society: the poorly managed state oil and gas monopoly and the underperforming educational system.

Both Gordillo of the teachers union and Carlos Romero Deschamps, the longtime leader of the oil company union, were reelected over the weekend, clear indications that labor’s old guard was not planning on going gently.

That only intensified the drama facing Mexico's president-elect, Enrique Peña Nieto of PRI, who rode to victory in July promising sweeping government reforms, but heads a party that may not be so eager to give up its ways.

Peña Nieto, who takes office Dec. 1, has supported the idea of labor reform in general. He has declined, however, to take a strong stand on the union reform effort: In Madrid this month, he said he was in favor of greater union “transparency,” but added that the “autonomy” of the unions must also be respected.

His fellow party members are dominant in the Mexican Chamber of Deputies, and last month they stripped the broader labor-reform bill of its union-reform provisions before it passed the lower chamber.

On Tuesday, however, the union reforms were reintroduced in the Senate version of the bill, thanks to an ad-hoc coalition of senators from the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, and the right-wing National Action Party, or PAN. The bill passed on a 100-28 vote after 12 hours of debate.

Now, under Mexican law, the bill goes back to the lower chamber, which will consider the Senate’s alterations.

If the lower house approves the Senate’s changes, the altered bill will go to the desk of outgoing President Felipe Calderon, who introduced it.

But if disagreement remains, there is a chance the bill could languish in legislative limbo.

There is also a third possibility: The legislation could be approved by both houses, but without the union-reform provisions. Even in that scaled-back form, the bill could bring historic change to Mexico’s traditionally rigid labor market, making it easier for businesses to hire and fire workers, formalizing the outsourcing of work in some cases, and allowing for the payment of an hourly wage.

Those proposals infuriated some on the Mexican left, who worried that the bill only weakened the position of workers whose guaranteed minimum wage is about 60 cents per hour.


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PHOTO: A demonstrator shouts slogans against proposed labor reforms outside Congress in Mexico City on Sept. 27. A proposal to reform Mexico's 1970s-era labor laws, loosen work rules and increase union democracy split Mexican political parties, threatening to create the first big political battle for President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto. The banner reads, "No to labor reform." Credit: Alexandre Meneghini / Associated Press


Striking Egyptian doctors begin nationwide resignation campaign

This post has been updated. See the note below.

CAIRO -- Egyptian doctors began a mass resignation campaign in state-run hospitals across the country Thursday after the government failed to meet demands for higher salaries, better security and a dramatic increase in national healthcare spending.

"We're targeting at least a third of the 50,000 doctors employed through the state. This will cripple the Health Ministry,” said Dr. Ahmed Shoura, a member of the strike committee. “Our campaign is going to resume until at least 15,000 resignations have been collected, then we will submit our resignations to the ministry."

For the last three weeks, doctors in public hospitals have been on a partial strike across the country, handling only chronic cases once a week. Thousands of doctors have threatened to submit their resignations if the state did not meet their demands in a strike that has become an intensifying problem for President Mohamed Morsi's new government.

The strikers are also calling for "corrupt" Health Ministry employees and former officials loyal to ousted President Hosni Mubarak to be removed from office. 

[Updated  2:23 p.m., Oct. 18: Several doctors who helped organize the strike said the ministry has been unresponsive to their pleas for negotiations. However, Dr. Ahmed Sedeek of the Health Ministry previously told The Times that officials had been meeting with doctors to find a middle ground.

“Some of the people participating in the strike believe that the Health Ministry is against the doctors; this is not the case," Sedeek said. "We are doctors as well and the ministry needs all of its doctors to contribute.”

He said that while the doctors have legitimate demands, the new government needs more time to increase the health budget as promised and implement reform.

“Our main goal is to fix the health institution,” he said. “If the doctors don't want to give us a chance or abort the steps we've already taken, then this is just unfortunate.”]

Last week, 85 doctors resigned from one hospital in Cairo's urban slum district of Sayeda Zeinab, Shoura told The Times. He and several dozen doctors in Cairo and Alexandria have already resigned. He said he expects that they will reach their goal quickly because both doctors and patients are "fed up" with Egypt's healthcare system.

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Hourly wage in Mexico? Union members express fears of legislation

Sign mexico labor reform law daniel hernandez

MEXICO CITY -- Mexico's lower house of Congress has passed a major labor-reform law -- the first changes in employment regulations in Mexico since 1970 -- that would alter the way bosses and employees interact before, during and after a job.

For organized workers like Antonieta Torres, a primly dressed 44-year-old government office assistant wearing eyeglasses, the law spells uncertainty.

"It's possible that there could be more jobs, but at miserable wages, with exploitation of workers," Torres said during a large union rally. "It would hurt all of us."

The outgoing administration of President Felipe Calderon, which succeeded in passing the bill with help from the party of incoming President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto, said the law would boost job rolls and competition in the labor market

For union members, the measure -- which is now on its way to Mexico's Senate -- would strip workers of what they called few relative benefits they enjoy under existing regulations, which they argue favor employers and large companies anyway.

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South African platinum miners end strike, accepting pay raise


This post has been corrected. See the note below for details.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Platinum miners at Lonmin's Marikana site ended their illegal six-week strike after winning raises of up to 22% in a deal critics warned could ignite a wave of pay demands and wildcat strikes across South Africa's troubled mining industry.

One rival union official warned that the deal signed late Tuesday sent a signal that dumping previous wage agreements and staging illegal strikes paid off.

Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets Wednesday to disperse protesters at a neighboring platinum mine near Rustenburg owned by Anglo American Platinum, news agencies reported, where workers were calling for wage increases to match the Lonmin deal. A police spokesman said 19 protesters were arrested at the mine.

Miners at Goldfields' KDC West mine are also on an illegal strike.

Strikes are deemed illegal by South Africa's Labor Court if the workers have not submitted their grievance to a conciliation body and given 30 days' notice of a planned strike or if they stop work over an issue covered by a current agreement with employers in order to extract concessions in a future agreement.

In a sign that demands for wage increases are likely to spread, the main trade union body, COSATU, called on other mining companies to match Lonmin's salary increase.

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After shootings, South Africa warns mines to do more for workers

This post has been updated. See the note below.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The mineral resources minister of South Africa warned mining companies on Monday they would face "consequences" if they fail to do more to improve workers' lives after 34 striking platinum miners protesting for higher pay were slain last month by police.

Susan Shabangu blamed mining companies for dragging their feet in providing decent lives for their workers. The minister told a news conference in Johannesburg that most mine managers in South Africa were white and male, a sign of the industry's failure to include other racial groups and women in its leadership.

She warned that it wasn't the job of government to provide services such as housing for miners, and attacked companies for failing to do enough to improve workers' lives.

"Mining companies are not coming to the party as per their responsibilities," Shabangu said, adding that legislation on mining companies' obligations "is clear. If companies don't comply, there will be consequences. ... It will lead to fines. It will lead to closures of companies that do not comply."

President Jacob Zuma and the ruling African National Congress government are under intense pressure over their handling of the killings at Lonmin's Marikana mine. Zuma faces an important leadership vote in December.

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After South Africa police shot miners, miners charged with murder


Two weeks after dozens of striking miners were shot dead by police in a bloody incident that shocked South Africans, state prosecutors have filed charges -- against fellow miners.

Authorities charged 270 miners with murder in the slayings of 34 colleagues under a controversial law often used under apartheid, South African media reported Thursday.

“It's the police who were shooting, but they were under attack by the protesters, who were armed, so today the 270 accused are charged with the murders” of those who were shot, National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Frank Lesenyego told the Associated Press.

The decision outraged many South Africans, who argued the law was being abused for political purposes. “Even if it was true that the miners provoked the police, this could never, ever, make them liable for the killing of their comrades,” University of Cape Town constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos wrote, calling the decision bizarre, shocking and shameful.

The charges lodged by prosecutors are so dubious that they are plainly political, he said. “They have acted with fear, favor and prejudice to advance some or another political agenda, further eroding the little trust South Africans might still have left in them,” De Vos concluded.

South African police have argued that they had no choice but to fire on the charging armed miners at the Lonmin platinum mine after lesser measures, such as tear gas and rubber bullets, failed to disperse them. The protesting miners had walked off the job to demand higher wages.

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Police reportedly open fire on striking South African miners


This post has been corrected. See the note below for details.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Police opened fire Thursday on striking workers at a South African platinum mine, killing at least seven protesters, according to media reports.

The shootings came after police moved in to try to disperse workers after a week of violence at the mine, which had earlier left 10 dead, including eight miners. The other two slain were police officers reportedly hacked to death by workers armed with machetes.

The trouble occurred at Lonmin's platinum mine at Marikana, about 40 miles northwest of Johannesburg. There were conflicting reports on the number of people killed in Thursday's violence. Reuters news service said its cameraman at the scene counted seven bodies.

PHOTOS: S. African police reportedly open fire on striking miners

Reuters video showed a line of dozens of police confronting a crowd of miners who were trying to rush at them. Police opened fire and continued shooting into a cloud of dust for about two minutes. When the dust cleared and the police advanced, the bodies of seven miners were seen on the ground.

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Australian motel discriminated by barring prostitute, court finds

A Queensland motel illegally discriminated against a prostitute by barring her from staying there, an Australian tribunal ruled this week, in a decision cheered by sex workers and their advocates.

“Not everyone would choose to do the job I do, but it's not right that they can treat me like a second-class citizen,” the sex worker told The Australian newspaper. "They wanted me to go away, but I am a tenacious little terrier and I would not give up."

The woman, identified as “GK” by the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal, had repeatedly stayed at the hotel before the owners discovered she was bringing clients to her room and banned her, according to Australian media. She is now seeking damages. An attorney for the owners of the Drovers Rest Motel in Moranbah told the Australian Associated Press that they were weighing an appeal.

Prostitution is legal in the northeastern Australian state of Queensland for sex workers who work alone or in a licensed brothel. The Scarlet Alliance, a national association for sex workers, argued that prostitutes working from rented rooms were entitled to the same rights as businessmen and women using their laptops to do work in their hotels. Worries about noise were a red herring, it said.

If a sex worker was doing business in the adjacent room, “you wouldn’t even know they were there!” the group said on Twitter. “Sex workers make great neighbors, we ALREADY work from hotels all over Australia!”

The Accommodation Assn. of Australia, an industry group, said owners should have the responsibility for deciding who can stay in their motels “to preserve the amenity of the establishment for the benefit of all guests.” In a statement this week, the group said it might reach out to the Queensland or federal government to go over the problems the judgment might raise.


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