Migrant-Labor

Bayard Street tenement, New York City, 1888; Labor Camp 42, Abu Dhabi, 2014. Click to enlarge.

On the left is one of photographer and muckraker Jacob Riis’ most famous photos, “Five Cents a Spot,” taken with newly-developed flash photography technology in 1888. At the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s, immigration to the US spiked, and millions of laborers from Russia, Germany, Italy, and Ireland arrived to take jobs in New York City’s expanding manufacturing sector.

On the right is a photo from yesterday’s New York Times, showing migrant workers who built New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus. According to the Times, many of the workers, who come from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal, must surrender their passports, and a year’s wages as a “recruitment fee,” to the contractors who employ them. The laborers work 6-7 days a week, 11-12 hours a day, for about $3,000 a year. Instead of the right to protest their working conditions and negotiate higher wages, they face harassment, beatings and deportation from Abu Dhabi’s police force. Regarding NYU’s involvement, the Times reported:

Facing criticism for venturing into a country where dissent is not tolerated and labor can resemble indentured servitude, N.Y.U. in 2009 issued a “statement of labor values” that it said would guarantee fair treatment of workers. But interviews by The New York Times with dozens of workers who built N.Y.U.’s recently completed campus found that conditions on the project were often starkly different from the ideal. … Told of the laborers’ complaints, officials said they could not vouch for the treatment of individual construction workers, since they are not employees of the university but rather of companies that work as contractors or subcontractors for the government agency overseeing the project. Those companies are contractually obligated to follow the statement of labor values.

When Riis’ book How the Other Half Lives came out in 1890, its frank depictions of poverty in the midst of New York City shocked middle class Americans. Riis—an immigrant himself—believed that exposing the harsh working and living conditions of the newest and poorest New Yorkers would help push along the Progressive movement for safer workplaces and workers’ rights. Luckily for many subsequent generations of New Yorkers, he was right.

Collage Photo Credits: Left: Jacob A. Riis Collection, Museum of the City of New York; Right: Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times.

UPDATE 2, May 2, 12:47pm EDT: Is it progress to have provoked a  one-on-one Twitter war with Ethiopian Foreign Minister Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus?

Ethiopia Foreign Minister Twitter

UPDATE: May 2, 2014  Coverage of John Kerry’s “concern” yesterday about arrested Ethiopian bloggers in US media today: none. US State Department follow-up: none.  USAID follow-up: none.

If a US policy concern falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, is it a policy?  END UPDATE

The Ethiopian government, a major US aid recipient, operates with such impunity on rights that it arrested 9 new dissident journalists and bloggers on the eve of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Addis Ababa today. 

Kerry raised his “concerns” about the detained bloggers with in a meeting today with the Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam. The Ethiopian PM doesn’t need to be too concerned about US “concerns,” much less any reduction in US aid, since Kerry earlier today more loudly affirmed the US alliance with Ethiopia’s government to fight terrorism and violence in Africa.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The long history of aid ignoring and even facilitating rights abuses in Ethiopia sadly continues.

Delusion of Ethiopian Development

NPR’s The Takeaway asks in an interview with one of our local troublemakers this week, are billionaire philanthropists the true champions in the fight against poverty? Listen to at least part of the audio to get the tone of the critique, as well as read the selected transcripts below.

Bill Easterly: I have nothing to take away from the billionaires who are very generous, who are spending on the poor rather than on private jets – that’s great. But what can actually happen is they can also have too much influence on the way we see the whole problem of global poverty.


Gates has this ‘great man’ approach to development in which he sees great national leaders and great philanthropists like himself doing all the good things that happen. Unfortunately, the Ethiopian government…that he praised a year ago in his Annual Letter from his Foundation is not doing great things. He is very naïve to think that the government is benevolent and is actually contributing to development. They actually are serial human rights abusers that are destroying development.


Before Gates’ annual letter… there was a peaceful blogger named Eskinder Nega who was sentenced to eighteen years in prison simply for advocating more democracy in Ethiopia, for writing about the Arab Democratic Spring.

This kind of democratic activism is what you need to make government leaders benevolent. If you think of our own Chris Christie scandal on the bridge – that’s the sign of democracy working, that we keep Chris Christie from doing something bad. He’ll never do it again. No other governor will ever do it again.

John Hockenberry (host): Can’t you make an argument that you want to be separate from politics?  The United Nations and many NGOs try to stay out. For instance, CARE and the Red Cross are completely independent from politics. [They] go into Ethiopia regardless of what the government is doing and get access because of their objectivity, or their detachment from politics.

Bill Easterly: That’s the perpetual temptation in poverty reduction: to think you can do something that’s technically pure that’s free from politics. Unfortunately that’s a delusion. Let me give you one example of that. Famine relief you might think is as a-political it can get. But unfortunately to go back to Ethiopia, the same government Gates was praising was caught red-handed using famine relief to only give it to the supporters of the ruling party. They denied it to the opposition party members. They were starving the opposition – in the middle of a famine they were rewarding their own supporters and staying in power by that means.

Listen to the full program at The Takeaway here.

Bill Easterly responds to Bill and Melinda Gates’ Annual Letter:

Mr Gates says there has been much progress, but that “we’ll need to apply human ingenuity and act on our compassion” to keep it going. Conversely, he equates the idea that “the world is getting worse” to the idea that “we can’t solve extreme poverty and disease”. For Mr Gates, apparently, much depends on what “we” do. But who are “we”, and who put us in charge? Mr Gates seems to have in mind the global elite whose most prominent representatives were this week assembled in Davos: political leaders, business executives, philanthropists, academics and functionaries from international institutions such as the World Bank.

The progress that Mr Gates celebrates is the work of entrepreneurs, inventors, traders, investors, activists – not to mention ordinary people of commitment and ingenuity striving for a better life. Davos Man may not be ready to acknowledge that he does not hold the fate of humanity in his gilded hands. But that need not stop the rest of us.

Read the whole article in the Financial Times (Note to spotters of irony on Twitter: elitist paywall easily defeated by 1-minute free registration). Also, Chris Blattman grades the letter, giving the Harvard dropout an A-.

From a letter just published in the New York Review of Books, signed by me and others:

On June 27, 2012, the Ethiopian high court convicted journalist Eskinder Nega and twenty-three others on vague terrorism charges, continuing a trend in which Prime Minister Meles Zenawi jails his critics as “terrorists” …

Eskinder Nega, who received this year’s PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, has been a leading voice for press freedom in Ethiopia for almost two decades. He has been repeatedly detained, imprisoned with his wife Serkalem Fasil on treason charges.

Now Eskinder Nega is facing between 15 years and life in prison…His sentence will be announced on July 13, 2012.

We call on President Obama and all world leaders to condemn Eskinder’s imprisonment.

This site just mentioned Eskinder last week, and just this last January publicized a previous letter in the NYRB about Eskinder’s case.

Let me be honest. I am tired of writing about Eskinder Nega. You are tired of reading about Eskinder Nega. This site really needs to move on from Eskinder Nega.

Let me consult Elie Wiesel on our major compassion fatigue:

Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.

We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.

Let’s call on all to condemn the imprisonment of Eskinder Nega.