Wednesday, April 30, 2014




In a North Dakota town that was once dying, oil and money are flowing –€“ and bringing in big-city problems
Watch parts one and two of Christof Putzel’s report, and catch more from our “Dirty Power” series on air and online all this week.
Gas flares at a North Dakota oil-drilling operation.
A gas flare at a North Dakota oil-drilling operation.
 America Tonight
WILLISTON, N.D. — When he took office 20 years ago, Mayor Ward Koeser’s town was struggling. But thanks to a huge influx of oil jobs and money over the past five years, Williston now calls itself Boomtown, USA.
“It’s growing faster than any place else in the country,” the mayor said with a smile. “It’s exciting. It’s amazing what oil can do for you. Black gold.”
The race to extract that black gold from the prairies of North Dakota is evident everywhere around Williston. Oil pump jacks dot nearly every farmer’s field. Stand next to one and you can hear liquid money filling up tanks. Trucks haul it to the nearest train depot, and trains pulling crude rumble through Williston all day and all night. 
Welders Andrew Jolovich (left) and Fabio Soto (center) say they're trying to stay out of trouble while working in Williston, N.D.
Welders Andrew Jolovich, left, and Fabio Soto, center, say they’re trying to stay out of trouble while working in Williston.
America Tonight
By next year, the United States is expected to overtake Saudi Arabia andbecome the world’s top oil producer. For those at the heart of the boom, it means job security in an uncertain economy. Williston’s unemployment rate is about one-half of 1 percent, and its per capita income is among the highest in the Upper Midwest.
But the boom has been accompanied by some growing pains.
The influx of labor has made rents in this small town the highest in the nation, surpassing San Francisco’s and crowding workers into cramped quarters in RV parks and “man camps.”
Welders Fabio Soto and Andrew Jolovich moved to Williston to make money and are trying to stay out of trouble in this testosterone-soaked town.
“That was one of the troubles,” Soto said, pointing to the alcohol-sensing monitor on his ankle with a laugh. “I ended up getting in a little scrap and going to jail.”
The two now avoid the bar scene. Meanwhile, DUI arrests in Williston are up 15-fold, and drug use is on the rise.
Lana Bonnet, who runs Williston's Family Crisis Shelter, said domestic violence has quadrupled since the oil boom began.
Lana Bonnet, who runs Williston’s Family Crisis Shelter, said domestic violence has quadrupled since the oil boom began.
America Tonight
Farmer Bob Ganaway leases some of his land for oil drilling. Overall, he thinks the oil boom is positive for Williston but has witnessed how it has divided some in the community.
“A lot of people you hear that, ‘You know, I wish it had never happened,’ that the money’s not worth it” he said. “There’s a lot more fighting amongst people here. When you start putting a lot of money out there, then jealousy starts. And pretty soon, it’s neighbor against neighbor.”
Before the boom, the 11-bed Williston Family Crisis Shelter filled up about 50 days a year. Now it’s always at capacity and has been for the past two years.
How much has domestic violence increased since the boom?
“At one point I would say it tripled,” said Lana Bonnet, who runs the shelter. “But now I’m going to say quadrupled. I mean, it’s really crazy.”
Cramped quarters, drugs, alcohol and money are a volatile mix in Williston, she said.
“They get here. They can find jobs but no housing,” she said. “So what are they doing? They are living in their vehicles. They’re living in campers. If you and your wife and two kids, three kids were living in a vehicle — yikes, right?”
Footage from
A still from “Boom,” a documentary aimed at preparing oil and gas boomtowns to deal with human trafficking.
 courtesy of iEmpathize
That mix of men and money has brought another plague. Undercover footage provided by the anti-trafficking organization iEmpathize hints at a more insidious problem: human sex trafficking.
Windie Jo Lazenko said an influx of money and a highly skewed ratio of men to women has fueled a massive increase in prostitution, often arranged through websites like And where there is prostitution, she said, there is trafficking.
Lazenko went  to Williston seven months ago to fight the sex trafficking of women and underage girls that she said is a direct result of the oil boom. She has since formed 4her North Dakota to help victims of sex trafficking and exploitation.
“I look for identifying marks like tattoos because a lot of the girls under pimp control are branded … with their pimp’s name,” she said.
A scene inside a Williston strip club.
A scene inside a Williston strip club.
courtesy of iEmpathize
Lazenko was trafficked when she was a girl.
“I started running away at a very young age and wound up turning to a friend for help who was under pimp control,” Lazenko said. “She took me to a party and turned me out to her pimp. And I was sold that night. In and out of sexual exploitation, I started working the strip clubs at a very young age. Definitely experienced some things along the way.”
Since moving to Williston, she said, she has helped 10 trafficked girls escape the sex trade.
“Word’s gotten out now,” she said. “People trust me.”
Lazenko regularly visits prostitution hot spots to build relationships and help with shelter, sympathy, self-defense classes and even a ticket home. She took “America Tonight” on her rounds at night.
“So this right here is a huge area for prostitution and, I would assume, trafficking,” she said, pulling into a Walmart parking lot. “It’s wherever the money is and wherever the men are. And you know, this is where the men have to come. So that just attracts drug activity and prostitution and stuff like that. So it’s just really crazy.”
The next stops were nearby hotels where, Lazenko said, most of the sex trafficking occurs.
“Some of these hotels along this strip actually have floors that are bought out by pimps, and girls are in those rooms, and it operates pretty much like a brothel,” she said, adding that it’s a very dangerous environment for the women. “The girls that are being trafficked here are not from here. If a girl shows any sign of wanting to exit … there are consequences for that.”
Farmer Bob Ganaway tells Christof Putzel that Williston will
Farmer Bob Ganaway, right, says Williston will “probably be a good town again someday.”
 America Tonight
North Dakota officials admit that women and children are caught up in trafficking. But the victims’ chances of escape are slim. An FBI representative declined to comment, but anti-trafficking advocates say only one FBI agent is assigned to the problem and Williston’s women’s shelters are overflowing. Lazenko hopes that by shining a light on the situation, she can attract more resources to help those who remain trapped in servitude.
North Dakota’s black gold is expected to keeping flowing for decades to come, fueling America’s drive for energy independence. But that boom could continue to bring big-city problems to small towns like Williston.
Asked whether he longs for the days when Williston was just a farming town, Ganaway pauses for a moment.
“Yeah, I guess you do,” he said. “But ... you can never go home, and the only thing that’s ever constant is change. We’ve gone through some real rough times. But we’ll work through this, and Williston will come out, you know, and probably be a good town again someday.”
With editing by Dave Gustafson

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

U.S. Couple Denied Permission to Leave Qatar While Appeal is Pending

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An American couple in Qatar convicted of child endangerment in the death of their adopted daughter from Africa, and not the original charge of murder, were denied permission on Monday to return home while their appeal is pending, and they faced the new possibility that Qatari prosecutors would seek to charge them with human trafficking.
Defense experts expressed shock at the developments, which came at the first hearing in the appeal by the couple, Matthew and Grace Huang of Los Angeles, who were sentenced to three years in prison last month. They have asserted their innocence in a case that has come to symbolize what critics call the arbitrary and opaque system of Islamic justice in the criminal courts of Qatar, the affluent Persian Gulf emirate that has sought to portray itself as a progressive beacon of Middle East multiculturalism.
On the contrary, the Huangs and their defense lawyers have argued, the prosecution has revealed ingrained prejudices about multiracial families and adoption by having assumed that the parents, who are of Asian descent, had no legitimate reason to have children who are of African descent.
The State Department has expressed concern about the fairness of the case. The Huangs have been supported by the California Innocence Project, a group that helps with the defense of what it considers unjust prosecutions, and by the David House Agency, a Los Angeles group that assists Americans trapped in legal crises overseas.
The couple, who were living in Qatar because Mr. Huang was working on an engineering project, were arrested in January 2013 after their daughter, Gloria, 8, adopted from Ghana, was pronounced dead at a hospital after having not eaten for four days. Prosecutors said then that they suspected that the Huangs were child traffickers who had abused the child by starving her with the intent to sell her organs. The couple said she suffered an eating disorder, and defense witnesses said she had been active and happy the day before she died.
The cause of Gloria’s death was never established.
The defendants, who also had two adopted boys from Africa, spent nearly a year in prison before the lower-court judge agreed to release them on their own recognizance in November but barred them from leaving the country. Their boys were permitted to go home with Mrs. Huang’s mother.
Under Qatari law, both the defense and prosecution can appeal the verdict, which was announced last month. But it was only last week that the defendants learned about the lower court’s determination that the original murder charge was rejected for lack of evidence. Instead, the court convicted them on the lesser charge of endangering a child under 16, which carries a three-year prison sentence when the defendant is the child’s guardian. Defense lawyers said they were baffled by that charge as well.
The prosecution signaled its intention to possibly seek child-trafficking charges after the defense lawyer, Sami Abu Shaikha, requested that the appeals court suspend the couple’s imprisonment until the appeals process was completed. The lead prosecutor objected, saying the court must make an example of the Huangs.
The judge allowed the couple to remain free within Qatar but rejected their request to fly home.
“We are extremely disappointed the court did not give us permission to leave the country so we can go see our sons,” Mr. Huang said in a statement after the hearing. “We want this all to be over.”
It was unclear how the prosecution could possibly prove a human trafficking case, given that no evidence of such a crime was presented at the original trial. Members of the Huangs’ defense team said such an intention by the prosecution further revealed what they called the flaws in Qatar’s judicial process.
“From the very beginning, the Islamic court in Qatar has shown they do not understand why an Asian-American couple would adopt an African child,” said Eric Volz, managing director of the David House Agency, in a statement. “It is outrageous and backward. Every American should beware of traveling to Qatar.”
The appeals court is scheduled to announce whether it has accepted the prosecution’s appeal on May 11, and will hear the defense’s appeal on June 16.

Monday, April 28, 2014

In Florida Tomato Fields, a Penny Buys Progress

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A New Day in America’s Tomato Capital

CreditRichard Perry/The New York Times
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IMMOKALEE, Fla. — Not long ago, Angelina Velasquez trudged to a parking lot at 5 each morning so a crew leader’s bus could drop her at the tomato fields by 6. She often waited there, unpaid — while the dew dried — until 10 a.m., when the workers were told to clock in and start picking.
Back then, crew leaders often hectored and screamed at the workers, pushing them to fill their 32-pound buckets ever faster in this area known as the nation’s tomato capital. For decades, the fields here have had a reputation for horrid conditions. Many migrant workers picked without rest breaks, even in 95-degree heat. Some women complained that crew leaders groped them or demanded sex in exchange for steady jobs.
But those abusive practices have all but disappeared, said Ms. Velasquez, an immigrant from Mexico. She and many labor experts credit a tenacious group of tomato workers, who in recent years forged partnerships with giant restaurant companies like McDonald’s and Yum Brands (owner of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC) to improve conditions in the fields.
Workers harvest tomatoes in a field owned by Pacific Tomato Growers, a partner in the Fair Food Program. CreditRichard Perry/The New York Times
By enlisting the might of major restaurant chains and retailers — including Walmart, which signed on this year — the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has pressured growers that produce 90 percent of Florida’s tomatoes to increase wages for their 30,000 workers and follow strict standards that mandate rest breaks and forbid sexual harassment and verbal abuse.
The incentive for growers to comply with what’s called the Fair Food Program is economically stark: The big companies have pledged to buy only from growers who follow the new standards, paying them an extra penny a pound, which goes to the pickers. The companies have also pledged to drop any suppliers that violate the standards.
So far, the agreements between retailers and growers are limited to Florida’s tomato fields, which in itself is no small feat considering that the state produces 90 percent of the country’s winter tomatoes.
But gaining the heft and reach of Walmart — which sells 20 percent of the nation’s fresh tomatoes year-round — may prove far more influential. To the applause of farmworkers’ advocates, the retailer has agreed to extend the program’s standards and monitoring to its tomato suppliers in Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia and elsewhere on the Eastern Seaboard. Walmart officials say they also hope to apply the standards to apple orchards in Michigan and Washington and strawberry fields in many states.
“This is the best workplace-monitoring program I’ve seen in the U.S.,” said Janice R. Fine, a labor relations professor at Rutgers. “It can certainly be a model for agriculture across the U.S. If anybody is going to lead the way and teach people how it’s done, it’s them.”
Since the program’s inception, its system of inspections and decisions issued by a former judge has resulted in suspensions for several growers, including one that failed to adopt a payroll system to ensure pickers were paid for all the time they worked.
But progress is far from complete. Immokalee, 30 miles inland from several wealthy gulf resorts, is a town of taco joints and backyard chicken coops where many farmworkers still live in rotting shacks or dilapidated, rat-infested trailers. A series of prosecutions has highlighted modern-day slavery in the area — one 2008 case involved traffickers convicted of beating workers, stealing their wages and locking them in trucks.
“When I first visited Immokalee, I heard appalling stories of abuse and modern slavery,” said Susan L. Marquis, dean of the Pardee RAND Graduate School, a public policy institution in Santa Monica, Calif. “But now the tomato fields in Immokalee are probably the best working environment in American agriculture. In the past three years, they’ve gone from being the worst to the best.”
Amassing all these company partnerships took time. The workers’ coalition organized a four-year boycott of Taco Bell to get its parent company, Yum Brands, to agree in 2005 to pay an extra penny a pound for tomatoes, helping increase workers’ wages. In 2007 the coalition sponsored a march to Burger King’s headquarters in Miami, pushing that company to join the effort. Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Chipotle and Subway have also signed on.
Perhaps the coalition’s biggest success is luring Walmart, which joined the program in January without a fight. Walmart officials said they were looking for ethically sourced produce as well as a steady supply of tomatoes. The giant company’s decision coincides with its major inroads into organic foods and fresh fruits and vegetables.
“We try to sell safe, affordable, sustainable sources of food — that’s the only way we will be able to grow the way we want in the future,” said Jack L. Sinclair, executive vice president of Walmart’s grocery division. “These guys have a pretty good set of standards in place that we think will allow our growers to get a consistent level of labor.” He told of Arizona growers whose tomatoes had rotted in the fields because of a lack of pickers.
The program’s standards have raised pay and mandated sessions on safety and workers’ rights.CreditRichard Perry/The New York Times
The Fair Food Program’s standards go far beyond what state or federal law requires, mandating shade tents so that workers who request a rest break can escape the hot Florida sun. Remedying a practice that Ms. Velasquez abhorred, growers must clock in workers as soon as they are bused to the fields.
Every farm must have a health and safety committee with workers’ representatives, and there is a 24-hour hotline that workers can call, with a Spanish-speaking investigator.
Under the program, tomato pickers may receive an extra $60 to $80 a week because of the penny-a-pound premium. That means a 20 to 35 percent weekly pay increase for these workers, who average about $8.75 an hour. The extra penny a pound means that participating companies together pay an additional $4 million a year for tomatoes.
“We see ourselves as a standard-setting organization,” said Greg Asbed, co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
Established in 1993, the coalition was one of the nation’s first worker centers dedicated to aiding migrants. It has since grown steadily, to 4,500 members, and its tactics have become more sophisticated. Last spring, a group of 100 workers and their supporters marched 200 miles from Immokalee to Lakeland, Fla., to press Publix Super Markets to join the program. Publix said it already used growers that adhered to high standards.
Mr. Asbed attributes the program’s success to getting giant corporations like Walmart to join.
“We’ve harnessed their market power to eliminate worker abuses,” he said. “There has to be real and believable market consequences for growers that refuse to comply.”
In late 2007, after McDonald’s signed on, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, an industry association, sought to scuttle the coalition’s efforts. It threatened growers with $100,000 fines if they cooperated with the coalition, stalling its efforts.
But the logjam was broken in 2010 when Pacific Tomato Growers — one of the nation’s biggest producers, with large operations in Florida — joined. Weeks later, Lipman, the nation’s largest tomato grower, also signed on, and eventually the Tomato Growers Exchange did, too.
Beau McHan, Pacific’s harvest manager, said, “We’re trying to run a business and make a profit, yet everyone wants to know they’re changing the world for the better.”
Joining, he acknowledged, has cost Pacific hundreds of thousands of dollars — $5,000 a year for shade tents and $50,000 for an improved drinking-water system as well as the money to pay workers for waiting time that was once off the clock. A former New York State judge, Laura Safer Espinoza, oversees the inspection apparatus, which interviews thousands of workers, audits payrolls and conducts in-depth interviews with farm managers. There are lengthy trainings for crew leaders, and six of them were fired after her team investigated allegations of verbal abuse and sexual harassment.
“Supervisors have gotten the message, and we’re seeing far fewer allegations of harassment than three years ago,” she said.

Now that the three-year-old program has stopped much of the abuse and harassment, participants are planning to give tomatoes produced under its watch a “Fair Food” label that could reassure — and attract — shoppers who want ethically sourced produce.