Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Tuesday, April 29, 2014
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
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.
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.
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“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 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.