World oil prices remain depressed, now hovering at around $60 per barrel, although they did experience an uptick this month, probably driven by the escalating crisis in Venezuela and fears of a US-China trade war. (Xinhua, Jan. 27; OilPrice, Jan. 18) Yet this month also saw Zimbabwe explode into angry protests over fuel prices. A three-day nationwide strike was declared by the trade unions, and the government responded with bullets and a total Internet shut-down. At least 12 were killed and hundreds arbitrarily arrested. The unrest was sparked when the government doubled fuel prices, making gasoline sold in Zimbabwe the most expensive in the world. President Emmerson Mnangagwa said the price rise was aimed at tackling shortages caused by an increase in fuel use and "rampant" illegal trading. (FT, Jan. 18; Amnesty International, Jan. 15; BBC News, OilPrice, Jan. 14)
A leading US sportswear company this week announced that it has dropped a Chinese supplier over concerns that its products were made by forced labor in detention camps in Xinjiang. Reports have mounted that the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uighurs believed to be held in a fast-expanding system of detention camps are being put to forced labor for Chinese commercial interests. "These people who are detained provide free or low-cost forced labor for these factories," according to Mehmet Volkan Kasikci, a researcher in Turkey who has collected accounts of inmates in the factories by interviewing relatives who have left China. "Stories continue to come to me," he told the New York Times last month. An Associated Press investigation tracked recent shipments from one such detention-camp factory, run by the privately-owned Hetian Taida Apparel, to Badger Sportswear of North Carolina.
The White House is accusing Peru of violating its commitment to protect the Amazon rainforest from deforestation, threatening to hold Lima in violation of the 2007 US-Peru Free Trade Agreement (formally the Peru Trade Promotion Agreement or PTPA). On Jan. 4, Robert Lighthizer, President Trump's top trade negotiator, announced that he is seeking formal consultations with Lima to address concerns about its recent move to curtail the authority of Peru's auditor for timber exports, the Organism for the Supervision of Forestry Resources (OSINFOR), which was established as a provision of the trade agreement. "By taking this unprecedented step, the Trump administration is making clear that it takes monitoring and enforcement of US trade agreements seriously, including obligations to strengthen forest sector governance," Lighthizer said in a statement.
Protests have been mounting across Sudan in response to the nation’s acute economic crisis. Inflation reached 70% in November and many have been forced to spend significant portions of their income on bread, leading to local media designating the demonstrations as "bread protests." Protesters have repeatedly called for President Omar al-Bashir, who has been in power since 1993, to step down. President Bashir promised reforms on Dec. 25 after police blocked protesters who marched on his presidential palace. The protests have been organized by professional organizations and trade unions as well as Sudan's principal opposition group, the Umma Party. Sudan's government on Dec. 20 shut off internet access to prevent the protesters from organizing via social media. According to an Amnesty International report released Dec. 24, at least 37 protesters have been killed so far as Sudanese authorities attempt to quell the demonstrations by releasing tear-gas and firing live ammunition, sparking international criticism.
In the biggest demonstrations since the fall of communism, thousands have repeatedly taken to the streets in Hungary to oppose Prime Minister Viktor Orban''s controversial "slave law." The square outside the parliament building in Budapest was massively occupied Dec. 12 as the law was approved. It was subsequently signed by President Janos Ader. Orban said the law scraps "silly rules," and will help those who want to earn more by working more. He dismissed the opposition to the law as "hysterical shouting" by people "whose lies have no limits." In fact, the law will allow employers to demand workers put in up to 400 extra hours per year of overtime, compared with the current limit of 250. Meanwhile, payment for this overtime may be delayed by up to three years. Local media in Hungary report that Orban pushed through the law in a bid to lure German auto-maker BMW to invest a billion euros in a new plant in Debrecen, Hungary's second city, situated in the poorest region of the country, the northeast. The move is portrayed as intended to undercut labor costs in Slovakia, where BMW was initially considering investment.
The dark days of state collaboration with Colombia's murderous paramilitary groups were recalled with the arrest in New York last month of Javier Valle Anaya, former sub-director of Bogotá's Administrative Security Department (DAS), a now-disbanded intelligence agency that was found to be feeding information to the paras. Valle Anaya was detained on an immigration violation, and may face extradition back to Colombia, where he is wanted in connection with the 2004 assassination of human rights activist Alfredo Correa De Andreis in Barranquilla. (El Tiempo, Oct. 12) Ironically, the arrest comes just as a new scandal has emerged concerning an illegal network of chuzadas—Colombian slang for eavesdroppers. Retired National Police general Humberto Guatibonza was arrested in Bogotá Oct. 24, charged with running a chuzada ring that spied on labor activists—particularly members of the airline workers union, ACDAC. He has been placed under house arrest while the case is being investigated. (Caracol Radio, Oct. 31; W Radio, RCN Radio, Oct. 24)
Protesters gathered outside the United Nations headquarters in New York as the General Assembly met on Oct 1, to demand an end to state-sponsored forced labor in Turkmenistan's cotton industry. The small but spirited protest came as Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov arrived for his first visit to the United States in three years. Each year the government of Turkmenistan forces tens of thousands of workers from both public and private sectors to pick cotton during the harvest season or else pay a bribe to supervisors to hire a replacement worker, according to protest organizer Cotton Campaign. This takes place under threat of punishment, including public censure, loss of wages from regular jobs and termination of employment. The government treats refusal to contribute to the cotton harvest as insubordination, incitement to sabotage and "contempt of the homeland."
US President Donald Trump announced Aug. 27 that the US and Mexico have reached an agreement on a new trade deal called the United States-Mexico Trade Agreement, which will ultimately terminate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). While sitting at the resolute desk, Trump called Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to announce the new pact, which Trump described as "a really good deal for both countries [and] something that is very special for our manufacturers and farmers." Among a number of changes to NAFTA, both parties agreed to a provision that would require a significant portion of vehicles to be made in high-wage factories, a measure aimed to discourage factory jobs from leaving the US. Peña Nieto agreed with Trump while on speaker phone, stating, "I think this is something very positive for the United States and Mexico." The Mexican president further stated that he wanted Canada to be involved in the agreement.