In Brief: September 25, 2020

Palm oil labor abuses linked to world’s top brands, banks

PENINSULAR MALAYSIA — Jum’s words tumble out over the phone, his voice growing ever more frantic.

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Between sobs, he says he’s trapped on a Malaysian plantation run by government-owned Felda, one of the world’s largest palm oil companies. His boss confiscated and then lost his Indonesian passport, he says, leaving him vulnerable to arrest. Night after night, he has been forced to hide from authorities, sleeping on the jungle floor, exposed to the wind and the rain. His biggest fear: the roaming tigers.

All the while, Jum says his supervisor demanded he keep working, tending the heavy reddish-orange palm oil fruit that has made its way into the supply chains of the planet’s most iconic food and cosmetics companies like Unilever, L’Oreal, Nestle and Procter &Gamble.

“I am not a free man anymore,” he says, his voice cracking. “I desperately want to see my mom and dad. I want to go home!”

An Associated Press investigation found many like Jum in Malaysia and neighboring Indonesia – an invisible workforce consisting of millions of laborers from some of the poorest corners of Asia, many of them enduring various forms of exploitation, with the most serious abuses including child labor, outright slavery and allegations of rape. Together, the two countries produce about 85% of the world’s estimated $65 billion palm oil supply.

Many asking what comes next in Breonna Taylor case

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In the wake of the decision not to prosecute Kentucky police officers for killing Breonna Taylor, authorities and activists alike wrestled Thursday with the question of what comes next amid continued demands for justice in the Black woman’s death.

“The question obviously is: What do we do with this pain?” Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said during a news conference. “There is no one answer, no easy answer to that question.”

Fischer pleaded for calm a day after peaceful protests in Louisville turned violent, and a gunman shot and wounded two police officers. Activists, who were back out chanting Taylor’s name and marching for a second night as police in riot gear blocked roads, vowed to press on after a grand jury Wednesday didn’t bring homicide charges against the officers who burst into her apartment during a drug investigation in March.

Taylor, an emergency medical worker, was shot multiple times by white officers after Taylor’s boyfriend fired at them, authorities said. He said he didn’t know who was coming in and opened fire in self-defense. Police entered on a warrant connected to a suspect who did not live there, and no drugs were found inside.

State Attorney General Daniel Cameron said the investigation showed officers acted in self-defense; one was wounded. A single officer was charged with wanton endangerment for firing into neighboring apartments.

Despite Trump attacks, both parties vow orderly election

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses drew swift blowback Thursday from both parties in Congress, and lawmakers turned to unprecedented steps to ensure he can’t ignore the vote of the people. Amid the uproar, Trump said anew he’s not sure the election will be “honest.”

Congressional leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, rejected Trump’s assertion that he’ll “see what happens” before agreeing to any election outcome.

Many other lawmakers — including from Trump’s own Republican Party — vowed to make sure voters’ wishes are followed ahead of Inauguration Day in January. And some Democrats were taking action, including formally asking Trump’s defense secretary, homeland security adviser and attorney general to declare they’ll support the Nov. 3 results, whoever wins.

Asked as he departed the White House for a campaign rally if the election is only legitimate if he is the winner, Trump said, “We’ll see.”

From wire sources

The president said he wants to “make sure the election is honest, and I’m not sure that it can be.”

Trump promotes health care ‘vision’ but gaps remain

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — More than three-and-a-half years into his presidency and 40 days from an election, President Donald Trump on Thursday launched what aides termed a “vision” for health care heavy on unfulfilled aspirations.

“This is affirmed, signed, and done, so we can put that to rest,” Trump said. He signed an executive order on a range of issues, including protecting people with preexisting medical conditions from insurance discrimination.

But that right is already guaranteed in the Obama-era health law his administration is asking the Supreme Court to overturn.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dismissively said Trump’s “bogus executive order on pre-existing conditions isn’t worth the paper it’s signed on.” Democrats are betting heavily that they have the edge on health care this election season.

Trump spoke at an airport hangar in swing-state North Carolina to a crowd that included white-coated, mask-wearing health care workers. He stood on a podium in front of a blue background emblazoned with “America First Healthcare Plan.” His latest health care pitch won accolades from administration officials and political supporters but failed to impress others.

Democrats to redraft virus relief in bid to jump-start talks

WASHINGTON — House Democrats are going back to the drawing board on a huge COVID-19 relief bill, paring back the measure in an attempt to jump-start negotiations with the Trump administration.

The Democratic-controlled chamber could also pass the $2.4 trillion measure next week if talks fall through to demonstrate that the party isn’t giving up on passing virus relief before the election.

The chamber passed a $3.4 trillion rescue measure in May but Republicans dismissed the measure as bloated and unrealistic. Even as Democrats cut their ambitions back by $1 trillion or so, Senate Republicans have focused on a much smaller rescue package in the $650 billion to $1 trillion range.

Bridging the overall topline gulf would be difficult enough, but fleshing out hundreds of legislative details at the height of the presidential campaign and a heated battle over filling Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat on the High Court could be impossible.

An aide familiar with the leadership discussions and authorized to characterize them said the new bill would total about $2.4 trillion and is likely to contain additional relief for the airline and restaurant sectors, which have been especially slammed by slumps in business from the virus. The aide requested anonymity to characterize the closed-door talks.

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Virus disrupting Rio’s Carnival for first time in a century

RIO DE JANEIRO — A cloud of uncertainty that has hung over Rio de Janeiro throughout the coronavirus pandemic has been lifted, but gloom remains — the annual Carnival parade of flamboyant samba schools won’t be held in February.

And while the decision is being characterized as a postponement of the event, no new date has been set.

Rio’s League of Samba Schools, LIESA, announced Thursday night that the spread of the coronavirus has made it impossible to safely hold the traditional parades that are a cultural mainstay and, for many, a source of livelihood.

“Carnival is a party upon which many humble workers depend. The samba schools are community institutions, and the parades are just one detail of all that,” Luiz Antonio Simas, a historian who specializes in Rio’s Carnival, said in an interview. “An entire cultural and productive chain was disrupted by COVID.”

Rio’s City Hall has yet to announce a decision about the Carnival street parties that also take place across the city. But its tourism promotion agency said in a statement to The Associated Press on Sept. 17 that without a coronavirus vaccine, it is uncertain when large public events can resume.

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At UN, China, Russia and US clash over pandemic responses

UNITED NATIONS — The United States butted heads with China and Russia at the United Nations on Thursday over responsibility for the pandemic that has interrupted the world, trading allegations about who mishandled and politicized the virus in one of the few real-time exchanges among top officials at this year’s COVID-distanced U.N. General Assembly meeting.

The remarks at the U.N. Security Council’s ministerial meeting on the assembly’s sidelines came just after U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres decried the lack of international cooperation in tackling the still “out-of-control” coronavirus.

The sharp exchanges, at the end of a virtual meeting on “Post COVID-19 Global Governance,” reflected the deep divisions among the three veto-wielding council members that have escalated since the virus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in January. They also crackled with an energy and action that the prerecorded set pieces of leader speeches at the virtual meeting have thus far lacked.

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, speaking first, stressed the importance of U.N.-centered multilateralism and alluded to countries — including the U.S. — opting out of making a COVID-19 vaccine a global public good available to people everywhere.

“In such a challenging moment, major countries are even more duty-bound to put the future of humankind first, discard Cold War mentality and ideological bias and come together in the spirit of partnership to tide over the difficulties,” Wang said.

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