Day: June 9, 2017

US Commerce Chief Seen Imposing Mexico Sugar Deal Over Industry Objections

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is likely to impose a new sugar trade deal with Mexico even if final revisions to it fail to win support from the U.S. industry, trade lawyers and experts say.

After announcing a deal this week that would dramatically cut the amount of refined sugar that Mexico ships to the United States, officials from the two countries are working with their industries on final language that would govern its operation.

At issue is a new right of first refusal granted to Mexico to supply all U.S. sugar needs not met by domestic suppliers or other foreign quota holders.

A coalition of American sugar cane and beet farmers and a major refiner want a more explicit guarantee that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not Mexican producers, will dictate what type of sugar fills that gap. They are worried that a flood of refined sugar will pour in, rather than the raw sugar needed to keep U.S. mills running.

Sugar, lumber issues

The final sticking point stands in the way of resolving a years-long dispute over Mexican access to the highly regulated U.S. sugar market, which is protected by a complex web of subsidies and rationed quotas for foreign producers.

The sugar industry is known for its sway in Washington. But its point of view on Mexican imports is not shared by sugar users such as confectioners and soda makers.

The Trump administration wants to clear away the sugar dispute and a lumber trade row with Canada before starting full-scale negotiations to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement.

An industry rarely objects to a government-negotiated settlement of its anti-dumping case, and U.S. sugar producers could do little to stop the Commerce Department from implementing a final deal after a two-week comment period, said Seattle-based trade lawyer William Perry, who previously worked at Commerce and the U.S. International Trade Commission.

‘Never entirely happy’

While the industry could ask the International Trade Commission to overturn the settlement that suspends anti-dumping and anti-subsidy duty orders issued in 2014, chances for success look slim. The panel in 2015 rejected a challenge by two sugar refiners to the previous U.S.-Mexico pact.

“Petitioners are never entirely happy with suspension agreements like this,” Perry said. “They would rather have anti-dumping and countervailing duty orders with rates high enough to shut out imports.”

A Commerce spokesman said that Ross hoped the U.S. sugar industry would ultimately endorse the final agreement.

Willing to compromise

Gary Hufbauer, a trade expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said the administration was probably willing to compromise on some industry-specific concerns to help reach its larger NAFTA goals of reducing U.S. trade deficits.

The U.S. sugar industry must probably present evidence of new Mexican dumping before going back to Commerce for more changes to the deal, said Daniel Pearson, a senior fellow of the libertarian Cato Institute and former International Trade Commission chairman.

“They would do well to take this agreement and run with it and see how it works,” Pearson said, noting that it raises prices and keeps U.S. refiners well-supplied with raw sugar.

Mexico OK with language

Mexico made major concessions to maintain its access to the lucrative U.S. market, agreeing to ship no less than 70 percent of its quota volume as raw sugar to U.S. refineries. It gave ground on nearly all of the U.S. producers’ demands.

American Sugar Alliance spokesman Phillip Hayes said the final hurdle should be easy to address by making clear that the USDA, not Mexico, can dictate the type and purity level of any additional imports.

But Juan Cortina, head of Mexico’s main sugar trade group, said there was no problem with the language because any additional needs would filled with raw sugar, as Mexican producers would have to keep higher inventories of that grade.


Polio Immunization Campaign Planned for IS-controlled Area in Syria

The World Health Organization hopes to get a polio immunization campaign under way in the next week or two in the IS-controlled area of Deir Ezzor, Syria, where two new cases of the crippling disease were discovered this week.

The WHO reports two children in Deir Ezzor have been paralyzed by a vaccine-derived polio virus. Unlike the wild polio virus, vaccine-derived polio viruses are very rare; but, they can emerge in populations that have low immunity against the disease.

WHO spokesman Oliver Rosenbauer said the polio virus is circulating and must be stopped. He says a mass polio immunization campaign is being planned, targeting some 90,000 children under age 5 in the district of Mayadin in Deir Ezzor.

“We have the global supply,” Rosenbauer said. “It can be released, but, the big question, as you rightly pointed out — how is it going to be delivered, who is going to deliver it. That is always the challenge.”  

Security and access to the area are dangerous and difficult because it is controlled by Islamic State militants. In 2013 and 2014, an outbreak of the wild polio virus occurred in this same region. Thirty-six cases were reported at that time.

Rosenbauer told VOA that security is not the only concern. He said it is possible that children could become infected with polio from the vaccine-derived strain during the immunization campaign. That is why, he said, the vaccine must be used with complete discretion.

“Really only use it when the … benefits of it are greater,” Rosenbauer said. “What we have is an outbreak. So, we need to consider that and do an outbreak response that outweighs the risk of a possible future outbreak.”


L’Oreal Set to Sell The Body Shop to Brazil’s Natura in $1.1B Deal

French cosmetics and luxury goods group L’Oreal has started exclusive talks to sell The Body Shop business to Brazilian makeup company Natura Cosmeticos in a possible 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) deal.

Earlier this year, L’Oreal had announced it was reviewing its strategy for The Body Shop, which it bought for 652 million pounds in 2006, and the sale of the business had attracted a wide range of bidders.

L’Oreal said on Friday it had received a firm offer from Natura Cosmeticos, and the proposed deal put an enterprise value (equity plus debt) of 1 billion euros on the four-decades-old beauty brand — an innovator in the mass marketing of cosmetics made without animal testing and with natural ingredients.

Founded in 1976 by British entrepreneur Anita Roddick, The Body Shop was a pioneer in its field but had since fallen victim to increased competition from newcomers offering similar products based on natural ingredients with no animal testing.

L’Oreal shares were up 0.7 percent in late session trading, as investors welcomed progress toward a deal and the price tag.

“It’s a good move, given that The Body Shop had been one of the least profitable parts of the L’Oreal business,” said Roche Brune Asset Management fund manager Gregoire Laverne.

Keren Finance fund manager Gregory Moore said the price tag had pleased L’Oreal investors, since earlier reports had stated it could be sold for around 800 million euros.

“The stock has reacted well to the news, because there were some people who thought it could be sold for less,” said Moore, whose firm owns L’Oreal shares in its portfolio.

Shares in Natura fell 2.4 percent on the Brazil stock exchange, with Natura saying it would take on loans to finance the deal.

Natura chief executive Joao Paulo Ferreira said The Body Shop would fit in well with Natura’s similar businesses, such as its Aesop brand.

L’Oreal shares are up around 10 percent so far in 2017, broadly in line with the CAC-40, with the stock having touched a record high earlier this month.


Apple CEO to MIT Grads: Tech Without Values is Worthless

Science is worthless if it isn’t motivated by basic human values and the desire to help people, Apple CEO Tim Cook told graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Friday, urging them to use their powers for good.


In a commencement address, Cook — who as Apple’s chief executive since 2011 has overseen the rollout of the iPhone 7 and the Apple Watch — said the company is constantly looking for ways to combine tech with a sense of humanity and compassion.


“Whatever you do in your life, and whatever we do at Apple, we must infuse it with the humanity that we are born with,” said Cook, who previously served as chief operating officer and headed the Macintosh division.


“That responsibility is immense. But so is the opportunity,” he said.


Cook said Apple wants to make products that help people. As examples, he cited iPhone technology that can help a blind athlete run a marathon and an iPad that connects an autistic child to the world around them.


“When you keep people at the center of what you do, it can impact,” he said.


Cook said he isn’t worried about artificial intelligence giving computers the ability to think like humans.


“I’m more concerned about people thinking like computers without values or compassion or concern for the consequences,” he said. “That is what we need you to help us guard against. Because if science is a search in the darkness, then the humanities are a candle that shows us where we have been and the danger that lies ahead.”


Cook also urged graduates to resist becoming cynical.


“The internet enabled so much and empowered so many, but it can also be a place where basic rules of decency are suspended and pettiness and negativity thrive,” he said.


“Don’t let that noise knock you off course. Don’t get caught up in the trivial aspects of life. Don’t listen to trolls, and don’t become one. Measure impact in humanity; not in the likes, but the lives you touch and the people you serve.”


Japan’s SoftBank Buys Robotics Leader Boston Dynamics From Alphabet

Japanese internet, solar and technology company SoftBank Group Corp. is buying robotics pioneer Boston Dynamics from Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent.

Terms of the deal, announced Friday, including when it might close, were not disclosed.

Tokyo-based SoftBank, which offers the chatty childlike Pepper companion robot, said the purchase underlines how robotics is a key part of its business.

Boston Dynamics makes various robots, including Big Dog and Spot, which are complex machines that walk and trot on four legs. Another is Atlas, which walks on two legs like a human. Atlas has arms and can open doors and lift items. Some were designed for military purposes.

Under Friday’s deal, SoftBank is also buying from Alphabet a company called Schaft that develops biped robots. Schaft’s roots are in a research lab at the University of Tokyo.

Pepper has expressive arms but wheels for legs and does little more than sing songs and answer basic questions, and can’t do any heavy lifting. Often it fails to understand even simple speech and will keep asking you to repeat sentences.

Speculation had been growing recently that Google might want to sell Boston Dynamics. Alphabet said it remains committed to robotics, such as connecting human-like motor skills, including hand-eye coordination, to machines so they can process images, speech, text and draw pictures.

It is also interested in research on helping robots learn from what they “experience,'”Alphabet said in a statement.

“Robotics as a field has great potential, and we’re happy to see Boston Dynamics and Schaft join the SoftBank team to continue contributing to the next generation of robotics,'”it said.

SoftBank Chief Executive Masayoshi Son said robots will help solve problems that have been beyond human capabilities.

“Smart robotics are going to be a key driver of the next stage of the Information Revolution,'”he said.

“I am thrilled to welcome them to the SoftBank family and look forward to supporting them as they continue to advance the field of robotics and explore applications that can help make life easier, safer and more fulfilling,'”Son said of Boston Dynamics and Schaft.

Japan, with its longtime culture of cartoons like “Astro Boy,'”has a soft spot for cute robots. Various companies, including automakers Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co., have developed entertainment robots, designed to do nothing more than keep people company.

But interest around the world is growing in the potential of robotics and artificial intelligence for everyday products like safer cars and connected home appliances.

SoftBank bought British semiconductor company ARM Holdings, an innovator in the “internet of things,'”last year. The first carrier to offer the Apple iPhone in Japan, SoftBank includes U.S. carrier Sprint and Yahoo Japan in its group business.

Son drew attention for hobnobbing with U.S. President Donald Trump late last year and promising to create jobs and invest in the U.S.

Marc Raibert, CEO of Boston Dynamics, said he looked forward to working with SoftBank on creating technology for “a smarter and more connected world.”

“We share SoftBank’s belief that advances in technology should be for the benefit of humanity,'”he said.


SE Asia Urged to Step Up Cooperation in Fight Against Cybercrime

Asia Pacific nations are facing rising challenges posed by cybercrime and security breaches amid escalating economic costs from cyber attacks.

Regional businesses and governments say policy reforms are needed against a backdrop of a fast changing technological landscape and mounting vulnerabilities to cyber crime.

Singapore has taken the regional lead to boost cyber security within the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) as well as promoting the island state’s technical resources.

In October 2016, Singapore hosted the inaugural ASEAN Ministerial Conference on Cybersecurity, announcing new initiatives to boost ASEAN’s capacity to deal with cyber threats.

U.S.-based Honeywell, backed by the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB), is to set up a new industrial cybersecurity center of excellence for Asia Pacific. It will also feature development laboratories and advanced training in security services.

Multilateral effort

In June, Singapore and Australia signed a cooperation agreement to stem cybercrime, with Australia also signing pacts to boost cooperation with Thailand and China.

Australia’s Ambassador for Cybercrime, Tobias Feakin, in Bangkok for official talks with the Thai Government, said regional cooperation was vital in the face of growing challenges posed by cybercriminal networks in Asia.

“Criminals and nefarious actors can adapt and absorb all [this information] so much quicker than governments. So if we’re not talking about it, sharing best practice and keeping on the move as well then we will soon find ourselves behind by a quite a margin,” Feakin told VOA.

A 2016 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) warned cybercrime was growing in the Asia Pacific region, and evolving from an emerging threat to a criminal enterprise.

The UNODC said cybercrime – or internet-related crime – includes identity theft, crime, scams facilitated through email and social networking sites, sex offenses and fraud, and can ensnare victims through social media websites and mobile phones as well as standard internet sites.

UNODC Bangkok-based cyber technology analyst, Alexandru Caciuloiu said transnational crime accounts for the largest segment in cyber crime.

“We have all types – we have the criminal element – which I say is the biggest part. Of course we have the corporate to corporate [hacking] – there is also the nation state – there are many players in this area. So in terms of the criminal element of course, they’re always trying to leverage with the new technology,” Caciuloiu said.


High profile cyberattacks have raised the awareness for the need for improved safety and security. The May unleashing by computer hackers of the WannaCry ransom malware affected 200,000 organizations in 150 countries, including Thailand.

An executive with cybersecurity company, Trend Micro, was reported saying online extortion attacks had “increased dramatically”, with criminal elements causing millions of dollars in losses.

In the Philippines, security analysts said businesses needed to step up security measures against cyber crimes and increasing global threats.

In late May, reports said Vietnam-linked hackers had been targeting Philippines government agencies to gather intelligence related to the maritime dispute in the South China Sea.

Australia, in pressing for an agreement with China, had accused China-based businesses of on-line intellectual property theft.

“China is a huge economic partner [with Australia],” said Ambassador Feakin. “There are some areas – there is some differences and the fact that we got to a point of signing an agreement, which said we agree to not conduct cyber enabled intellectual property that, I think that’s a good point.”

UNODC’s Caciuloiu said the challenge for South East Asia lies in the economic disparities in wealth and capacities to address the cybersecurity problems.

“There are some countries where I will say they are very focused on cybersecurity, but some others there’s a pretty big lack of awareness within the government(s),” he said.

International consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC), in its 2017 Global State of Information Security Survey, called for a “unified front against cybercriminals” including collaboration and information sharing to enable organizations to understand risks with effective methods of response.

Exponential increase in mobile phone use and tablet devices have added to the risks.

“Cyber risk now encompasses more than our traditional view of computers a more than our traditional view of computers,” including increased attacks involving the so-called Internet of Things from cars to household devices.

“Over the next decade, both the motivation and opportunity for malicious attacks on business and government will soar,” PwC said.

Australia’s Feakin said there was a need to ensure development and increased connectivity are not hamstrung by a lack of international collaboration at all levels.

“In this region we need more of that. Our concern would always be if we don’t make sure that the threats a managed, then that’s the danger we miss out on that golden opportunity,” he said.

In a recent commentary, Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum at the Center for Security Studies, said the 2015 cost estimates of cybercrimes in the Asia Pacific stood at $81 billion, with the number of incidents growing.


Polanski’s Victim to Stand up for Him in California Court

Roman Polanski won’t take his chances and return to court to resolve his sexual assault case, so his victim is going to stand up for him.

Samantha Geimer, who was 13 at the time of the crime, is going to appeal directly to a judge Friday to end the long-running case, the fugitive director’s lawyer said.

Geimer, 54, has long supported Polanski’s efforts to end the legal saga that limits his freedom, but Friday will be the first time she’s appeared in Los Angeles Superior Court on his behalf, attorney Harland Braun said.

“She’s tired of this case,” Braun said. “The judge is just playing games with him.”

The Oscar-winner has been a fugitive since he fled to France in 1978 on the eve of sentencing for having unlawful sex with a minor. Prosecutors dropped charges that he drugged, raped and sodomized the girl.

Polanski feared the judge was going to renege on a plea agreement and send him away for more time than the six weeks he served in prison during a psychiatric evaluation prior to sentencing.

Polanski, 83, is trying to get the Interpol warrant lifted so he can move freely among most of the 190 countries in the global policing network. If that happened, the California warrant would remain valid.

The hearing Friday is an effort by Braun to get the court to unseal testimony by the now-deceased prosecutor in the case, who is believed to have testified in a closed session about backroom sentencing discussions.

Braun wants to use the transcript to show Polanski has served his time so the international warrant is dropped. 

Geimer has previously said she forgives Polanski for the assault that happened at Jack Nicholson’s compound in the Hollywood Hills during a March 1977 photo shoot.

Geimer sued Polanski and reached a settlement in 1993 for $500,000 that included over $100,000 in interest payments. Her longtime lawyer Lawrence Silver did not return phone and email messages seeking comment.

The Associated Press doesn’t typically name victims of sex abuse, but Geimer went public years ago.


Documentary ‘Zero Days’ Warns of Wide Scale Cyberattacks 

The recent WannaCry computer virus infected more than 230,000 computers in more than 150 countries. It is not yet clear who was behind the ransomware attack that affected organizations, hospitals and telecom companies worldwide, but it was hardly unexpected.

Months earlier, filmmaker Alex Gibney released his documentary Zero Days, in which he warns of massive-scale cyberattacks and their devastating effect on modern life.

He documents a cyberweapon found lurking in computers around the world in 2010. 


Recruiting the help of computer experts and NSA insiders, Gibney analyzes the Stuxnet computer virus that was developed in the United States in cooperation with Israel to infect and destroy Iran’s nuclear program.

Eric Chien, technical director of security response at the global cybersecurity company Symantec, told VOA the United States developed the virus as leverage against Iran, to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program remains exclusively peaceful.

“Certainly the Iran deal is connected to this story,” Chien said.

He tells VOA the Stuxnet worm and its more dangerous sister virus Nitro Zeus were designed to do a lot of harm, such as, “shutting down huge portions of the Iranian grid; and this was a subject we know, of some debate inside the government, because it would involve not just military targets but also civilian targets like hospitals.”

He says diplomacy achieved an agreement with Iran, but says an unstated aspect of that agreement is the United States had “a big stick to use” if Iran violated the treaty.

Pandora’s Box

“That’s a very interesting thing because a lot of the legality around Stuxnet is very much in doubt,” Chien said. “In point of fact, the United States and Israel attacked Iran’s critical infrastructure in peace time.”

Though the Stuxnet operation was originally successful, the film asserts, the virus was eventually discovered and fell into the wrong hands, which could enhance it and turn it against its creator.

“It became much clearer to us that this was no longer sort of evolution of some piece of malware but a revolution that became the first sort of cyber sabotage malware that could actually cause physical destruction. And it did open Pandora’s Box,” Chien said.

“That’s where we are today. Now, what we see is many likely nation states conducting attacks all over the world, we see staging, so that potentially one day if they need flip the switch they could cause some additional sabotage to occur.”

Many attacks, targets

The Symantec security expert says the number of cyberattacks has greatly increased over the years. He says Symantec is now “tracking close to maybe a hundred different attacks on a daily basis.”

Gibney says cyberwarfare is dangerous because it has no borders or rules. It can strike anywhere, anyone, at any time.

“People depend on trains, people depend on airplanes, and people depend on their electricity. This is modern life. So, what we’re saying in this film is these weapons threaten modern life as we know it,” Gibney said.

Chien says there is always a need for mitigation when viruses sabotage our computer-controlled infrastructures.

“We actually saw recently in Ukraine that their power grid was attacked through a cyber piece of malware,” he said, “and they were able to bring back the power within a few hours. And were able to do so because actually their infrastructure is frankly a little bit more behind and they had the ability to go a manual mode. And literally just flip the switch and put things back on.”

Though there doesn’t seem to be a correlation between the recent ransomware WannaCry and Stuxnet, experts such as Chien say they are both launched from remote, often undetected locations by unknown groups who are either allegiant to rogue nation states launching undercover attacks or are mercenary hackers paid by the highest bidder to conduct cyberterrorism.

Gibney says his goal in making Zero Days was to make the public aware of the extent and danger of cyberwarfare and allow us to ask questions and demand transparency from our governments.

“At the very least, we can all demand that our leaders start talking about it more openly and stop pretending that this stuff is not going on when it is, because it’s affecting all of us at a most basic level,” the filmmaker said.


China Bike-Share Revolution Brings Convenience, Headaches

Thanks to an explosion of bike share apps and providers, China is rediscovering its love of bicycles. In cities across the country and in the capital of Beijing, a colorful bike-share revolution is taking over on the streets, helping ease traffic snarls and keeping the air cleaner. It is also creating some problems.

China used to be called the “kingdom of bicycles,” and though cars have taken over in a major way, the growing popularity of bike-share apps seems to indicate two-wheelers are making a come back.

​Color revolution

For drab and dusty Beijing, the bike-share color revolution of yellows, oranges and blues is a welcome sight. People of all ages are enjoying the convenience the bikes provide, which combines cell phone technology, and GPS tracking in some cases, to help users find a ride.

Traveling by car across the sprawling, densely populated city is often a nightmare. Even distances of a few kilometers can take up to an hour when traffic is snarling.

Cheng Li, a bike-share user, said he has been driving his car less and using the metro more since he started using the service about six months ago.

“After I get off the metro, I usually have to walk another kilometer or two, so I’ll grab a bike share and go. It’s less stressful,” Cheng said.

For many, the convenience of cycling is its biggest attraction. Beijing’s city government has long had a bike-share program in place, but many of its bike-share stations were inconveniently located. Getting registered for the smart phone based apps is also much easier.

For Zhang Jian, the bike-share revolution is not only convenient, but nostalgic.

“Now, when we’re riding home from work, especially in the evening, when it’s not as rushed, it feels like we’re reliving the past,” Zhang said.

​Great Wall of bikes

But with a growing number of providers, competition is getting increasingly fierce. One key tactic of providers has been to flood the streets with bikes — so much so that sidewalks are almost blocked in some cases.

The surge of bikes has become a major headache for city governments. Users frequently leave bikes in the middle of the street or just dump them on the sidewalk blocking passageways in an already densely populated city.

In Beijing’s southern district of Daxing, authorities have been fighting the surge by seizing the illegally parked bikes that clog streets and metro exits, one transportation worker said.

“Bike sharing is really convenient, but no one is taking care of the problem of illegally parked bikes,” the worker said. Behind her are several thousand bikes that have been seized. It was unclear when or how they would be returned to the companies that made them.

“Since the Lunar New Year, the number of bikes has been growing rapidly. At least 10,000 bikes have been added to the streets (of Daxing) since then, and we’ve collected about a third of that total,” she said.

China’s two biggest operators, Ofo and Mobike, have deployed more than 3 million bikes in scores of cities across the country. And the numbers continue to grow.

Mobike aims to expand to 100 cities at home and abroad by the end of this year.

Bike hunters

While many complain the bike-share revolution has taken over city streets, some like Gao Xiaochao are taking matters into their own hands.

Gao is one of many who call themselves bike-share hunters. Bike-share hunters find and report stolen and vandalized bikes that users deliberately park outside their homes or inside gated communities. With some bike-share apps, riders can report illegally parked bikes or other problems the two-wheelers may have.

Gao uses his lunchtime to find, report and move illegally parked bikes.

“Bike hunting is like a game, a hobby, a way to get some exercise. It’s like a new way of living,” Gao said. “Sometimes, I spend two to three hours looking for illegally parked bikes and it’s just like talking a walk.”

Many like Gao are passionate about bike sharing and what it is doing to help transportation and the city’s notoriously smoggy air.

However, as complaints grow and competition gets increasingly cut-throat, they hope companies will do more to improve their service and not just focus on flooding the streets with bikes to edge out competitors.


Documentary "Zero Days" a Warning of Wide Scale Cyberattacks

The recent attack by the computer virus WannaCry infected more than 230,000 computers in more than 150 countries. It is not clear who is behind it, but the attack was hardly unexpected. Months earlier, award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney released his documentary “Zero Days,” in which he warned of massive cyberattacks and their devastating impact on our way of life. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.


Breast Cancer No Barrier to Pregnancy

A new study is providing reassuring news for breast cancer survivors who want to have children. Faith Lapidus reports.


Chinese Consumers Falling in Love with Gadgets

China’s open policy toward technology firms is rapidly transforming its society into a Western-style consumer environment, ever hungry for new gadgets. As a casual visitor at this year’s Shanghai Consumer Electronics Show could easily see, robots created the highest interest. VOA’s George Putic reports.


Ivanka Trump’s Brand Distances Itself From China Shoemaker

Ivanka Trump’s fashion brand sought to distance itself from a Chinese manufacturer that has come under scrutiny after activists investigating labor conditions there were detained, saying the company last made its products three months ago.

In a statement released Wednesday, the brand’s president, Abigail Klem, said Ivanka Trump shoes, which are made by licensing partner Mark Fisher, have not been produced since March at the Huajian Group factory where alleged labor abuses occurred. She added “our licensee works with many footwear production factories and all factories are required to operate within strict social compliance regulations.”

But it is unclear whether that was really the end of the relationship.

Undercover workers


China Labor Watch, a New York nonprofit, began scrutinizing Ivanka Trump supply chains more than a year ago, according to Li Qiang, the group’s executive director. Three China Labor Watch investigators went into Huajian Group factories undercover posing as workers in March, April and May of this year and found Ivanka Trump merchandise inside, Li said.


He said the investigators also found evidence of planned production, namely an April production schedule indicating pending orders for nearly 1,000 pairs of Ivanka Trump shoes due by the end of last month.


Now all three men are in jail, accused of using illegal recording devices to disrupt Huajian’s business. The U.S. State Department and Amnesty International have spoken out against the arrests. So far, Ivanka Trump and her brand have not.

Two days off a month?


China Labor Watch laid out its initial allegations in an April letter to Ivanka Trump. It said workers regularly put in more than 15 hours a day, with just two days off a month. It said most were paid by the piece, taking home just $363 a month for 300 hours of work, and that managers verbally abuse workers.

“China Labor Watch expects you, as an assistant to the president and an advocate for women’s rights, to urge your brand’s supplier factories to improve their conditions,” Li wrote in the letter. “Your words and deeds can make a difference in these factory workers’ lives.”

The Huajian Group says the undercover activists were out to steal trade secrets and denies the allegations of poor working conditions.

Global companies take a hit

Some argue that the arrest of independent monitors threatens to hamper the ability of global companies to adequately monitor their Chinese suppliers. China has rebuffed the State Department’s request to release the activists, saying the men will be dealt with under China’s own sovereign laws.

China has swept up hundreds of human rights lawyers and labor activists in recent years and has scrutinized groups with foreign ties, like China Labor Watch, much more closely.

Alicia Edwards, a State Department spokeswoman, said this week that the U.S. is concerned by “the pattern of arrests and detentions.” Labor activists, she added, are instrumental in helping American companies understand conditions in their supply chains and holding Chinese manufacturers accountable under Chinese law.



$10B Chinese Project in Myanmar Stirs Local Concern

Days before the first supertanker carrying 140,000 tons of Chinese-bound crude oil arrived in Myanmar’s Kyauk Pyu port, local officials confiscated Nyein Aye’s fishing nets.

The 36-year-old fisherman was among hundreds banned from fishing a stretch of water near the entry point for a pipeline that pumps oil 770 kilometers (480 miles) across Myanmar to southwest China and forms a crucial part of Beijing’s “Belt and Road” project to deepen its economic links with Asia and beyond.

“How can we make a living if we’re not allowed to catch fish?” said Nyein Aye, who bought a bigger boat just four months ago but now says his income has dropped by two-thirds because of a decreased catch resulting from restrictions on when and where he can fish. Last month he joined more than 100 people in a protest demanding compensation from pipeline operator Petrochina.

The pipeline is part of the nearly $10 billion Kyauk Pyu Special Economic Zone, a scheme at the heart of fast-warming Myanmar-China relations. Its success is crucial for the Southeast Asian nation’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Embattled Suu Kyi needs a big economic win to stem criticism that her first year in office has seen little progress on reform. China’s support is also key to stabilizing their shared border, where a spike in fighting with ethnic armed groups threatens the peace process Suu Kyi says is her top priority.

China’s state-run CITIC Group, the main developer of the Kyauk Pyu Special Economic Zone, says it will create 100,000 jobs in the northwestern state of Rakhine, one of Myanmar’s poorest regions.

Local suspicion

But many local people say the project is being rushed through without consultation or regard for their way of life.

Suspicion of China runs deep in Myanmar, and public hostility due to environmental and other concerns has delayed or derailed Chinese mega-projects in the country in the past.

China says the Kyauk Pyu development is based on “win-win” cooperation between the two countries.

Since Beijing signaled earlier this year that it might abandon the huge Myitsone Dam hydroelectric project in Myanmar, it has pushed for concessions on other strategic undertakings — including the Bay of Bengal port at Kyauk Pyu, which gives it an alternative route for energy imports from the Middle East.

Internal planning documents reviewed by Reuters and more than two dozen interviews with officials show work on contracts and land acquisition began before the completion of studies on the impact on local people and the environment, which legal experts said could breach development laws.

The Kyauk Pyu Special Economic Zone will cover more than 4,200 acres (17 square kilometers). It includes the $7.3 billion deep sea port and a $2.3 billion industrial park, with plans to attract industries such as textiles and oil refining.

A Reuters tally based on internal planning documents and census data suggests 20,000 villagers, most of whom now depend on agriculture and fishing, are at risk of being relocated to make way for the project.

“There will be a huge project in the zone and many buildings will be built, so people who live in the area will be relocated,” said Than Htut Oo, administrator of Kyauk Pyu, who also sits on the management committee of the economic zone.

He said the government has not publicly announced the plan, because it didn’t want to “create panic” while it was still negotiating with the Chinese developer.

Twin signings

In April, Myanmar’s President Htin Kyaw signed two agreements on the pipeline and the Kyauk Pyu port with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, as Beijing pushed to revive a project that had stalled since its inception in 2009.

The agreements call for environmental and social assessments to be carried out as soon as possible.

While the studies are expected to take up to 15 months and have not yet started, CITIC has asked Myanmar to finalize contract terms by the end of this year so that the construction can start in 2018, said Soe Win, who leads the Myanmar management committee of the zone.

Such a schedule has alarmed experts who fear the project is being rushed.

“The environmental and social preparations for a project of these dimensions take years to complete and not months,” said Vicky Bowman, head of the Myanmar Center for Responsible Business and a former British ambassador to the country.

CITIC said in an email to Reuters it would engage “a world-renowned consulting firm” to carry out assessments.

Although large-scale land demarcation for the project has not yet started, 26 families have been displaced from farmland because of acquisitions that took place in 2014 for the construction of two dams, according to land documents and the landowners.

Experts say this violates Myanmar’s environmental laws.

“Carrying out land acquisition before completing environmental impact assessments and resettlement plans is incompatible with national law,” said Sean Bain, Myanmar-based legal consultant for the International Commission of Jurists, a human rights watchdog group.

School, development funds

CITIC says it will build a vocational school to provide training for skills needed by companies in the economic zone. It has given $1.5 million to local villages to develop businesses.

Reuters spoke to several villagers who had borrowed small sums from the village funds set up with this money.

“The CITIC money was very useful for us because most people in the village need money,” said fisherman Thar Sai Aung, who borrowed $66 to buy new nets.

Chinese investors say they also plan to spend $1 million during the first five years of the development, and $500,000 per year thereafter to improve local living standards.

But villagers in Kyauk Pyu say they fear the project would not contribute to the development of the area because the operating companies employ mostly Chinese workers.

From more than 3,000 people living on the Maday island, the entry point for the oil pipeline, only 47 have landed a job with the Petrochina, while the number of Chinese workers stood at more than double that number, data from labor authorities showed.

Petrochina did not respond to requests for comment. In a recent report it said Myanmar citizens made up 72 percent of its workforce in the country overall and it would continue to hire locally.

“I don’t think there’s hope for me to get a job at the zone,” said fisherman Nyein Aye. He had been turned down 12 times for job applications with the pipeline operator. “Chinese companies said they would develop our village and improve our livelihoods, but it turned out we are suffering every day.”


Ant-hunting We Will Go!

Shining their flashlights into the darkest corners of Singapore, a small group of ant hunters searches for an elusive winged insect.

With luck, they will find a queen ant to lay eggs and start a colony under the watchful eye of a collector.

“You can search for a few hours without finding anything at all. So, it’s really luck,” Leland Tan, 14, said after he hit the jackpot, and found two queen ants in one night.

Singapore, a tropical city-state home to more than 40 ant species, has a small but growing community of ant collectors.

Ants Singapore, a Facebook group that has grown to 380 members since last December, aims to connect “ant lovers and even those who are interested in keeping ants.”

Followers share tips on catching and breeding ants, do-it-yourself ant farms and links to videos such as the giant killer ants in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

While most ants in Singapore are harmless, the insects are often regarded as a nuisance. That is something Chris Chan is hoping to change.

“I want people to look at ants differently,” said Chan, a 29-year-old Uber driver and member of Ants Singapore.

“Now, a lot of people still think that ants are pests, but with enough education, I can educate them that keeping ants can be safe,” he told Reuters Television.

Chan lives across the border in the southern Malaysian city of Johor Bahru with his girlfriend, her family and up to 30 ant colonies living in 10 formicariums, or ant farms.

Helen Teh, the mother of Chan’s girlfriend, said she was curious why the couple needed so much sand and wood in their home.

“He said, ‘Oh Auntie, I’m keeping ants,'” Teh said, recalling her initial surprise.

“Later, when I knew it is something that he loves … I said, ‘It’s no harm done,'” she said.

Chan has turned to social media to promote his hobby.

He has started a YouTube channel for new collectors and answers questions about ant care on the group’s Facebook page.

Chan also organizes ant-hunting trips to teach people how to find and catch the tiny insects that he says can hold his attention for hours.

“Some people can stare at an aquarium for hours. Same, just like my ants,” Chan said.


In Major Breakthrough, Tiny Utah Firm Regenerates Skin, Hair in Pigs

A small U.S. biotech has successfully regenerated skin and stimulated hair growth in pigs with burns and abrasions, paving the way for a scientific breakthrough that could lead to the regeneration of fully functional human skin.

Salt Lake City-based PolarityTE Inc’s patented approach to tissue engineering is designed to use a patient’s own healthy tissue to re-grow human skin for the treatment of burns and wounds.

Despite recent advances in reconstructive surgery, plastic surgeons cannot give burn victims what they require the most — their skin.

Current approaches to treat serious burns are “severely limited” in their effectiveness and in some cases, are rather expensive, PolarityTE’s founder and CEO Denver Lough said in an interview.

Epicel, a skin graft widely used in burn units that is sold by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Vericel Corp, does not result in fully thick and functional skin — which is PolarityTE’s objective.

PolarityTE conducted its pre-clinical study on wounded pigs at an animal facility in Utah. The use of therapy resulted in scar-less healing, growth of hair follicles, complete wound coverage and the progressive regeneration of all skin layers, the company said.

As pig skin is more complex and robust than human skin, successful swine data is typically seen as a precursor to effectiveness in human trials.

PolarityTE expects to begin a human trial later this year and the cell therapy could hit the market 12 to 18 months thereafter, said Lough, who served as senior plastic surgery resident at Johns Hopkins Hospital before creating PolarityTE last year.

“If clinically successful, the PolarityTE platform could deliver the first scientific breakthrough in wound healing and reconstructive surgery in nearly half a century,” Lough said.

The technology also has the potential to develop fully-functional tissues, including bone, muscle, cartilage and the liver, PolarityTE said.

The company said it would “be opportunistic with financing,” to fund upcoming trials but declined to provide details.

PolarityTE is backed by pharma industry veteran Phil Frost, currently the chief executive of OPKO Health Inc, and a small number of other industry executives.

Shares of the company rose as much as 16.5 percent to $20.98 on the Nasdaq, but pared most gains to trade up 1.6 percent in the midday session on Thursday.