Month: August 2018

Dutch Lawmaker Cancels Cartoon Contest Amid Threats of Violence  

A Dutch lawmaker, who was planning to hold a caricature contest of Islam’s prophet, has backed away from his plans amid fears of violence.   

Geert Wilders, a member of the Dutch Party of Freedom, the second-largest political party in the Netherlands, announced his decision Thursday in a written statement. 

“To avoid the risk of victims of Islamic violence, I have decided not to let the cartoon contest go ahead,” Wilders said. 

Wilders also noted in a tweet that the contest was being canceled due to safety and security concerns.

Wilders is known for his anti-Islam views, declaring Islam a totalitarian ideology.

Earlier in June, Wilders announced plans for a cartoon contest to depict Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. The news stirred anger and grief among Muslims throughout the world as the physical depiction of Prophet Muhammad is considered offensive and insulting to the followers of Islam.

Roiling protests 

The cartoon contest also sparked protests in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where blasphemy is an extremely charged issue, often leading to mob violence incidents, including the killing of those accused of blasphemy.  

Earlier this week, thousands of supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a hardline religious-turned-political party, started a march from Lahore to Islamabad, demanding the newly elected government of Pakistan cut diplomatic ties with the Netherlands and expel its ambassador.

“We are ready to die in Islamabad for this cause [to stop the cartoon contest] and have already written our wills,” Ejaz Ashrafi, TLP’s spokesperson had told VOA on Wednesday. “Nothing will stop us now.”

TLP members are staunch supporters of the controversial blasphemy law and openly justify violence to safeguard what they call the honor of the prophet. They also demand the death penalty for those who are found guilty of committing blasphemy. 

The party rose to prominence last year and was able to win more than 2 million votes during Pakistan’s general elections last month.

The same party also organized a huge protest in Islamabad in front of the Dutch Embassy last week. Pakistani security forces intervened and barred angry protesters from pelting the Dutch Embassy with stones.

Earlier this month, a Pakistani cricketer had announced a bounty of $24,000 for Wilder’s murder.

Pakistan’s reaction

Pakistan’s information minister Fawad Chaudhry welcomed Wilder’s decision to cancel the contest and framed it as a diplomatic achievement for Pakistan. 

Earlier Thursday, Pakistan’s newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan issued a video message stating that Muslim countries need to raise their concerns against the cartoon contest in the upcoming United Nations General Assembly. 

“They [the West] have their own way of looking at their religions while we [Muslims] look at it in a very different way,” Khan said.

Mohammad Faisal, a spokesperson for Pakistan’s foreign office, tweeted Wednesday about the issue and said the government had raised it with senior diplomats from the Netherlands. 

“FM [foreign minister] spoke with the Dutch FM on phone to discuss the issue of blasphemous caricature. FM expressed concerns on the announcement of abominable and sacrilegious competition by Greet Wilders. The Dutch FM said that his government was neither associated nor supporting the event,” Faisal tweeted.

Meanwhile, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte reportedly said that while he didn’t support the planned contest, he would defend Wilders’ right to hold it.

Some of the information in this report came from Reuters. 

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US to Proceed With Mexico Trade Pact, Keep Talking to Canada

U.S. President Donald Trump notified Congress on Friday of his intent to sign a trade agreement with Mexico after talks with Canada broke up earlier in the day with no immediate deal to revamp the tri-nation North American Free Trade Agreement.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said U.S. officials would resume talks with their Canadian counterparts next Wednesday with the aim of getting a deal all three nations could sign.

All three countries have stressed the importance of NAFTA, which governs billions of dollars in regional trade, and a bilateral deal announced by the United States and Mexico on Monday paved the way for Canada to rejoin the talks this week.

But by Friday the mood had soured, partly on Trump’s off-the-record remarks made to Bloomberg News that any trade deal with Canada would be “totally on our terms.” He later confirmed the comments, which the Toronto Star first reported.

“At least Canada knows where I stand,” he later said on Twitter.

Ottawa has stood firm against signing “just any deal.” 

​’Making progress’

But at a news conference Friday afternoon, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland expressed confidence that Canada could reach agreement with the United States on a renegotiated NAFTA trade pact if there was “goodwill and flexibility on all sides.”

“We continue to work very hard and we are making progress. We’re not there yet,” Freeland told reporters.

“We know that a win-win-win agreement is within reach,” she added. “With goodwill and flexibility on all sides, I know we can get there.”

The Canadian dollar weakened to C$1.3081 to the U.S. dollar after The Wall Street Journal first reported that the talks had ended Friday with no agreement. Canadian stocks remained 0.5 percent lower.

Global equities were also down following the hawkish turn in Trump’s comments on trade.

Lighthizer has refused to budge despite repeated efforts by Freeland to offer some dairy concessions to maintain the Chapter 19 independent trade dispute resolution mechanism in NAFTA, The Globe and Mail reported Friday.

However, a spokeswoman for USTR said Canada had made no concessions on agriculture, which includes dairy, but added that negotiations continued.

The United States wants to eliminate Chapter 19, the mechanism that has hindered it from pursuing anti-dumping and anti-subsidy cases. Lighthizer said on Monday that Mexico had agreed to cut the mechanism. For Ottawa, Chapter 19 is a red line.

Trump argues Canada’s hefty dairy tariffs are hurting U.S. farmers, an important political base for his Republican Party.

But dairy farmers have great political clout in Canada too, and concessions could hurt the ruling Liberals ahead of a 2019 federal election.

At a speech in North Carolina on Friday, Trump took another swipe at Canada. “I love Canada, but they’ve taken advantage of our country for many years,” he said.

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Big Names Bid Farewell to ‘Queen of Soul’

Notables gathered to pay tribute to soul singer Aretha Franklin during an epic, hours-long funeral service in Detroit, Aug. 31, 2018. Franklin died Aug. 16, 2018, of pancreatic cancer at the age of 76.

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Fake, Low Quality Drugs Come at High Cost

About one in eight essential medicines in low- and middle-income countries may be fake or contain dangerous mixes of ingredients that put patients’ lives at risk, a research review suggests.

Researchers examined data from more 350 previous studies that tested more 400,000 drug samples in low- and middle-income countries. Overall, roughly 14 percent of medicines were counterfeit, expired or otherwise low quality and unlikely to be as safe or effective as patients might expect.

“Low-quality medicines can have no or little active pharmaceutical ingredient [and] can prolong illness, lead to treatment failure and contribute to drug resistance,” said lead study author Sachiko Ozawa of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Or it may have too much active ingredient and cause a drug overdose,” Ozawa said by email. “If it is contaminated or has other active ingredients, then the medication could cause poisoning, adverse drug interactions or avertable deaths.”

Much of the research to date on counterfeit or otherwise unsafe medicines has focused on Africa, and about half of the studies in the current analysis were done there.

Almost one in five medications tested in Africa were fake or otherwise potentially unsafe, researchers report in JAMA Network Open.

Another third of the studies were done in Asia, where about 14 percent of medicines tested were found to be counterfeit or otherwise unsafe.

Antibiotics and antimalarials were the most tested drugs in the analysis. Overall, about 19 percent of antimalarials and 12 percent of antibiotics were falsified or otherwise unsafe.

While fake or improperly made medicines undoubtedly harm patients, the current analysis couldn’t tell how many people suffered serious side effects or died as a result of falsified drugs.

Researchers did try to assess the economic impact of counterfeit or improperly made medicines and found the annual cost might run anywhere from $10 billion to $200 billion.

While the study didn’t examine high-income countries, drug quality concerns are by no means limited to less affluent nations, Ozawa said.

“Even in high-income countries, purchasing cheaper medicines from illegitimate sources online could result in obtaining substandard or falsified medicines,” Ozawa said. “Verify the source before you buy medications, and make policymakers aware of the problem so they can work to improve the global supply chain of medicines.”

The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how counterfeit or poorly made medicines directly harm patients, however. And economic impact was difficult to assess from smaller studies that often didn’t include detailed methodology for calculating the financial toll.

The report “provides important validation of what is largely already known,” Tim Mackey of the Global Health Policy Institute in La Jolla, California, writes in an accompanying editorial.

“It is important to note that although the study is comprehensive, its narrow scope means it only provides a snapshot of the entire problem, as it is limited to studies conducted in low- and middle-income countries and to those

medicines classified as essential by the World Health Organization.”

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Coca-Cola Hopes for Caffeine Hit as It Buys Costa Coffee Chain

Coca-Cola is hoping for a caffeine-fueled boost with the acquisition of British coffee chain Costa.

Costa is Britain’s biggest coffee company, with over 2,400 coffee shops in the U.K. and another 1,400 in more than 30 countries, including around 460 in China, its second-biggest market. Coca-Cola said Friday it will buy the Costa brand from Whitbread for 3.9 billion pounds ($5.1 billion) in cash.

The deal, expected to close in the first half of 2019, comes on the heels of Coca-Cola’s announcement earlier in August that it was buying a minority ownership stake in sports drink maker BodyArmor for an undisclosed amount. Coca-Cola’s other investments in recent years have included milk that is strained to have more protein and a push into sparkling water.

The move is Coca-Cola’s latest diversification as health-conscious consumers, at least in America, move away from traditional soda.

Rival PepsiCo, meanwhile, recently bought carbonated drink maker SodaStream, which produces machines that allow people to make fizzy drinks in their own homes.

Coca-Cola already owns the Georgia and Gold Peak coffee brands, which make bottled and canned drinks, but the purchase of Costa could allow it to compete with brands like Starbucks.

Coffee is growing by 6 percent a year, making it one of the fastest-growing beverage categories in the world, said James Quincey, Coca-Cola president & CEO.

“Hot beverages is one of the few remaining segments of the total beverage landscape where Coca-Cola does not have a global brand,” he said.

Coca-Cola has over 500 brands in its stable including Fanta, innocent smoothies and Powerade sports drinks. In 2017, it generated operating income of $9.7 billion on revenues of $35.4 billion.

Without being specific about expansion plans, Quincey said in a video posted on Coca-Cola’s website that the company would “over time” look to take Costa “to more people in more places.”

Costa doesn’t currently have a presence in North or South America, but Quincey indicated that one potential early expansion route would be to use Costa’s vending operation and grow the company’s ready-to-drink products. In addition to its shops, Costa has self-serve coffee machines in grocery stores and gas stations.

Whitbread bought Costa for 19 million pounds in 1995, when it had just 39 shops. In recent years, Whitbread has invested heavily in Costa’s expansion overseas, but had been looking to siphon off the business to generate funds for the expansion and for its other business, the budget hotel chain Premier Inn.

Then Coca-Cola got in touch with what Whitbread said was a “highly compelling” offer. The Whitbread board unanimously backed the deal.

Whitbread will use a “significant majority” of the net cash proceeds — around 3.8 billion pounds after taking into account such things as transaction costs — returning cash to shareholders. Some will be used to pay down debt and to make a contribution to the pension fund.

Doing so, Whitbread said, would “provide headroom” to further expand the Premier Inn budget hotel chain in Britain and Germany.

Whitbread’s share price soared 17 percent in early afternoon trading in London.

Nicholas Hyett, equity analyst at London-based stockbrokers Hargreaves Lansdown, said Costa will get “lots of care and attention” from Coca-Cola.

“Its global reach should turbo-charge growth in the years to come, and hot drinks are one of the few areas of the wider beverages sector where the soft drinks giant doesn’t have a killer brand,” he said.

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Big Names Gather in Detroit for Funeral of ‘Queen of Soul’

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, comedian and entertainment mogul Tyler Perry, and legendary actress Cicely Tyson are among the dozens of people who have paid tribute to soul singer Aretha Franklin during an epic, hours-long funeral service in Detroit.

“She lived with courage. Not without fear, but overcoming her fears,” Clinton said of Franklin, who died August 16 of pancreatic cancer, at age 78. “She lived with courage,” he continued. “Not without fear, but overcoming her fears. She lived with faith. Not without failure, but overcoming her failures. She lived with power. Not without weakness, but overcoming her weaknesses.”

Clinton spoke of her generosity of spirit and her willingness to acknowledge fellow musicians and performers who had not achieved her legendary fame. He also made sure to note: “she worked her can off.”

Tyler Perry said his mother played Aretha Franklin songs on long drives, matching the music to her mood.

“I could tell what my father had done by the music she was playing,” he said. “If she was playing Respect, he had done something wrong. If she was playing Dr. Feelgood, he had done something right.”

Perry joked that Franklin kept the heat in her dressing room “somewhere between 85 [degrees Fahrenheit] and double-hell.” More soberly, he noted, “When Aretha sang gospel, something happened. Something would shake the room. When Aretha sang gospel, something shifted. Something happened in the atmosphere.”

Cicely Tyson, at 93 the grand dame of African American actresses, said, “She spoke to us through her soul and everything she experienced. And that’s why no matter what she was singing, she moved every single person.”

Tyson ended her tribute with a recitation of “When Malindy Sings,” a classic poem by African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. She replaced “Malindy” with “Aretha.”

“And you find your tears a-droppin,'” she said, “when Aretha sings.”

Franklin, who died of pancreatic cancer at age 76, has been dressed in four outfits as her body in state for public viewing over several days. While the week has been filled with tribute concerts and other high-profile celebrations of the singer and her remarkable life, funeral organizers say Friday’s funeral will be a religious service, not entertainment.

Bishop Charles Ellis the third, pastor of Greater Grace Temple, told the Associated Press before the service: “It is my goal and my aim to ensure that people leave here with some kind of spiritual awakening. … This is not a concert, this is not a show. This is not an awards production. This is a real life that has been lived.”

Franklin’s final days have been treated as a royal goodbye.

She is to be buried in a bronze casket plated with 24-karat gold. Franklin’s name and the title “Queen of Soul” are embroidered into the champagne-colored velvet lining the interior.

Franklin’s body was brought to the church in a white hearse that carried the body of her father, minister C.L. Franklin, in 1991 and civil rights leader Rosa Parks in 2005. She will be buried — like Franklin, Parks, and the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar — in Detroit’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

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US Ports Fear Tariffs Could Reduce Ship Traffic, Jobs

Ports and ground terminals in nearly every state handle goods that are now or will likely soon be covered by import tariffs. Port executives worry that this could mean a slowdown in shipping that would have ripple effects on truckers and others whose jobs depend on trade.

The Associated Press analyzed government data and found that from the West Coast to the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico, at least 10 percent of imports at many ports could face new tariffs if President Donald Trump’s proposals take full effect.

Since March, the U.S. has applied new tariffs of up to 25 percent on nearly $85 billion worth of steel and aluminum and various Chinese products, mostly goods used in manufacturing.

Trump said in a recent tweet, “Tariffs are working big time.” He has argued that the tariffs will help protect American workers and force U.S. trading partners to change rules that the president insists are unfair to the United States.

In New Orleans, port officials say a tariff-related drop in shipments is real, not merely a forecast. Steel imports there have declined more than 25 percent from a year ago, according to the port’s chief commercial officer, Robert Landry.

The port is scouting for other commodities it can import. But expectations appear to be low.

“In our business, steel is the ideal commodity,” Landry said. “It’s big, it’s heavy, we charge by the ton so it pays well. You never find anything that pays as well as steel does.”

The port of Milwaukee imports steel from Europe and ships out agricultural products from the Midwest. Steel imports haven’t dropped yet because they are under long-term contracts, said the port director, Adam Schlicht. But there has been “an almost immediate halt” in outbound shipments of corn because of retaliatory duties imposed by the European Union on American products.

Much of the corn, he said, “is just staying in silos. They are filled to the brim.”

Many other ports have been humming along and even enjoyed an unexpected bump in imports during June and July as U.S. businesses moved up orders to ship before the new tariffs took effect. That started with manufacturing goods and is now spreading to retail items for back-to-school and Christmas.

“Some of my retail customers are forward-shipping the best they can to offset proposed tariffs,” says Peter Schneider, executive vice president of T.G.S. Transportation, a trucking company in Fresno, California.

Port officials were encouraged by this week’s announcement that the United States and Mexico had reached a preliminary agreement to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, hoping it might lead to reduced trade barriers. Canada’s participation in any new deal to replace NAFTA, though, remains a major question mark.

The port officials continue to worry, though, that Trump will make good on a plan to expand tariffs to an additional $200 billion in Chinese imports — a list that includes fish and other foods, furniture, carpets, tires, rain jackets and hundreds of additional items. Tariffs would make those items costlier in the United States. And if Americans buy fewer of those goods, it would likely lead to fewer container ships steaming into U.S. ports.

The impact will be felt keenly at West Coast ports like Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, relying on information from his port officials, said his port — the biggest in the United States — could suffer a 20 percent drop in volume if the additional $200 billion in tariffs are imposed against Chinese goods.

Jock O’Connell, an economist in California who studies trade, said he doubts a downturn would be so severe — that would match the slump that accompanied the global recession of 2008 — “but we will see a definite impact.”

Here are some of the key findings from the AP analysis:

–  U.S. tariffs will cover goods that are imported at more than 250 seaports, airports and ground terminals in 48 states.

  • At 18 of 43 customs districts — including those representing ports around Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Orleans and Houston — at least 10 percent of their total import value could be covered by new tariffs if all Trump’s proposals take effect.

  • Retaliatory duties by China and other countries cover $27 billion in U.S. exports.

Eugene Seroka, executive director of the Los Angeles port, worries that “if tariffs make it too expensive to import, there will be an impact on jobs.”

Seroka and others don’t expect layoffs on the docks. Union longshoremen — whose average pay last year on the West Coast was $163,000, according to the Pacific Maritime Association, which negotiates for the ports — often have contract provisions ensuring that they are paid even if there’s no work. And there are fewer of them than there were a few decades ago because the advent of shipping containers has reduced the need for people on the docks.

Dwayne Boudreaux, an International Longshoremen’s Association official in Louisiana, said, though, that his stevedores are handling about 10 percent less steel from Japan because of the new tariffs.

“We don’t think it’s going to [get] worse,” he said. But, he added, “who knows — that could change from the next press conference.”

The impact might be greater on truck drivers and warehouse workers. Fewer will be needed, according to O’Connell.

Many drivers who deliver shipping containers from the dock to warehouses are independents contracted by trucking companies, and they don’t get paid if there is nothing to haul. Some might leave the profession, said Weston LaBar, CEO of the Harbor Trucking Association in Long Beach, California.

“It’s hard to retain drivers,” he said. “If we don’t have work for those drivers, we’re worried they will leave for some other segment of the trucking business or go into another business, like construction.”

Less shipping means less revenue for the ports — something that could limit their ability to pay for expansion and improvement projects, according to Kurt Nagle, president of the American Association of Port Authorities. He said U.S. ports are in the midst of a planned $155 billion in infrastructure spending from 2016 through 2020.

The current trade war was foreshadowed in January by steep U.S. tariffs on imported solar panels and washing machines. It exploded with the U.S. tariffs of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on aluminum. Then came two rounds of duties targeting about $50 billion in imports from China — punishment against that country for pressuring U.S. companies to transfer technology and intellectual property to Chinese companies.

Along the way, China, the European Union, Turkey, Canada and Mexico imposed retaliatory duties on U.S. goods including farm products and Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

This week, the U.S. Trade Representative’s office finished six days of hearings on a plan to hit another $200 billion in Chinese imports with 10 percent duties. Trump has said that if China continues to retaliate he could eventually add tariffs on $450 billion in Chinese goods, nearly 90 percent of that country’s 2017 exports to the U.S.

Trade wars are usually temporary. President George W. Bush abandoned his steel tariffs after less than two years.

Milwaukee’s port director worries, however, that damage from the current trade dispute could linger. Canada is increasing corn exports to Europe, and Brazil is trying to pick up the slack in soybean exports to China.

“Others are already picking up that business,” Schlicht said.

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Mourners Pay Final Respects to Aretha Franklin at Public Viewing

Thousands of mourners have come to pay their respects to music legend Aretha Franklin, who will be laid to rest Friday in Detroit, Michigan. A star-studded roster of performers and speakers are scheduled to attend. From Washington, VOA’s Jill Craig has more.

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Canada, US Push Toward NAFTA Deal by Friday

Top NAFTA negotiators from Canada and the United States increased the pace of their negotiations Thursday to resolve final differences to meet a Friday deadline, with their Mexican counterpart on standby to rejoin the talks soon.

Despite some contentious issues still on the table, the increasingly positive tone contrasted with U.S. President Donald Trump’s harsh criticism of Canada in recent weeks, raising hopes that the year-long talks on the North American Free Trade Agreement will conclude soon with a trilateral deal.

“Canada’s going to make a deal at some point. It may be by Friday or it may be within a period of time,” U.S. President Donald Trump told Bloomberg Television. “I think we’re close to a deal.”

Trilateral talks were already underway at the technical level and Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo was expected to soon rejoin talks with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, possibly later on Thursday, people familiar with the process said.

Trump said in a Bloomberg interview: “Canada’s going to make a deal at some point. It may be by Friday or it may be within a period of time,” Trump said. “I think we’re close to a deal.”

Negotiations entered a crucial phase this week after the United States and Mexico announced a bilateral deal on Monday, paving the way for Canada to rejoin talks to modernize the 24-year-old accord that underpins over $1 trillion in annual trade.

The NAFTA deal that is taking shape would likely strengthen North America as a manufacturing base by making it more costly for automakers to import a large share of vehicle parts from outside the region. The automotive content provisions, the most contentious topic, could accelerate a shift of parts-making away from China.

A new chapter governing the digital economy, along with stronger intellectual property, labor and environmental standards could also work to the benefit of U.S. companies, helping Trump to fulfill his campaign promise of creating more American jobs.

Trump has set a Friday deadline for the three countries to reach an agreement, which would allow Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto to sign it before he leaves office at the end of November. Under U.S. law, Trump must wait 90 days before signing the pact.

The U.S. president has warned he could try to proceed with a deal with Mexico alone and levy tariffs on Canadian-made cars if Ottawa does not come on board, although U.S. lawmakers have said ratifying a bilateral deal would not be easy.

Dairy, dispute settlement

One sticking point for Canada is the U.S. effort to dump the Chapter 19 dispute-resolution mechanism that hinders the United States from pursuing anti-dumping and anti-subsidy cases. Lighthizer said on Monday that Mexico had agreed to eliminate the mechanism.

Trump also wants a NAFTA deal that eliminates dairy tariffs of up to 300 percent that he argues are hurting U.S. farmers, an important political base for Republicans.

But any concessions to Washington by Ottawa is likely to upset Canadian dairy farmers, who have an outsized influence in Canadian politics, with their concentration in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

 “Ultimately, we’ve got huge issues that are still to be resolved,” said Jerry Dias, head of Canada’s influential Unifor labor union. “Either we’re going to be trading partners or we’re going to fight.”

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Microsoft to Contractors: Give New Parents Paid Leave

Microsoft will begin requiring its contractors to offer their U.S. employees paid leave to care for a new child.

It’s common for tech firms to offer generous family leave benefits for their own software engineers and other full-time staff, but paid leave advocates say it’s still rare to require similar benefits for contracted workers such as janitors, landscapers, cafeteria crews and software consultants.

“Given its size and its reach, this is a unique and hopefully trailblazing offering,” said Vicki Shabo, vice president at the National Partnership for Women and Families.

The details

The new policy affects businesses with at least 50 U.S.-based employees that do substantial work with Microsoft that involves access to its buildings or its computing network. It doesn’t affect suppliers of goods. Contractors would have to offer at least 12 weeks of leave to those working with the Redmond, Washington-based software giant; the policy wouldn’t affect the contractors’ arrangements with other companies. Leave-takers would get 66 percent of regular pay, up to $1,000 weekly.

The policy announced Thursday rolls out over the next year as the company amends its contracts with those vendors. That may mean some of Microsoft’s costs will rise to cover the new benefits, said Dev Stahlkopf, the company’s corporate vice president and general counsel.

“That’s just fine and we think it’s well worth the price,” she said.

Microsoft doesn’t disclose how many contracted workers it uses, but it’s in the thousands.

The new policy expands on Microsoft’s 2015 policy requiring contractors to offer paid sick days and vacation.

Facebook

Other companies such as Facebook have also committed to improve contractor benefits amid unionization efforts by shuttle drivers, security guards and other contract workers trying to get by in expensive, tech-fueled regions such as the San Francisco Bay Area and around Washington’s Puget Sound.

Facebook doesn’t guarantee that contract workers receive paid parental leave, but provides a $4,000 new child benefit for new parents who don’t get leave. A much smaller California tech company, SurveyMonkey, announced a paid family leave plan for its contract workers earlier this year.

Washington state law

Microsoft said its new policy is partially inspired by a Washington state law taking effect in 2020 guaranteeing eligible workers 12 weeks paid time off for the birth or adoption of a child. The state policy, signed into law last year, follows California and a handful of other states in allowing new parents to tap into a fund that all workers pay into. Washington will also require employers to help foot the bill, and will start collecting payroll deductions next January.

A federal paid parental leave plan proposed by President Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, could rely on a similar model but has gained little traction.

“Compared to what employers are doing, the government is way behind the private sector,” said Isabel Sawhill, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has urged the White House and Congress to adopt a national policy.

Sawhill said it is “very unusual and very notable” that Microsoft is extending family leave benefits to its contract workers. Microsoft already offers more generous family leave benefits to its own employees, including up to 20 weeks fully paid leave for a birth mother.

Pushing the feds

Microsoft’s push to spread its employee benefits to a broader workforce “sends a message that something has to happen more systematically at the federal level,” said Ariane Hegewisch, a program director for employment and earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Until then, she said, it’s helpful that Microsoft seems willing to pay contracting firms more to guarantee their workers’ better benefits.

“Paid family leave is expensive and they acknowledge that,” Hegewisch said. Otherwise, she said, contractors with many employees of child-bearing age could find themselves at a competitive disadvantage to those with older workforces.

Republican state Sen. Joe Fain, the prime sponsor of the measure that passed last year, said Microsoft’s decision was “a really powerful step forward.”

By applying the plan to contractors and vendors around the country, “it really creates a pressure for those state legislatures to make a similar decision that Washington made.”

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