Upheaval in the Factories of Juarez

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — Women and men, more than 70 of them, were fired on December 9th from the factory on the Mexican side of the Mexico-Texas border where they made printers for the American company Lexmark. They say they were terminated was because they were trying to form an independent union. The company says they were fired because they caused a “workplace disruption.”

Now, the workers protest by occupying a makeshift shack outside the factory, still advocating for a raise and for a union, even though they no longer have jobs. Outside, a spray-painted banner reads “Justicia A La Clase Obrera” meaning “Justice for the Working Class.” Inside, a wood stove burns as they make coffee and cook tortillas and wait for someone to hear what they have to say.

“We are hungry. Our children are hungry,” Blanca Estella Moya, one of the fired workers, tells me. “You cannot live on these wages in Juarez.”

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In the Lexmark maquiladora, or factory, Moya made 112 pesos, or roughly six U.S. dollars, a day. Her shifts were nine-and-a-half hours long, her lawyer, Susana Prieto Terrazas, says. That’s about 39 cents an hour. That wage is a legal one in Mexico, but Terrazas argues it shouldn’t be.

“It’s not possible to live on these wages. It’s not human,” said Terrazas, who has dark, curly, dyed-red hair, and was wearing a plaid checkered blouse and jeans. “They are creating generations of slaves.”

It’s not just Lexmark: Workers at Mexican subsidiaries of FoxConn, Eaton, and CommScope in Juarez have all protested working conditions and compensation in recent months. Women tell of sexual harassment at the factories and of working multiple shifts to make ends meet. The devaluation of the peso has meant their money buys less than it once did. The protests come at an inopportune moment for Mexico. Many companies, especially automakers, are moving production to Mexico after deciding that the costs and logistical headaches of manufacturing in Asia are too great to bear. Mexico is trying to welcome them with open arms.

But workers, especially those on the border, aren’t making that easy.

“This is a historic thing that’s happening here. In 50 years, there hasn’t been this level of labor discontent,” says Oscar Martinez, a professor at the University of Arizona who spends time in Juarez and has written numerous books on the border, including Border People: Life and Society in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. “We could be seeing the beginning of a larger movement that spreads to other parts of Mexico and challenges the whole system that has been created for these multinationals.”

Susana Prieto Terrazas, in front of the Lexmark factory in Juarez (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

The protests come at an inopportune moment for the U.S. as well. When Congress gets around to debating the Trans Pacific Partnership, it will surely look at NAFTA and the promises that treaty made for American and Mexican workers. The situation of the workers in Juarez makes it clear that NAFTA didn’t improve conditions as promised, and implies that TPP won’t work, either, said Cathy Feingold, the director of the International Department at the AFL-CIO. In addition, with little hope for U.S. immigration reform, the U.S. will have to recognize that it creates its own migration problems by allowing companies to treat workers so poorly just across the border, she said. When workers can’t make a decent wage in their own country, they’ll try to cross the border, she said.

“You can’t have an economy that’s this out of whack. It’s just not good for business,” she said. “If you have a global economy that’s this unequal, you have insecurity, and you have people moving for better opportunities.”

Other factors may continue to draw attention to the issue in upcoming months. The pope is visiting Juarez on February 17th, and many hope he will speak there about economic inequality, and perhaps specifically about the factory workers. There are elections in Juarez and the state it sits in, Chihuahua, later this year, putting additional pressure on politicians to address the concerns of the 250,000 factory workers of Juarez.

“It’s this perfect moment for really highlighting the intersection of failed trade policies, increased poverty, and then migration on the border,” Feingold said.

​* * *

The maquiladoras, or border factories, have been around for more than 50 years. In 1965, after the U.S. ended the Bracero program, which had allowed Mexican laborers to work seasonally in the U.S., the Mexican government created the Border Industrialization Program. It essentially allowed foreign-owned (typically this meant American) companies to set up factories on the Mexican side of the border, import tariff-free raw goods for manufacturing and then export the finished products, employing low-cost Mexican workers along the way. The number of factories in border areas such as Juarez and Tijuana boomed in the 1980s, as U.S. companies facing wage competition from China saw Mexico as an easy option. There are now about 330 maquiladoras in Juarez alone, according to the Borderplex Alliance.

Maria Margarita Morta Dias and Georgina Cinta in Juarez (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

When NAFTA was ratified 1995, it opened the potential for companies to open factories anywhere in Mexico and still avoid tariffs, said Tony Payan, the director of the Mexico Center at Rice University. Regions across Mexico built up their roads, their airports, and their railways, and foreign companies began to realize that they could locate their factories throughout much of Mexico just as easily as they could on the border.  

That’s led to downward pressure on wages. Indeed, while workers in countries such as China, Brazil, and Russia have seen wage increases in recent years, Mexican workers have seen almost no change. In 2011, hourly wages in China surpassed those in Mexico; now they’re 40 percent higher, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

The Juarez workers have suffered the most as factories there competed with others throughout Mexico for business. The average monthly wage for production workers in Juarez was $422 a month in December of 2014, compared to $582 a month for all Mexican workers, according to a report from the Hunt Institute for Economic Competitiveness at the University of Texas at El Paso. But, while the wage for Juarez production workers was the lowest out of all the regions surveyed, the wage for managers was the highest, at $2,238 a month, compared to $2,045 for all Mexico, the Hunt Institute found.


Average Monthly Wages at Export-Oriented Manufacturing Firms in Juarez by Region, in U.S. Dollars


The wage disparity is likely because many managers in the Juarez maquiladoras live in El Paso, and thus require higher salaries, and also because factories needed to pay a premium to attract managers during a violent period between 2008 and 2011, when tens of thousands of people in the region were killed, said Patrick Schaefer, the director of the Hunt Institute. In addition, the Juarez/El Paso region, called Paseo del Norte, is traditionally a magnet for migrants from Mexico and Central America who are heading north for a better life, creating a pool of low-skilled workers who compete for manufacturing jobs.

“These are products produced by people who are a couple steps above wage slavery,” said Kathy Staudt, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who has worked with a binational workers group, the Social Justice Education Forum, which is advocating for the striking workers. “It should bother people who have a conscience, but I think too many people don’t care.”

The Lexmark workers decided to try and form a union because they wanted better working conditions. Blanca Estella Moya, for example, was responsible for putting metal parts in a plastic cartridge, a job that made her wrists sore and caused tendonitis, according to Terrazas. The machine she worked with constantly broke, she says, and supervisors were unsympathetic, expecting her to continue to produce 1,700 parts a day, even with a broken machine. The workers called one manager “The Dog” because of his record of sexual harassment, according to Terrazas.

Blanca Estella Moya (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

When coworkers asked Moya if she wanted to join a group advocating for better working conditions, she said she was interested. Her husband works in construction, and together they make about 28,000 pesos a month—about $1,500 dollars. Families in Juarez need about 58,000 a month in order to buy the basics to survive, Terrazas, the lawyer, says. Moya has five children, three of whom live with her, and she also provides for her grandson. Her family often needs to get loans just to pay the rent, and, like many other families working at the maquiladoras, they steal electricity and water because they can’t afford to pay for it.

At first, the company said orally that they would give workers the 35-cent raise they’d been asking for, Moya said. Then, they reneged on that, Terrazas, the lawyer said. When the workers came to her asking what they could do, she explained there was very little recourse. All they could do, she said, was join an independent union and try to advocate for better pay.

When I asked Lexmark about this version of events and other questions about wages and working conditions in Juarez, they insisted on getting written questions rather than talking on the phone. They then declined to answer most of the questions I sent.

“We meet or exceed the standards of all laws for manufacturing facilities in Juarez, Mexico,” Jerry Grasso, the vice president of corporate communications at Lexmark International wrote, in response to one question, the only of six that he agreed to answer. (He later followed up to answer another question about why the workers were fired by specifying that they were “let go for workplace disruption in our Juarez plant.”)

A 35-cent raise may seem like a pittance for a company with billions in revenue, but Lexmark may feel squeezed by falling profits. In October, the company reported lower-than-expected third-quarter earnings, which have fallen from $350 million in 2010 to $79 million in 2014, according to Lexmark’s annual report.

A representative for Foxconn gave a more detailed response, writing that Foxconn’s Mexican subsidiary pays wages that are “in excess of statutory requirements” and benefits that are competitive with peer businesses. It holds salary reviews and performance reviews frequently, according to a statement sent to me from a PR firm representing Foxconn Technology Group.

“It is unfortunate that a small number of the company’s employees have chosen to try to disrupt its operations to promote their personal agendas outside of the law and the approved and recognized company channels of communication,” the statement said.

* * *

Technically, there are unions in Mexico. But they’re not unions in the American sense of the word, according to Feingold, the AFL-CIO International director. Most so-called unions are what the AFL-CIO calls protection contracts, which are essentially collective-bargaining contracts signed between an employer and an employer-backed union, often without the knowledge of the workers. Only about 1 percent of the workforce in Mexico is organized in independent unions that give more of a voice than protection contracts, she said.

Protection contracts are hard to change because they are created between private companies and unions that purport to represent workers, Feingold said. Mexican labor laws protect the unions that sign the protection contracts, said Staudt, the UTEP professor, even if they don’t protect the workers.

At a meeting of labor ministers of the Americas in Cancun last month, Mexican representatives said they were interested in making sure that workers had better working conditions. But the government has not seemed interested in helping effect change for the Juarez workers, Terrazas said. On December 30, representing the workers, she went to the local labor authority, the Conciliation and Arbitration Board, and filled out the paperwork to form an independent union. The request was denied, she said, because the labor board said the workers did not establish the conditions needed for a union, such as an official union building and fundraising committee. The workers presented their position for a second time on January 2 and are now waiting for a second decision.

“We hope this will be a precedent for the people living in this country, that we will be a leader for wages,” another worker, Maria Margarita Morta Dias, said.

Workers in the makeshift shack outside Lexmark (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

Experts on the border region and on labor told me that they had little hope that the workers’ movement would succeed. Workers have had so few rights in Mexico for so long that there’s little reason for anything to change, they said. Especially now that factories in Juarez are facing more, rather than less, competition. After all, little changed in Mexico after a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigation unveiled widespread bribery at Walmart there, nor after international groups tried to draw attention to the hundreds of murders of women who had been working in the maquiladoras of Juarez. State and federal police are likely going to start harassing the protesters soon, these observers say, driving them underground.

Terrazas herself says there are signs that the government and the factories are colluding to punish agitators. The names of the workers who asked to form a union were supposed to be secret, she said, but after they submitted the petition, 90 workers were fired, 75 of whom had signed the petition. Lexmark employs between 2,700 and 3,000 workers at its Juarez plant, Terrazas said, a number the company would not confirm.

Still Terrazas and other advocates say there are a few things that are different this time. Some 700 workers in Juarez joined a “slowdown” at the factory, which Terrazas said prompted the firings and signaled widespread sympathy for the protesters. Workers in El Paso and Lexington, Kentucky, the home of Lexmark, have been staging rallies in solidarity with the Mexican maquiladora workers. The group has received donations and help from as far away as Geneva, and dozens of people across the border in El Paso have been listening and donating, she told me. The donations from abroad have made it possible for the workers to continue to stay outside the factory, despite the freezing temperatures and freezing rain. And other factories in Juarez have given workers small raises in the time the Lexmark workers have been protesting, she says. Even a supervisor who harassed workers has been fired since the workers started protesting, Terrazas said.

These workers seem uniquely determined to change something in their lives, she said. I met with four women in the shack outside the factory; when I asked how many of them had parents who worked in the maquiladoras, all four raised their hands. One woman had dropped out of school after second grade when her mother told her the family didn’t have enough money to pay for books and fees.

Torn posters in the workers’ protest shack (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

With Terrazas’s help, though, the workers seem aware that this kind of generational poverty does not have to continue. One of the earliest deciding battles of the Mexican Revolution began in Ciudad Juarez, Terrazas said. This could be the beginning of another radical campaign of change.

If globalization has made it possible for factories to locate across borders, after all, it has also made it possible for workers to unite across borders. The workers in Mexico join those in the U.S. in contesting the status quo, in which those at the bottom have so much less than those at the top.

“The main cause of all the revolutions in the world, historically, is when the people are hungry,” Terrazas said. “And the people are hungry now.”

Can the Planet Be Saved?


The two words “climate” and “change” are so routinely strung together that just saying them as a pair—“climate change”—seems to somehow obscure the full weight of the phenomenon they describe, to say nothing of its consequences. But in those moments when one pauses to consider the ramifications of human activity on the planet for generations and generations ahead, things can feel beyond bleak. And yet: This past year saw the nations of the world reached their first-ever agreement on an ambitious plan to rein in emissions, perhaps the most significant progress yet made on this issue.

We reached out to some of the leading scholars of climate change, conservation, and ecology, and asked them what, as the Earth begins yet another trip around the sun, is giving them cause for hope and despair. Below are their answers, lightly edited for length and clarity.


Robert Glennon, professor of law and public policy at the University of Arizona

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Reason for despair: I despair that we don’t consider water to be scarce or valuable. A century of lax water laws and regulations has spoiled most Americans. We turn on the tap and out comes as much water as we want for less than we pay for cable television or cellphone service. When most Americans think of water, they think of it as similar to air—as infinite and inexhaustible. In reality, it’s both finite and exhaustible.

Because we don’t respect water as remarkable, we use needless quantities for frivolous purposes, such as growing grass in the desert. And because we don’t pay the real cost of water (only the cost of the infrastructure to provide it), we remove the incentive to conserve. Perhaps most important, our innovation economy has encouraged engineers and inventors to create water-saving technologies that extend our supply; but the price of water is so low that few of them have viable business plans.

Reason for hope: We have a suite of options to confront the crisis and prevent it from becoming a catastrophe. These options include conservation, which remains the low-hanging fruit; reuse of treated municipal effluent; and desalination of ocean or brackish water. We can also price water sensibly to encourage conservation, while protecting access to water for persons of modest means. Finally, we can use the power of market forces to encourage a modest reallocation of water from low to higher-value uses. A low single-digit percent reduction in agricultural water consumption would solve the municipal and industrial water-supply problem. Modernization of farm irrigation systems, paid for by cities and industry, would protect the viability of rural communities and secure needed supplies for the urban sector.

None of these options requires a radical change in our behavior, but they will require the moral courage and the political will to act.


Margo Oge, former director of the Office of Transportation and Air Quality of the Environmental Protection Agency

Reason for despair: Climate change is the biggest challenge our planet faces. The science is clear, the risks are real, and the phenomenon’s impact on every part of our planet is increasingly visible. In mid-December, nearly 200 countries met in Paris to secure a historic agreement to reduce the impacts of the global threat. The negotiators for every single country involved have accepted that we need to take immediate and substantive action on this threat. Back at home, however, Congressional Republicans continued their decades of denial. In a symbolic rebuff of global urgency on the issue, both the House and Senate voted to repeal President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. By the time our legislators—a few hundred people—finally accept the overwhelming scientific evidence about the threat, I despair that time will have run out for future generations. I fear that killing, or endlessly delaying, the nation’s serious efforts to mitigate this threat will be catastrophic: rising seas swallowing island nations, floods wiping out towns and villages, unprecedented heat waves and drought destroying crops and lives, and even global instability that provokes wars.

Reason for hope: What gives me optimism is watching our country take a positive role in the Paris international-climate agreements after decades of foot dragging on the issue. When the United States leads, other countries follow. This means that the U.S. efforts to secure strong climate actions in Paris and at home will make a hugely positive impact globally on carbon emissions. The United States has, in fact, long been a leader on environmental technology innovation. In the 1970s, it was American car-emission standards that led to the development of catalytic convertors. These devices were the first to ever clean up the toxic soup coming out of cars’ tailpipes.

The rest of the world followed America. Today you can’t find a car without one.

After we banned leaded gas, Europe and the rest of the world came along. In 2009 we initiated another world-leading effort, regulations that will cut automotive carbon pollution in half as well as double the fuel efficiency of passenger vehicles by 2025. For decades, American environmental efforts have led to innovation, saved lives, and created jobs. As a result of these regulations, our car industry is today undergoing a technological and economic revolution. Our automakers are building the most fuel-efficient vehicle fleet in history and are already ahead on a trajectory to doubling fuel economy by 2025. The world needs the United States to continue and expand its technological leadership in mitigating climate change.


Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University

Reason for despair: One thing that brings me close to despair is the fact that, just in the West, we seemed to have turned a corner in regard to meat eating and factory farming—both are now on the decline—the resulting reduction in animal suffering and greenhouse gas emissions is being swamped by the growth in meat eating in China and other parts of Asia. Nevertheless, I don’t despair because the situation is not hopeless. As long as there is hope of change for the better, I’m too busy trying to bring about that change to lose myself in despair.

Reason for hope: More and more people are seeking fulfillment in their lives by turning away from the consumer lifestyle and instead living in accord with their values. The emerging movement known as effective altruism is one outcome of that, and it is having an impact. I’m encouraged by the tremendous progress made over the past 25 years in reducing extreme poverty and improving life expectancy worldwide. Infant mortality, for example, has been cut by more than half since 1990, despite rising population. If we continue to put more resources—our intelligence and our skills, as well as our money—into using reason and evidence to make the world a better place, then I am confident that we can make even more progress over the next 25 years.


Elizabeth Marino, assistant professor of anthropology​ at Oregon State Unviersity

Reason for despair: As an anthropologist working alongside indigenous communities in the United States, it’s hard not to see climate change as another wave of violence inherent in the colonial ideal. Colonized geographies like communities in Alaska, small nation states in the Pacific, and large nations in sub-Saharan Africa all share the heaviest burdens of a rapidly changing climate, all share vulnerabilities to those changes produced by unjust economic and political systems, and all are limited in social and cultural expression by the narrow-mindedness of what is deemed culturally acceptable by the “West.” These burdens are all part of climate injustice.

But even aside from this new form of colonial violence, I despair because, more than any other crisis, climate change needs alternative cultural models for framing problems and non-Western solutions.  Unfortunately, many accept as “natural” merely one set of ideas borne from very particular “Western” worldviews: the necessity of growth; monetary value as determinant of inherent value; the nature/culture dichotomy; competition as the driver of production; technological “fixes” as paramount. I despair when the solutions and rhetoric around climate-change mitigation and climate justice are embedded in these presuppositions; when the world stays narrow.

Reason for hope: The rest of the world is talking back. We see organizers using hashtags such as #pachamama, #indigenouscop21, #AOSIS, and #indigenousenvironmentalnetwork. We have growing innovative collaborations among scientists and Native American leaders and we see strong non-state-based international alliances, political organization, and advocacy by non-Western leaders. It’s going to be an interesting century.


Juliet B. Schor, professor of sociology at Boston College​

Reason for despair: Despair? Yes, it is there. Not because I don’t think that eventually we will have a low- or zero-carbon world. We will. But how can one not despair at the certain destruction we’ve already ensured with the warming and chaos that is now built in to the climate system? This month flooding in my husband’s home city of Chennai reached second floors, with more than 1.8 million people displaced. In one 24-hour period there was nearly 11 inches of rainfall. California remains in the grip of a powerful drought. It is 60 degrees in Boston, in  December, in what’s likely the world’s warmest recorded year, a distinction which may be eclipsed 12 months from now. All the while, the politics of hatred are rising, like the sea levels.

Reason for hope: COP21, the UN talks in Paris, ended with a degree of hope that is unprecedented in the world of climate. Despite the absence of a binding agreement or emissions promises that have any hope of avoiding catastrophe, there has been almost delirious optimism, even from many environmental activists. (Not from all, of course. James Hansen and Bill McKibben have been outspoken in their criticisms of the weaknesses of the treaty, and they’re right.)

But I find four major reasons to be hopeful. The first is that China is acting decisively to reduce emissions from coal. The second is that renewable energy is now an economically viable alternative to fossil fuels, and will be even more so if we can eliminate the $450 billion a year in subsidies for the dirty fuels. The third is that the fossil-fuel companies are without doubt on the defensive. From the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline to government investigations into Exxon’s cover up of its own climate research, the behavior of this industry is finally on view. True, it is still quite powerful in Congress, but the combination of science, economics, and exposure is sounding the industry’s death knell. As we’ve already seen with coal, I predict that oil and gas won’t survive the mounting pressure to “keep it in the ground.” And that brings me to my fourth reason for hope: the growth of a global grassroots movement for climate justice and ecological sanity. It has taken a long time for us to get here, but it’s now unstoppable.


Robin Bronen, executive director of the Alaska Institute for Justice and a senior research scientist at the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks​

Reason for despair: Living in Alaska, the only Arctic state in the United States, I am witnessing the fast-forward of geologic time. My despair increases as I watch Arctic ecosystems collapse. The recently negotiated Paris Climate Agreement includes aspirational language to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But in Alaska, winter temperatures have already increased 3.5 degrees Celsius since 1975. Ice and snow, iconic elements of the land and sea in the Arctic, are disappearing. The winter of 2014-2015 was the lowest snow season on record in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest urban center. Glaciers are losing 75 billion tons of ice annually. Arctic Ocean sea ice has decreased by 36 percent in the last three decades.   

For indigenous communities in Alaska, these changes are life-threatening. Kivalina, Shishmaref, and Newtok, are three of the most imperiled communities. Each has chosen to relocate as a long-term adaptation strategy because sea ice no longer protects their communities from hurricane-force storms that eat the land on which they live. In presentations to U.S. government agencies and Congress, Shishmaref residents plead:

The no action option for Shishmaref is the annihilation of our community …


We are unique, and need to be valued as a national treasure by the people of the United States. We deserve the attention and help of the American people and the federal government … Shishmaref, we are worth saving.

Due to intense and prolonged advocacy efforts, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and President Obama traveled to Alaska this past summer. Despite these visits, no community knows when or if it will be able to relocate to higher ground to protect their unique way of life and connection to the land of their ancestors. The gross injustice of their experience adds to my despair because those who have done the least to cause our climate crisis are bearing enormous losses. Their experience also shows that we are completely unprepared to respond to the humanitarian crisis which will be caused by rising seas forcing millions of people from their homes, their heritage, and the places they love.

Reason for hope: Solidarity—the recognition that all of humanity is connected to each other and to the Earth—gives me hope. This understanding that we are one people living on a shared homeland is embedded in the climate-justice movement.

The Arctic, the harbinger of dramatic environmental changes, reminds us of this connection. Decreased Arctic sea ice affects the polar jet stream and contributes to the drought in California and the epic flooding and snowfall events in lower latitudes. The melting of Greenland threatens coastal communities all over the world. More than 50 percent of Greenland was melting in July 2015. In protests across the planet, people are standing together, across countries, Indigenous nations, ethnicities, age, gender, and class to demand that our human rights be protected, that the Earth’s ecosystems be protected and that those least responsible for our climate crisis be provided the resources to adapt and protect their lives.


Gernot Wagner, senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund

Reason for despair: Climate change. It’s the perfect problem: more global, more long-term, more irreversible, and more uncertain that virtually any other public-policy problem facing us. Climate change is a lot worse than most of us realize. Almost regardless of what we do on the mitigation front, we are in for a whole lot of hurt.

On the policy front, we have now talked for more than 20 years about how we need to turn this ship around “within a decade.” Not unlike the ever-elusive fusion technology, that hasn’t happened yet. Global carbon emissions declined slightly this year—for the first time ever without a global recession—but the trends are still pointing in the wrong direction. Worse, turning around emissions is only the very first step. It’s not enough to stabilize the flow of water going into the bathtub when the goal is to prevent the tub from overflowing. We need to turn around atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. That means turning off the flow of water into the tub—getting net emissions to zero and below. It doesn’t help our efforts that many people seem to confuse the two. A study involving over 200 MIT graduate students faced with this same question revealed that even they confuse emissions and concentrations—water flowing into the tub and water levels there. If MIT graduate students can’t get this one right, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Reason for hope: Climate change. Many signs point to some real momentum to finally tackle this momentous challenge.

The Paris Climate Accord builds an important foundation. It enables transparency, accountability, and markets to help solve the problem. Many governments are moving forward with pricing carbon: from California to China, from Sweden to South Africa, we see ambitious action to reign in emissions in some 50 jurisdictions. Meanwhile, lots is happening on the clean-energy front. That’s particularly true for solar photovoltaic power, which has climbed up the learning curve—and down the cost curve—faster than most would have expected only five years ago. That has also provided an important jolt for sensible climate policy. Then there’s R&D for entirely new technologies. Bill Gates leading an investment coalition with $1 billion of his own money is only one important sign of movement in that direction. The excitement for self-driving, electric vehicles is palpable up and down Silicon Valley, to name just one potentially significant example. In the end, it’s precisely this mix of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and, of course, Washington that will lead—and, in part, is already leading—to the necessary revolution in a number of important sectors, energy and transportation chief among them.

Gender Equity Requires Laws to Change, Not Just Culture


Women’s inclusion in the workforce on a mass scale is relatively new. In 1950 only about one-third of women in the U.S. were active workers; by 2000, nearly two-thirds were. And while there’s still plenty of gender inequity in the workplace (the wage gap, parental-leave policies, the paltry number of women at the very top, etc.), women in many countries now enjoy more economic freedom and opportunity than their mothers and grandmothers.

Women’s labor-force participation doesn’t alone signify economic freedom, but it is one of the mechanisms by which women can build wealth and gain financial independence. A new report from the World Bank takes a look at the legal status of women around the world and finds that while there has been progress in many countries when it comes to making financial freedom more accessible, laws still exist that can make women especially economically vulnerable.

Legal barriers that restrict women’s opportunities to work are the most obvious culprits of gender inequality across the globe. In Russia, for instance, researchers found that women are legally barred from working 456 different (and pretty specific) jobs including woodworking and driving trucks that carry agricultural goods. Similar laws are also prevalent in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and North Africa. And while wealthier, more developed nations are less likely to have explicit legal prohibitions on women working, they do exist. Eight of 32 OECD high-income countries, including Israel, France, the Republic of Korea, and Japan, have laws that bar women from certain jobs. French law prohibits women moving loads that weigh more than 45 kilograms via a wheelbarrow. And in Argentina, women are barred from loading and unloading ships, the paper finds.

Similarly, the lack of government-sponsored paid maternity and paternity leave policies can also exacerbate gender inequalities within the workforce. The greater prevalence of paid maternity leave, rather than paternity leave, forces more women into primary care-taking roles and away from their careers. Forcing companies to decide on and pay for paid-leave options also plays a role in the cost analysis that firms do when hiring women of childbearing age. In some instances, this means that firms could be reticent to offer paid leave or even hesitate to hire women who are of childbearing age for specific roles. The countries with the least adequate parental-leave policies were Tonga, Suriname, Papua New Guinea, and the United States, according to the study.

It’s easy to see how limiting the job prospects of women can hamper their financial futures. But laws preventing women from working a variety of jobs are by no means the only method of holding women back economically. Laws that limit the ability of women to inherit or hold assets, especially property, can play a major role in economic insecurity. For example, in Ghana, inherited or gifted homes make up 30 percent of owner-occupied dwellings. That means that disabling or discouraging inheritance for women can put them in a precarious financial position, especially in the event that their husband or male family members die.

Conversely, empowering women’s inheritance can have a profound impact. The paper cites evidence from India’s 1994 reform effort of the Hindu Succession Act, which granted women the same rights to family inheritance as men. After the reform, women were more likely to have bank accounts, and parents invested more in the education of their female children—mothers in particular spent twice as much on their daughters’ education. There were other improvements too. After the reform the sanitation of home bathrooms improved, suggesting that the shift in the law gave women more power on the home front.

The Invisible Work That Women Do Around the World

Over the past 25 years, according to the United Nations, about 2 billion people have seen improvements in health care, sanitation, and job opportunities. That’s tremendous progress, but, as UN researchers note in a new report, paying attention to how those jobs are divvied up and compensated is important, especially from the perspective of making sure that poor and marginalized groups are getting their fair share.

Women, in particular, are continually excluded from some of these economic improvements. For the most part, the work associated with everyday life, such as cooking, cleaning, and looking after children, continues to fall to women. In poorer nations, these time-consuming (and uncompensated) tasks can include long journeys to gather water or firewood, but similar gender gaps are prevalent in developed nations, too. In the U.S., where the division of labor has moved toward equality in the past 50 years, women still perform several hours of unpaid labor every week in the form of care taking or housekeeping. “Women work more than men, even if a large part is relatively invisible,” the report concludes.

In total, the UN finds, women do three out of every four hours of unpaid labor, while men do two-thirds of work that is paid. And, by and large, women are more likely to be employed in more vulnerable and tenuous occupations than men, working informal jobs where they can be taken advantage of or dismissed without legal protections. (Even when women do get paid for their labor, they aren’t making as much as men: Globally, women’s wages are on average 24 percent less than men’s.)

The Next Economy


This uneven division of labor dictates the economic opportunities of women of all nationalities and socioeconomic groups, according to Selim Jahan, the author of the UN report. “Earnings make for economic independence, a critical factor towards individual autonomy, voice, and agency in households and the community,” he writes. “An unequal distribution of care responsibilities in the household may require one parent to take time off more frequently than the other, reducing the former parent’s current and prospective earnings and perpetuating divergences.”

This divide is only going to become a more significant problem as some countries’ populations, including the U.S.’s, China’s, and Japan’s, get older, and women are expected to care not just for their children but for their aging parents as well. The professional ramifications for women are many; they could see their working years and earnings truncated even further.


The UN offers a few suggestions for how to make sure that women are accessing new economic gains at the rate that men are—and they’re all familiar. The report says that increasing paid parental leave for both men and women—an area where U.S. policy lags that of all other developed nations—could play a big role in advancing labor equality between the sexes. It also recommends that men take on more of the unpaid labor that women are spending so much time on. Additionally, making sure that women are paid equally for doing the same jobs as men would enable some households to hire caregivers, such as nurses, babysitters, and part-time aides—something that would simultaneously boost the economic stations of both the working woman and her hired replacements.

There Won’t Be a Keystone XL Pipeline

President Obama has rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, killing the long-stalled project to bring oil from the Canadian tar sands to Texas.

“The State Department has decided that the Keystone XL pipeline would not serve the national interests of the United States,” Obama said. “I agree.”  

The announcement, during which the president was flanked by John Kerry, his secretary of state, and Vice President Joe Biden, is the culmination of years of debate—much of it rancorous—over the Canadian company TransCanada’s proposed 1,661-mile pipeline. On Thursday, the State Department rejected TransCanada’s request to put a review of the project on hold until a dispute in Nebraska over the project’s proposed route was resolved.

The State Department, which had final say because the project crossed an international border, had been reviewing the pipeline for more than six years, working to determine whether it was in the national interest. Congressional Republicans had tried—unsuccessfully—this year to circumvent that process and grant the project a permit immediately. Friday’s decision effectively kills all those efforts.

Environmentalists, some landowners in Nebraska, and liberal Democrats had long opposed the project, arguing the negative environmental impact outweighed any positive contribution. But supporters of the project—including politicians from both parties, some unions, and energy companies—said the pipeline would create jobs and reduce U.S. dependence of oil from the Middle East. (You can read about the debate here.) Both those arguments have been eroded since the project was first proposed: The price of oil is at multi-year lows amid a supply glut, and the U.S. is now one of its top producers. Add to those factors Friday’s jobs numbers: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the U.S. added 271,000 jobs last month far higher than 180,000 figure estimated by economists. The unemployment rate held steady at 5 percent.

Obama’s announcement is likely to have an impact on the presidential race. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, had already come out against it, as has her main rival, Bernie Sanders. The Republican candidates support the project.