Protests in Tunisia Spur Government to Pledge Aid to Poor

Tunisia plans to increase aid for poor families by $70.3 million, after nearly a week of protests over austerity measures, an official said Saturday.

“This will concern about 250,000 families,” Mohamed Trabelsi, minister of social affairs, said. “It will help the poor and middle class.”

President Beji Caid Essebsi was also scheduled to visit the poor district of Ettadhamen in the capital, Tunis, which was hit by protests.

Essebsi was set to give a speech and open a cultural center, Reuters reported. It was to be the president’s first visit to the district.

Several hundred protesters took to the streets Saturday in Sidi Bouzid, where a 2011 uprising began, touching off the Arab Spring protests. And on Friday, protesters in cities and towns across the country waved yellow cards — a warning sign to the government — and brandished loaves of bread, a symbol of the day-to-day struggle to afford basic goods.

Anger has been growing since the government introduced price hikes earlier this month, which came atop already soaring inflation.

WATCH: Protests Erupt Again in Tunisia, Cradle of 2011 Arab Spring

Since Monday, security forces have been deployed in Tunis and across the country. Several hundred people have been arrested, including opposition politicians, while dozens have been injured in clashes with police. A 55-year-old man died earlier this week, though the circumstances of his death remained unclear.

The scenes of protest are reminiscent of January 2011, when demonstrations swept across the country, eventually toppling dictator Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali before spreading across the region.

“Why did we do the revolution? For jobs, for freedom and for dignity. We obtained freedom, sure — but we’re going hungry,” unemployed protester Walid Bejaoui said Friday.

One of the main protest organizations is using the Arabic social media hashtag “Fesh Nestannew?” or “What Are We Waiting For?” The group is urging a return to the spirit of the 2011 revolt.

“We believe a dialogue is still possible and reforms are still possible. The yellow card is to say, ‘Attention: Today we have the same demands that we have been having for years. It’s time to tackle the real problems, the economic crisis, the high cost of living,’ ” said Henda Chennaoui, a Fesh Nestannew protester.

The government enacted a new law this month raising taxes to try to cut the deficit, a move largely driven by Tunisia’s obligations to its international creditors, said analyst Max Gallien of the London School of Economics.

“I think that this government feels that its ability to make its own economic policy or its ability to roll back these austerity reforms is very much limited by the demands of international financial institutions,” he said, “primarily the IMF,” or International Monetary Fund.

The government has condemned the violence but pledged to listen to the protesters.

“No matter what the government undertakes, its top priority — even during tough decisions — is improving the economic and social conditions of the people,” Prime Minister Youssef Chahed told reporters Thursday.

So could the region witness a repeat of 2011, with the protests gaining momentum?

“We’re looking at a different region now. But at the same time, there are similarities: the issue of austerity, of socioeconomic nationalization, of corruption and predation by elites,” analyst Gallien said.

The Tunisian government’s task is to address those deep-rooted problems before the protests spin out of control.


Report: Traffic Fatalities Hold Back Developing Economies

Deadly traffic accidents are more than just individual tragedies. They’re a drag on economic growth in developing countries, according to a new World Bank report.

The study is among the first to show that investing in road safety in low- and middle-income countries would raise national incomes.

Ninety percent of the world’s annual 1.25 million traffic deaths happen in the developing world. The World Health Organization says traffic accidents are the leading cause of death worldwide for people between 15 to 29 years old. That includes crashes that kill pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists.

But the issue does not get much official attention, according to World Bank transportation expert Dipan Bose.

“There is not a lot of political will in many low and middle income countries to take definitive actions to reduce road deaths and injuries,” he said.

Bose co-authored a study focused on five countries: China, India, Thailand, the Philippines and Tanzania. The authors used economic models to estimate what each country’s overall economy would gain over a 24-year period by cutting traffic deaths in half.

“The results were quite startling,” he said.

Thailand would see a 22 percent boost to national income. The country’s high rates of both economic growth and traffic accidents meant it had the most to gain.  

Tanzania would gain seven percent. The other countries fell in between.

These kinds of economic gains are “something which no national government can ignore,” Bose said. The report “gives the economic story of why it is important to take strong actions on road safety.”

Enforcing speed limits, helmet and seat belt laws and cutting down on drunk driving are “low-hanging fruit” to reduce traffic injuries, the report says.

Not only drivers at fault

But drivers are only partly responsible for traffic deaths, according to a separate report co-authored by the World Bank and the World Resources Institute. City planners and government officials are responsible for building safety into the transportation system.

“If the system’s not safe – if people don’t have the opportunity to cross the road safely, or drive in a safe vehicle – then a small error can result in a fatality,” said report co-author Anna Bray Sharpin at the World Resources Institute. “And that should not be the case.”

For example, she said, “many cities have applied highway design guidelines even to their city streets.” Wide, multi-lane boulevards are designed for “maximum traffic flow and speed,” but not for cyclists or pedestrians.

“People tend to take risks to try and cross the road,” she said. “And that comes back to this issue of whether this is a personal responsibility, or a co-responsibility between governments and planners and people using the road.”

The report offers guidance for incorporating safety into road design. Public transit, walking and biking lower the number of cars on the road and the number of accidents. Installing sidewalks, raised crosswalks and protected cycle lanes helps keep these road users out of harm’s way. On rural roads, median barriers can reduce head-on collisions.

Bray Sharpin notes that many developing countries are currently planning major road infrastructure projects.

“There’s a window of opportunity now to integrate safety into their planning,” she said. It’s much cheaper than trying to retrofit it later. Plus, once these roads are built, they’ll be around for decades.

If they don’t build in safety now, she added, they will be “locked into their dangerous infrastructure for the very long term.”


Awash in Corn, Soybeans, US Farmers Focus on Trade Deals

For Illinois farmer Garry Niemeyer, it’s a slow time of year, spent indoors fixing equipment, not outdoors tending his fields, which now lie empty.

All of his corn and soybeans were harvested in what has turned out to be a good year.

“This is the largest amount of corn we’ve had ever,” he said.

And this bounty is not limited to Niemeyer’s farm. It can be seen throughout the United States.

“We’re talking 14½ billion bushels of corn,” Niemeyer told VOA. “That’s a lot of production.”

WATCH: Awash in Corn, Soybeans, US Farmers Focus on Trade Deals

Piles of corn, soybeans

That production is easy to see at nearby elevators, where large piles of corn under white plastic wrap extend into the sky. There is more corn and soybeans than existing storage facilities can hold.

“You can drive by just about any elevator out here in the country and see some pretty large piles of corn that are covered outside of the bins,” said Mark Gebhards, executive director of Governmental Affairs and Commodities for the Illinois Farm Bureau. “That is a direct result of a lot of carry-over from last year; i.e., we need to move this and create market demand to get the product moving.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports record harvests of corn and soybeans in the United States in 2017, with stocks overflowing at elevators and storage bins across the country.

In Illinois, Gebhards notes that up to half of the state’s corn supply, and even more soybeans, will eventually reach foreign shores.

“Usually we say every other row of beans is going into the export market,” Gebhards said.

But Niemeyer wants even more of his crop to find a market overseas.

“We have overproduced for our domestic market,” he told VOA. “Our profits will lie in the amount of exports we are able to secure in the future.”

​The NAFTA question

Which is why the Illinois farmer is looking for some indication from U.S. President Donald Trump on the current efforts to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.

“NAFTA is huge,” Niemeyer said. “NAFTA consumes $43 billion worth of our crops and livestock and other things we exported out of this country in 2016.”

Niemeyer is pleased with Trump’s efforts to roll back environmental regulations and institute tax reform. But there was little hint of NAFTA’s fate during Trump’s Jan. 8 speech to the American Farm Bureau Federation Convention in Nashville, Tennessee.

“If anything was maybe left as an area of concern, it’s still what’s going to happen to that trade agreement,” said Gebhards, who warns the U.S. withdrawing from NAFTA could impact prices.

“On the livestock side, it’s estimated you would see $18 per hog or $71 per cow if we were to withdraw. It’s estimated that we would see potentially a $0.30 per bushel decrease in the corn price and $0.15 on the soybean side.”

Prices are a factor growers like Niemeyer maintain a close watch on.

“(The) price of corn is about $3.30 a bushel, so $3 corn, it’s hard to make anything work, even with a large yield,” which, Niemeyer said, is why many farmers are holding on to what they have.

“Everybody’s sitting still, that’s the reason you aren’t seeing much corn move right today because the price has done absolutely nothing,” he said.

Niemeyer wants a final NAFTA agreement soon, so negotiators can focus on new trade agreements that could help create more demand, improve prices and ultimately move the supply that has piled up in the U.S.

Gebhards said the world is watching the negotiations for clues on how reliable the U.S. is as a trading partner under Trump.

“It’s a short term issue for us not to lose ground as we try to renegotiate NAFTA,” Gebhards said. “But I think the long term is what kind of a signal do you send as a reliable trading partner to the rest of the world that if you enter into this agreement with the United States you know that you will be able to get that product that you’ve agreed to buy.”

Trump has recently suggested a deadline extension for modernizing NAFTA, which means the uncertainty for farmers like Niemeyer could extend into March or April, when he is preparing to put a new crop in the ground.


Protests Erupt Again in Tunisia, Cradle of 2011 Arab Spring

Protesters took to the streets in towns and cities across Tunisia for a fourth day Friday, as anger grows over price hikes introduced by the government. Demonstrations in 2011 in Tunisia grew into the revolution that overthrew the government and triggered a wave of uprisings across the Arab world. Seven years on, the dictatorship may have gone but, as Henry Ridgwell reports, lingering social and economic problems are driving the anger, raising the prospect that the unrest could spread.


No Pedal to Metal in GM’s Planned Self-driving Cruise AV Car

General Motors Co is seeking U.S. government approval for a fully autonomous car — one without a steering wheel, brake pedal or accelerator pedal — to enter the automaker’s first commercial ride-sharing fleet in 2019, executives said.

For passengers who cannot open doors, the Cruise AV — a rebranded version of GM’s Chevrolet Bolt EV — has even been designed to perform that task. It will have other accommodations for hearing and visually impaired customers.

This will be one of the first self-driving vehicles in commercial passenger service and among the first to do away with manual controls for steering, brakes and throttle. What is the driver’s seat in the Bolt EV will become the front left passenger seat in the Cruise AV, GM said.

Company President Dan Ammann told reporters GM had filed on Thursday for government approval to deploy the “first production-ready vehicle designed from the start without a steering wheel, pedals or other unnecessary manual controls.”

GM is part of a growing throng of vehicle manufacturers, technology companies and tech startups seeking to develop so-called robo-taxis over the next three years in North America, Europe and Asia. Most of those companies have one or more partners.

On Friday, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration confirmed GM had petitioned for approval to operate up to 2,500 vehicles without steering wheels or human drivers.

 “Safety is the [Transportation] department’s top priority. The department will review this petition and give it careful consideration,” the agency said in a statement.

Ford Motor Co said on Tuesday it will partner with delivery service Postmates Inc as the automaker starts testing ways to transport people, food and packages this spring in its self-driving cars, which are being developed by Ford’s Argo unit.

Other companies, from Uber Technologies Inc to Alphabet Inc’s Waymo, have been testing self-driving vehicle prototypes in limited ride-sharing applications, but have been less explicit than GM in announcing plans for commercial robo-taxi services.

GM executives said the automaker has asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to allow 16 alterations to existing vehicle safety rules — such as having an airbag in what would normally be the driver’s seat, but without a steering wheel — to enable the deployment of the Cruise AV.

The automaker would then need to obtain similar approval from individual U.S. states. GM executives said seven U.S. states already allow the alterations sought by the automaker.

In other states — including those that stipulate a car must have a licensed human driver — GM will work with regulators to change or get a waiver from existing rules.

The company declined to identify the first states in which it plans to launch the vehicle or say when it would begin testing.

GM wants to control its own self-driving fleet partly because of the tremendous revenue potential it sees in selling related services, from e-commerce to infotainment, to consumers riding in those vehicles.

At a Nov. 30 briefing in San Francisco, GM’s Ammann told investors the lifetime revenue generation of one of its self-driving cars could eventually be “several hundred thousands of dollars.” That compares with the $30,000 on average that GM collects today for one of its vehicles, mostly derived from the initial sale.

GM’s Cruise AV is equipped with the automaker’s fourth-generation self-driving software and hardware, including 21 radars, 16 cameras and five lidars — sensing devices that use laser light to help autonomous cars “see” nearby objects and obstacles.

The Cruise AV will be able to operate in hands-free mode only in premapped urban areas.

GM’s prototype self-driving vehicles have been developed in San Francisco by Cruise Automation, the onetime startup that GM acquired in March 2016 for a reported $1 billion.


Transit Shutdown in Greece as Unions Strike for Right to Strike

The Athens subway came to a standstill Friday as Greeks protested new reforms that parliament is set to approve Jan. 15 in return for bailout funds, including restrictions on the right to strike.

In the first major industrial upheaval of 2018, the shutdown of the Athens metro, used by about 938,000 commuters daily, caused traffic gridlock in the city of 3.8 million people.

Ships were unable to sail as workers went on strike and state-run hospitals had to rely on reserve staff as doctors walked off the job. More work stoppages were expected Monday.

The bill pending approval in parliament Monday would reduce family benefits, introduce a new process for foreclosures on overdue loans and make it harder to call a strike.

It has outraged many Greeks, who have seen living conditions and incomes plummet since the country first sought international aid to stave off bankruptcy in 2010, and required another two bailouts thereafter.

Rule changes

At present, unions can call strikes with the support of one-third of their members. The new law would raise that to just more than 50 percent, which creditors hope would limit the frequency of strikes and improve productivity that lags about 20 percent behind the EU average.

PAME, a communist-affiliated union, was scheduled to hold a demonstration in central Athens at midday (1000 GMT) Friday.

“Blood was shed by generations which came before us to have the right to strike. Now a so-called left wing government is trying to abolish it,” said Nicos Papageorgiou, a 50-year-old hotel worker.

Syriza, the dominant party in the government elected in 2015, has its roots in left-wing labor activism.

Papageorgiou and about 200 other PAME members rallied outside the finance ministry Thursday evening. Earlier in the week, there were angry scenes when some union members burst into the labor ministry, demanding the government rescind the bill.

ADEDY, the largest union of public-sector workers, scheduled a work stoppage for Monday.

The government says it needs the reforms to receive tranches of bailout aid. The latest bailout, worth up to 86 billion euros ($104 billion), expires in August. So far Greece has received 40.2 billion euros, and a new tranche is expected to be worth around 4.5 billion euros.


As Sanctions Bite, China Trade With North Korea Plummets

China’s trade with North Korea plunged 50 percent in December as U.N. sanctions imposed over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development tightened, the government reported Friday.


China accounts for nearly all of the isolated North’s trade and energy supplies. Beijing has imposed limits on oil sales and cut deeply into the North’s foreign revenue by ordering North Korean businesses in China to close, sending home migrant workers and banning purchases of its coal, textiles, seafood and other exports.


Imports from the North shrank 81.6 percent to $54 million in December while exports to the isolated, impoverished country contracted 23.4 percent to $260 million, said a spokesman for the Chinese customs agency, Huang Songping.

UN sanctions 

The U.N. Security Council has steadily tightened trade restrictions as leader Kim Jong Un’s government pressed ahead with nuclear and missile development in defiance of foreign pressure.


Beijing was long Pyongyang’s diplomatic protector but has supported the U.N. sanctions out of frustration with what Chinese leaders see as their neighbor’s increasingly reckless behavior.


Despite the loss of almost all trade, the impoverished North has pressed ahead with weapons development that Kim’s regime sees as necessary for its survival in the face of U.S. pressure.

China has steadily increased economic pressure on Pyongyang while calling for dialogue to defuse the increasingly acrimonious dispute with U.S. President Donald Trump’s government.

Pressure, but not too much

Analysts see North Korea’s need for Chinese oil as the most powerful economic leverage against Pyongyang. But Chinese leaders have warned against taking drastic measures that might destabilize Kim’s government or send a wave of refugees fleeing into China.


Chinese leaders have resisted previous U.S. demands for an outright oil embargo but went along with the latest limits.


Under restrictions announced Jan. 5, Chinese companies are allowed to export no more than 4 million barrels of oil and 500,000 barrels of refined petroleum products to the North per year. They are barred from supplying its military or weapons programs.


Chinese officials complain their country bears the cost of enforcement, which they say has hurt businesses in its northeast.


Fiat Chrysler to Invest $1 Billion in Michigan Plant, Add 2,500 Jobs

Fiat Chrysler Automobile said on Thursday it will shift production of Ram heavy-duty pickup trucks from Mexico to Michigan in 2020, a move that lowers the risk to the automaker’s profit should President Donald Trump pull the United States out of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Fiat Chrysler said it would create 2,500 jobs at a factory in Warren, Michigan, near Detroit and invest $1 billion in the facility. The Mexican plant will be “repurposed to produce future commercial vehicles” for sale global markets. Mexico has free trade agreements with numerous countries.

Fiat Chrysler Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne a year ago raised the possibility that the automaker would move production of its heavy-duty pickups to the United States, saying U.S. tax and trade policy would influence the decision.

If the United States exits NAFTA, it could mean that automakers would pay a 25 percent duty on pickup trucks assembled in Mexico and shipped to the United States. About 90 percent of the Ram heavy-duty pickups made at Fiat Chrysler’s Saltillo plant in Mexico are sold in the United States or Canada, company officials said.

Negotiators for the United States, Mexico and Canada are scheduled to meet later this month for another round of talks on revising NAFTA. Canadian government officials earlier this week said they are convinced that Trump intends to announce his intention to quit the agreement.

Trump has threatened to force the rollback of NAFTA, which enables the free flow of goods made in the United States, Canada and Mexico across the borders of those countries.

He also has criticized automakers for moving jobs and investment in new manufacturing facilities to Mexico and prodded them to add more auto production in the United States.

On Wednesday, Toyota Motor Corp and Mazda Motor Corp announced they would build a new $1.6 billion joint venture auto assembly plant in Alabama, drawing praise from Trump.

Vice President Mike Pence praised Fiat Chrysler’s announcement. “Manufacturing is back. Great announcement. Proof that this admin’s AMERICA FIRST policies are WORKING!” Pence said in a Twitter posting.

Chrysler raised its output in Mexico by 39 percent in 2017 to 639,000 vehicles, according to Mexican government data. That made Fiat Chrysler the third-largest producer of vehicles in Mexico in 2017, after Nissan Motor Co and General Motors Co.

The United States and Canada are the principal markets for full-size heavy-duty pickup trucks, most of which are produced in the United States by FCA, GM, Ford Motor Co, Toyota Motor Corp and Nissan Motor Co.

Miguel Ceballos, FCA spokesman for Mexico, said the company in 2018 and 2019 expects more growth in Mexico, and the moment it stops producing the Ram Heavy Duty pickups it will start to produce the new commercial vehicle, “which still does not have a name,” Ceballos said.

“It is going to be for global distribution, at the moment the Ram is only distributed at the level of NAFTA,” he said. Ceballos said there was no current plan to either reduce or grow the workforce in Mexico.

GM has been readying a plant in Silao, Mexico, to build a new generation of large pickup trucks.

FCA on Thursday said it also would make a special bonus payment of $2,000 to about 60,000 FCA hourly and salaried employees in the United States totaling about $120 million.

Typically, U.S. automakers only pay bonuses to hourly workers as part of collective bargaining agreements.


Samsung Targeted by French Lawsuit Amid Alleged Labor Abuse

Two French rights groups have filed a lawsuit against electronics giant Samsung, accusing it of misleading advertising because of alleged labor abuses at factories in China and South Korea.

It’s the latest labor challenge to Seoul-based Samsung, which has faced growing health complaints from workers in recent years, even as profits soar thanks to its blockbuster semiconductor business.


The unusual lawsuit filed Thursday in Paris court by groups Sherpa and ActionAid France names Samsung Global in Seoul and its French subsidiary. It is now up to the court to decide whether to take up the case.


It accuses Samsung of “deceptive trade practices,” based on documents from China Labor Watch and others alleging violations including exploitation of children, excessive working hours and use of dangerous equipment and gases.


Samsung did not immediately comment. On its website, it says it maintains “a world-class environment, safety and health infrastructure and rigorous standards to safeguard our employees’ well-being.”


The lawsuit is part of larger efforts by rights groups to use French courts to hold multinationals to account for alleged wrongdoing, and to push for an international treaty against corporate abuses.


The groups argue that French consumers were among those deceived by Samsung’s pledges of ethical treatment of workers, and therefore French courts can rule in the case. But they want to call attention to the problem beyond French borders.


“We hope to make things evolve not only in France but on an international level,” said Marie-Laure Guislain, legal director for Sherpa.


“It’s not just about Samsung,” she told The Associated Press. “It’s the rights of workers under question.”


China Labor Watch has published several reports on child labor at Samsung suppliers in China based on years of undercover investigations. The New York-based nonprofit has long investigated working conditions at suppliers to some of the world’s best-known companies including Walt Disney Co. and Apple Inc.


In South Korea, where Samsung is a national icon, courts recently have begun to rule in favor of workers believed sickened by chemicals used in manufacturing. Many former Samsung workers have sought compensation or financial aid from the government or from Samsung for a possible occupational disease.


Samsung also is recovering from a management crisis, after its de facto leader Lee Jae-yong was sentenced to prison for bribery and other charges, and the departure of the heads of its semiconductor, mobile business and TV divisions.





London Mayor: ‘No Deal’ Brexit Could Cost Britain about 500,000 Jobs

Britain could lose almost 500,000 jobs and 50 billion pounds ($67.41 billion) investment over the next 12 years if it fails to agree a trade deal with the European Union, according a report commissioned by London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

Cambridge Econometrics, an economics consultancy, looked at five different Brexit scenarios, from the hardest to the softest form of Brexit, and broke down the economic impact on nine industries, from construction to finance.

The study said that in a no-deal scenario, the industry that fares the worst will be financial and professional services, with as many as 119,000 fewer jobs nationwide.

“If the Government continue to mishandle the negotiations we could be heading for a lost decade of lower growth and lower employment,” Khan said. “Ministers are fast running out of time to turn the negotiations around.”

Britain and the EU will soon begin the much harder task of defining their future trading relationship, after settling the broad terms of their divorce settlement last month.

A stand-off between Britain and the EU over the future access to single market for London’s vast financial services industry is shaping up to be one of the key Brexit battlegrounds before Britain is due to leave the bloc in March 2019.