Category Archives: Business

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App-Based Delivery Men Highlight India’s Growing Gig Economy

Suraj Nachre works long hours and regularly misses meals but he treasures his job as a driver for a food delivery startup — working in a booming industry that highlights India’s expanding apps-based gig-economy.

The 26-year-old is one of hundreds of thousands of young Indians who, armed with their smartphones and motorcycles, courier dinners to offices and homes ordered at the swipe of a finger.

A surge in the popularity of food-ordering apps like Uber Eats and Swiggy provides a welcome source of income for many as India’s unemployment rate sits at a reported 45-year high.

But they also shine a spotlight on the prevalence of short-term contracts in the economy, raising questions about workers’ rights and conditions and the long-term viability of the jobs.

“(These delivery workers) are treated as independent contractors so labor laws governing employees are not applicable and they lack job security,” Gautam Ghosh, a human resources consultant, told AFP.

“While jobs created by food delivery apps are crucial, they may not exist in 10 years so for the majority of youngsters they are a stopgap arrangement,” he added.

India’s army of food delivery drivers, mostly men but some women too, became a talking point on social media late last year when a rider for the Zomato platform was filmed sampling a customer’s order.

The video, apparently shot on a mobile phone, showed the man taking bites from several food parcels before wrapping them again. It sparked anger online and he was promptly sacked.

Rushing around

Many internet users rallied to his defense, however. They insisted that the two-minute clip showed he was hungry and desperate, and said Zomato had acted harshly in dismissing him.

“It is a challenging job,” said Nachre, expressing sympathy for the unnamed delivery man who was working in the southern city of Madurai before being fired.

“We work 12 hours straight in soaring heat and heavy rains. Sometimes I don’t even have time to eat,” he added.

Nachre drives for the Scootsy platform. He leaves home at 9:00 am and does not return until after 1:00 am. Navigating Mumbai’s abysmal traffic makes work stressful, he says. 

“We’re always in a rush to deliver and customers keep calling us. We know we have to be on our toes all the time or customers might complain and we may lose our jobs,” Nachre told AFP.

India’s food delivery apps, backed by major international investment, are offering new avenues of employment for Indian youngsters who lack higher education but possess a driving license.

Their importance to the likes of Nachre was highlighted recently when a leaked government report said India’s unemployment rate was 6.1 percent in 2017-18, the highest since the 1970s.

“This job is lucrative,” said Nachre, who has no post-school qualifications and earns a minimum of 18,000 rupees ($253) a month. 

In his previous job running errands at an office he made only 8,000 rupees.

The app-based food delivery industry is worth an estimated $7 billion to Asia’s third-largest economy, according to market research firm Statista, and is expanding rapidly.

Swiggy announced at the end of last year that it had received $1 billion in funding from foreign backers including South Africa’s Naspers and China’s Tencent.

Foreign investment

That put the valuation of the five-year-old company, headquartered in Bangalore, at more than $3 billion.

Zomato, Swiggy’s nearest challenger for market dominance, is being aggressively backed by Alibaba’s Ant Financial. The Chinese giant recently pumped in $210 million, valuing the Delhi-based startup at $2 billion. 

The food delivery platforms are soaring as India’s growing middle classes take advantage of better smartphone connectivity and cheap data plans that are fueling a gig economy centered on technology.

Informal, casual labor has long been the bedrock of India’s economy but now Indians can access a host of services on their phones from hiring a rickshaw to booking a plumber or yoga teacher.

FlexingIt, a global consulting agency, estimates the country’s gig economy has the potential to grow up to $30 billion by 2025.

Analysts say it is time the government started to regulate the sector.

“There is no regulator overlooking this sector. Working conditions definitely need to get better for these workers,” Anurag Mahur, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers told AFP.

Thirty-year-old Tushar Khandagale, who delivers for Zomato, is the sole breadwinner in his family.

With millions of youngsters entering India’s workforce every year and looking for a job, Khandagale would relish a long-term contract that offered him some security.

“I hope to stay in this job. It pays well and my family depend on me,” he said.

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Peru Launches ‘Sustained’ Crack-down on Illegal Mining in Amazon

Peru on Tuesday launched a new, “sustained” effort to uproot illegal gold mining in one of the Amazon’s most biodiverse corners, sending 1,500 police and military officers to the region after deforestation from wildcat mining hit a new high last year.

The government of President Martin Vizcarra said it was suspending civil liberties and tasking the armed forces with restoring the rule of law in districts rife with illegal mining in Madre de Dios, or Mother of God, a low-lying rainforest region known for its high biodiversity, carbon-rich forests and indigenous tribes that shun contact with outsiders.

The state of emergency will be in place for 60 days, the defense ministry added in a statement.

The operation got off to a rough start, with two police officers and a prosecutor killed when a bus transporting security forces flipped over, the interior ministry said.

If successful, the operation would mark the first time Peru has been able to stop an illegal industry responsible for releasing tons of mercury into the environment as well as supporting sex trafficking and child labor in mining camps.

The crackdown might also impact the production and shipment of gold from Peru, the world’s sixth-largest producer, as illegal ore often makes its way into the legal supply chain through middlemen and shell companies. Previous crack-downs in Madre de Dios have spawned contraband smuggling into Bolivia.

High gold prices during the 2009-2010 global financial crisis fueled an illegal gold rush in Madre de Dios that has continued to expand.

“It’s been growing for better part of a decade,” said Luis Fernandez, a Wake Forest University ecologist who has been studying the issue since 2007.

“In every town there are little shops that buy gold from miners that emit levels of mercury from coal-fired power plants,” Fernandez said. “We’re just starting to learn what the impacts will be on the population.”

Wildcat miners in Madre de Dios are often tipped off about government plans to destroy illegal mining camps in the jungle, allowing them to hide expensive machinery and flee. They then regroup once security forces leave the region.

Environmentalists say criminal groups that finance the mining are now better organized and more violent than ever.

In 2018, deforestation from wildcat mining in southern Peru, where Madre de Dios is located, peaked at 9,280 hectares (22,931 acres), topping the previous high of 9,160 hectares in 2017, according to a January report by Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), which uses satellite images to track deforestation for the NGO Amazon Conservation.

The defense ministry said the current operation, which it dubbed “Mercury 2019,” will be an “unprecedented” and “sustained” crackdown on illegal mining. Three temporary military bases with 100 military officers in each are being set up in the region to oversee efforts, it said.

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US, China to Begin Third Round of Trade, Economic Talks

Negotiators from China and the United States will resume talks this week to resolve the ongoing trade war between the world’s biggest economies.

The White House says a third round of negotiations will take place Tuesday and Wednesday in Washington between lower-level deputies before moving on to senior-level talks beginning Thursday. The statement said the talks will focus on “achieving needed structural changes in China that affect trade” between the United States and China. 

Washington has long complained that Beijing forces U.S. companies to transfer their technology advances to Chinese firms, and that it limits access to China’s vast market. The Trump administration has imposed punitive tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese imports to compel China to changes its trading practices, prompting Beijing to retaliate with its own tariff increases on $110 billion of U.S. exports.

The trade talks are the result of an agreement in December between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping to stop the tit-for-tat tariff conflict for 90 days starting on New Year’s Day. 

The administration has threatened to raise tariffs from 10 percent to 25 percent if a deal is not reached by March 2, but President Trump said last week he may be willing to push back the deadline depending on how well the talks are going.

Vice Premier Liu He, Beijing’s top economic and trade negotiator, will again lead the Chinese side, while the United States will be led by Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, along with Larry Kudlow and Peter Navarro, President Trump’s top economic and trade advisors.

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Cheap and Green: Pyongyang Upgrades Its Mass Transit System

Pyongyang is upgrading its overcrowded mass transit system with brand new subway cars, trams and buses in a campaign meant to show leader Kim Jong Un is raising the country’s standard of living. 

 The long-overdue improvements, while still modest, are a welcome change for the North Korean capital’s roughly 3 million residents, who have few options to get to work or school each day. 

First came new, high-tech subway cars and electric trolleybuses — each announced by the media with photos of Kim personally conducting the final inspection tours. Now, officials say three new electric trams are running daily routes across Pyongyang. 

Transport officials say the capacity of the new trams is about 300, sitting and standing. Passengers must buy tickets in shops beforehand and put them in a ticket box when they get on. The flat fare is a dirt cheap 5 won (US$ .0006) for any tram, trolleybus, subway or regular bus ride on the public transport system. The Pyongyang Metro has a ticket-card system and the Public Transportation Bureau is considering introducing something similar on the roads as well. 

Private cars are rare

Privately owned cars are scarce in Pyongyang. Taxis are increasingly common but costly for most people. Factory or official-use vehicles are an alternative, when available, as are bicycles. Motorized bikes imported from China are popular, while scooters and motorcycles are rare.

The subway, with elaborate stations inspired by those in Soviet Moscow and dug deep enough to survive a nuclear attack, runs at three- to five-minute intervals, depending on the hour. Officials say it transports about 400,000 passengers on weekdays. But its two lines, with 17 stations, operate only on the western side of the Taedong River, which runs through the center of the city.

“The subway is very important transportation for our people,” subway guide Kim Yong Ryon said in a recent interview with The AP. “There are plans to build train stations on the east side of the river, but nothing has started yet.”

The lack of passenger cars on Pyongyang’s roads has benefits. Traffic jams are uncommon and, compared to Beijing or Seoul, the city has refreshingly clean, crisp air. Electric trams, which run on rails, and electric trolleybuses, which have wheels, are relatively green transport options. 

Crowded and slow

But mass transit in Pyongyang can be slow and uncomfortable. 

The tram system, in particular, is among the most crowded in the world. 

Swarms of commuters cramming into trams are a common sight during the morning rush hour, which is from about 6:00 to 8:30. Getting across town can take about an hour.

Pyongyang’s tram system has four lines. In typical North Korean fashion, one is devoted to taking passengers to and from the mausoleum where the bodies of national founder Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il, lie in state.

The city’s red-and-white trams look familiar to many eastern Europeans. In 2008, the North bought 20 used trams made by the Tatra company, which produced hundreds of them when Prague was still the capital of socialist Czechoslovakia.

North Korea squeezes every last inch out of its fleet. 

Red stars are awarded for every 50,000 kilometers (31,000 miles) driven without an accident, and it’s not unusual to see trams with long lines of red stars stenciled across their sides. One seen in operation in Pyongyang last month had 12 — that’s 600,000 kilometers (372,800 miles), or the equivalent of about 15 trips around the Earth’s circumference.

The numbers work

Impossible as that might seem, the math works.

Ri Jae Hong, a representative of the Capital Public Transportation Bureau, told an AP television news crew the main tram route, from Pyongyang Station in the central part of town to the Mangyongdae district, is 21 kilometers from end to end. He said a tram might do the full route there and back on average six times a day. 

By that reckoning, it would take just over 198 days of actual driving to win that first red star. 

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Brazil’s Bolsonaro Fires Senior Minister, Investor Sentiment Sours

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Monday fired one of his most senior aides and cabinet members, Gustavo Bebianno, amid a scandal involving campaign financing for some of his party’s congressional candidates.

Bebianno was secretary general of the president’s office.

His departure punctuated Bolsonaro’s first cabinet crisis since he took office on Jan. 1 and has cast a shadow over the young government’s plans.

Brazilian markets fell on Monday as investors feared that the brewing scandal could hurt Bolsonaro’s ability to pass a pension overhaul seen as key to fiscal and economic recovery.

In a short video clip released late on Monday, Bolsonaro said he took the decision to dismiss Bebianno due to “differences of opinion on important issues,” although he did not elaborate.

Bebianno, who helped coordinate government affairs and was acting president of Bolsonaro’s right-wing Social Liberal Party for the election campaign last year, denies any wrongdoing.

Analysts at Eurasia Group said in a note on Monday, before Bebianno was dismissed, that the scandal is unlikely to dent Bolsonaro’s approval ratings. Despite the dubious optics, the president can claim to be taking a tough stand against an aide accused of illicit activity.

But the timing could not be worse. Days before unveiling its landmark pension reform proposal, the government is mired in scandal, even if it is one that probably will not have much lasting impact on the administration or pension reform.

“It is indicative, however, of a political team in disarray,” they wrote, adding that everything points to “an end result that will probably lead to the approval of a less ambitious version of the government’s proposal for pension reform.”

The scandal is denting investor sentiment, which had brightened last week after early details of Bolsonaro’s social security reform proposals were released. The full package will be presented to senior lawmakers on Wednesday.

Brazil’s Bovespa stock market fell 1 percent on Monday, the dollar rose almost 1 percent to 3.7350 reais and January 2020 interest rates rose two basis points to 6.39 percent.

Last week, the Bovespa rose 2.3 percent, within touching distance of its record-high 98,588. Interest rates fell 15 basis points, the biggest weekly drop in two months, and the real also rose.

The Bebianno scandal got personal after one of Bolsonaro’s sons branded him a liar on Twitter, putting pressure on the president to dismiss him just weeks into his term.

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China Seizes $1.5 Billion in Online Lending Crackdown

Chinese police have investigated 380 online lenders and frozen $1.5 billion in assets following an avalanche of scandals in the huge but lightly regulated industry, the government announced Monday.

Beijing allowed a private finance industry to flourish in order to supply credit to entrepreneurs and households that aren’t served by the state-run banking system. But that threatens to become a liability for the ruling Communist Party after bankruptcies and fraud cases prompted protests and complaints of official indifference to small investors.

 

The police ministry said it launched the investigation because person-to-person, or P2P, lending was increasingly risky and rife with complaints about fraud, mismanagement and waste.

 

The ministry gave no details of arrests but said more than 100 executives were being sought by investigators and some had fled abroad. It said authorities seized or froze 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) but gave no indication how much might be returned to depositors.

 

Police say some lenders and investment vehicles were brazenly fraudulent, while others collapsed after inexperienced founders failed to manage risk.

 

Monday’s statement said P2P lenders were investigated for complaints including wasting money, reporting phony investment plans and using illegal tactics to raise money.

 

Lending through online platforms grew by triple digits annually until 2017 when regulators tightened controls.

 

Depositors lent 1.9 trillion yuan ($280 billion) last year, but that was down by 50 percent from 2017, according to the Shenzhen Qiancheng Internet Finance Research Institute.

 

The outstanding loan balance stood at 1.2 trillion yuan ($177 billion) at the end of 2018, down 25 percent from a year earlier, according to Diyi Wangdai, a web site that reports on the industry.

 

P2P lenders are part of a privately run Chinese finance industry the national bank regulator estimated in 2015 had grown to $1.5 trillion.

 

The internet has helped financial platforms attract money from financial novices with little knowledge of the risks involved.

 

Many lend to factories and retailers or invest in restaurants, car washes and other businesses. But inexperience and poor risk control means a downturn in business conditions can bankrupt them.

 

Finance as a whole has come under tougher scrutiny after a 2015 plunge in stock prices led to accusations of insider trading and other offenses.

 

In one of China’s biggest financial scams, authorities say depositors lost 50 billion yuan ($7.7 billion) in online lender Ezubo before it was seized by regulators in 2015.

 

The founder and his brother were sentenced to life in prison in 2017.

 

 

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Trump: US Trade Talks with China Making ‘Big Progress’

President Donald Trump said Sunday “big progress” is being made in U.S. trade talks with China on what he calls “so many different fronts.”

“Our country has such fantastic potential for future growth and greatness on an even higher level,” the president tweeted.

Trump said last week he might put off the March 1 deadline to increase tariffs on China if a trade deal is close.

But a China trade expert who served in the Obama administration says he has only seen “incremental progress” toward a trade deal with China.

“The realistic approach is that the deadline gets extended and the negotiations possibly go into the end of this year, I would suspect,” former Assistant Trade representative for China Jeff Moon tells VOA.

Moon believes negotiators on both sides are failing to address the real reason the U.S. imposed stiff sanctions on China in the first place — allegations that it is stealing U.S. intellectual property, and China’s demands that U.S. firms turn over trade secrets if they want to keep doing business in China.

“It’s not possible to resolve those issues in two weeks. Those are very complex issues that require longer talks…so a quick settlement is not a good settlement. It just glosses things over,” Moon said.

He forecast things getting “messy” over the long run if those matters are not settled.

He also said Trump has “muddied” the negotiations by letting politics creep into the trade talks with such issues as North Korea.

Trump has threatened to hike tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese imports to the U.S. from 10 to 25 percent if there is no trade deal reached by March 1.

China has accused the U.S. of violating global trade rules, saying it is preventing the Chinese economy from thriving.

Current U.S. sanctions on China were met with retaliation from Beijing by sanctions on U.S. goods.

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Sedans Take Back Seat to SUVs, Trucks at 2019 Chicago Auto Show

It’s billed as North America’s largest and longest-running auto show, now in its 111th year. The 2019 Chicago Auto Show offers a lineup of nearly 1,000 vehicles occupying nearly 1 million-square-feet of space at the McCormick Place Convention Center.

A special preview for members of the media at the annual show is a chance for manufacturers to show off their latest and greatest products about to enter the market.

What is notable about this year’s event is what some manufacturers aren’t showing off — new sedans.

Customers want trucks, SUVs

“Over 10 years, there has been a consistent movement of customers in the United States and around the world, but even more so in the United States, moving away from sedans and more traditional passenger sedans into more utility vehicles,” said Joe Hinrichs, president of Ford Motor Co.’s Global Operations.

“Nearly 7 out of 10 vehicles sold today are trucks or SUVs in the U.S. market. They like the ride high, the seating height, the utility of the vehicle. And now, we can give them the fuel efficiency that they used to get out of sedans. So, that’s where customers are going.”

All reasons Ford is going the extra mile and planning to invest $1 billion to upgrade its Chicago manufacturing facility, which produces the popular Explorer Sport Utility Vehicle, or SUV — also used as a law enforcement vehicle — and the new Lincoln Mariner luxury SUV.

But while Ford is offering new options for consumers, it is also discontinuing models of the Focus, Fiesta and Fusion cars, ending production later this year.

“We’ve been planning our business to incorporate the expectation that some of those cars will go away,” Hinrichs said. “Then bring in new products to enter the market to supplement some of that volume that was lost so that we can keep our plants full.”

The new family car

“We have the debate a lot about is the compact SUV the new family sedan, and in many instances, you can say yes,” said Steve Majuros, marketing director for cars and crossovers for the General Motors Chevrolet brand. He introduced two new trucks in Chevy’s popular Silverado lineup to media at the auto show.

The prominence, and choices, of SUVs, crossovers and trucks in GM’s current lineup promoted at the auto show stands in contrast to its perennial attraction in recent years, the Chevrolet Volt. Even though it is the top-selling electric plug-in vehicle of all time, sagging sales have led GM to cease production in March.

“Volt was a great product for us,” said Majuros. “(It) had a great run — two generations. But what has happened is as the ability to produce pure electric and the kind of cost configuration and range of what people are looking for, Volt had its time, but was a great stepping stone for us to lead us to the future, which was pure electrification.”

Joining the Volt on the chopping block is the Cruze, a compact car manufactured at GM’s Lordstown Assembly plant in Ohio. Chevrolet does plan to keep making the Malibu midsize sedan and the Bolt all-electric vehicle, among a few other options.

“We’re not abandoning the car market completely,” Majuros assured. “We’re right-sizing our portfolio. We’re reacting to what the consumers are looking for.”

What they are looking for are trucks and SUVs, which made up about 70 percent of the 17 million vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2018, a trend expected to continue this year.

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Trump Receives Update on China Trade Talks 

President Donald Trump received an update on trade talks with China on Saturday at his Florida retreat after discussions in Beijing saw progress ahead of a March 1 deadline for reaching a deal.

Trump, at his Mar-a-Lago club, was briefed in person by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and trade expert Peter Navarro, said White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, economic adviser Larry Kudlow and other aides joined by phone. 

The White House offered no additional detail. 

Both the United States and China reported progress in five days of negotiations in Beijing this week, but the White House said much work remained to be done to force changes in Chinese trade behavior. 

Shortly after the meeting with his trade team, Trump said on Twitter the talks in Beijing were “very productive.” 

At a White House press conference on Friday, he said the talks with China were “very complicated” and that he might extend the March 1 deadline and keep tariffs on Chinese goods from rising. 

U.S. duties on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports are set to rise from 10 percent to 25 percent if no deal is reached by March 1 to address U.S. demands that China curb forced technology transfers and better enforce intellectual property rights. 

China’s vice premier and chief trade negotiator, Liu He, and Lighthizer are to lead the next round of talks next week in Washington. 

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