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Putin Announces Social Handouts in Bid to Stop Opinion Poll Slide

A year ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin sailed to victory in what challengers dubbed a “filthy election.” Facing weak candidates — some likely encouraged to run by a Kremlin eager to give the poll a veneer of greater competitiveness — Putin basked in his re-election, promising a flag-waving rally of loyalists off Moscow’s Red Square that “success awaits us.”

But with less than a month to go before marking the anniversary of his re-election, Putin faces rising public frustration with his rule and unprecedented dips in his approval ratings. In a recent opinion poll, nearly half of those surveyed said the country is heading in the wrong direction.

Putin, who has held power since succeeding Boris Yeltsin in 1999, had always been guaranteed victory in an election timed to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the Russian annexation of Crimea. Many pro-Putin voters interviewed by VOA last year said they were backing him because he had restored Russian strength and transformed the country from a regional power to a global player.

The domestic political landscape has changed since then, and the spell of Russian foreign adventurism doesn’t have the pull it once had, say analysts. The 66-year-old Russian leader appeared to acknowledge that Wednesday in his first address to parliament since his re-election.

Shift in focus

He went much more lightly on foreign and military issues in contrast to his last annual address in which he saber-rattled and unveiled a raft of new missiles, bragging about their stealth and speed. This time, he focused more on domestic challenges.

 

In response to rising public anger at the country’s economic malaise, Putin pledged to increase spending on development and social benefits, announcing a jump in child benefits along with tax breaks for families. He also pledged to almost double disability support payments. Putin boasted that for the first time, the country’s currency reserves cover external debt obligations and said economic growth should exceed 3 percent by 2021.

“Thanks to many years of common work and the results achieved, we can now direct and concentrate enormous financial resources on our development goals for our country,” Putin said.

“Nobody gave these funds to us; we did not borrow them. These funds were earned by millions of our citizens, the whole country,” he added.

“In the near future, this year, people should feel real changes for the better,” Putin pledged.

A tough sell

Whether Putin can deliver and reverse his growing unpopularity waits to be seen.

Analysts say Russians are unlikely to be satisfied with just words when it comes to quality of life issues, including the delivery of public services, municipal amenities or, more often than not, their absence, and on health and safety issues. It is the everyday “parochial” issues that worry them, including the potentially deadly consequences of shoddy and unsafe municipal housing and the reckless discarding of trash as Russia runs out of landfill sites.

Last year, thousands protested when dozens of children, in the town of Volokolamsk near Moscow, were hospitalized with suspected poisoning, the result of noxious gases emanating from an overfull local landfill.

In the past, when his political star has waned, Putin has turned to adventurism abroad to shore up support, offering foreign policy triumphs to whip up his domestic standing. That is unlikely to work moving forward, say analysts such as Mikhail Dmitriev.

Urban-rural divide

Dmitriev says polling data suggest the Kremlin is heading for a rocky few months with signs that dissent is likely to mount, and not just among the usual middle-class Putin skeptics and critics in the Russian capital and St. Petersburg, but in non-metropolitan Russia, in the smaller towns and villages, which traditionally have been the backbone of his support.

Raising the retirement age last year triggered the slide in Putin’s popularity. Cuts to salaries and sluggish economic growth added to the drag on his approval ratings, pollsters say. Real incomes have fallen by more than 10 percent since 2014, and nearly 40 percent of Russians say their material well-being has worsened just in the last 12 months.

Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a research institution, noted in a commentary earlier this month that ordinary workers are becoming more vexed with the Kremlin’s failure to deliver higher standards of living, as Putin promised he would do during the election campaign.

“Increasingly he is getting into fights with real Russians who want to complain about government policies. Last September, when he visited the Zvezda shipyard in the Russian Far East, the president got into an argument with the workers there about their salaries. (The transcript of their conversation in which Putin massively overestimated what they were paid was subsequently removed from the Kremlin website),” according to Baunov.

Baunov says the Putin system is increasingly being found wanting and the Russian president will not be able to deliver on the growing demand for economic redistribution “at the expense of the country’s rich capitalists,” in effect the friends of Putin and businessmen close to the Kremlin.

 

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Microsoft Detects Hacking Targeting Europe Democracy Groups

A hacking group has targeted European democratic institutions including think tanks and non-profit groups ahead of highly anticipated EU parliamentary elections in May, Microsoft said.

The company said Tuesday that a group called Strontium targeted email accounts for more than 100 people in six European countries working for the German Council on Foreign Relations, the Aspen Institutes in Europe and the German Marshall Fund.

Microsoft said in a blog post that it is continuing to investigate but is confident many of the attacks originated from Strontium, a group that others call Fancy Bear or APT28. U.S. authorities have tied the group to Russia’s main intelligence agency, known as the GRU.

Microsoft said the attacks occurred from September to December, and that it notified the organizations after discovering they were targeted.

Tech companies have been accused of not doing enough to prevent hacking attacks and the spread of fake news, which some say influenced major elections like the U.S. presidential vote and the Brexit referendum.

Hundreds of millions of people are set to vote for more than 700 European Union parliamentary lawmakers in May, and the recent rise of populist parties has raised the prospect of euroskeptic politicians gaining more seats and potentially undermining the bloc.

The German Marshall Fund has done extensive work researching and documenting Russian attempts at interfering in elections as part of its broader efforts on democracy-building and trans-Atlantic cooperation.

In a statement, the German Marshall Fund president, Karen Donfried, said the attacks were unsurprising for an organization “dedicated to advancing and promoting democratic values.”

The organization said its systems did not appear to be compromised.

The German Council on Foreign Relations declined to offer details, citing the ongoing investigation. But a council spokeswoman, Eva-Maria McCormack, called for “strong political and public attention” to the issue of cyberattacks.

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OK for Direct US Flights Moves Vietnam Into Economic Fast Lane

The U.S. decision last week to permit Vietnam to fly its commercial aircraft directly to American airports is seen as a continuation of improving relations and follows other signs of international recognition for Hanoi.

Observers say the breakthrough shows that major countries including the United States take Vietnam ever more seriously after more than three decades of brisk economic development and foreign policy that includes balancing relations with its communist neighbor China without worrying the West.

“It’s been a slow and progressive bringing back [of] Vietnam into the international community,” said Adam McCarty, chief economist with Mekong Economics in Hanoi. “It’s been this continual process from the Vietnamese side of being caught, as they have been historically for hundreds of years, between larger powers.”

The Federal Aviation Administration’s award of a “category 1” rating for Vietnam means the country meets international safety standards. Vietnamese airlines can get permits now from the administration to open flights to the United States and carry the codes of U.S. carriers, the FAA said in a statement February 14.

US officials see change

Vietnamese officials knew the significance of the U.S. market in 2012, when they started working toward the FAA category 1 rating, Communist Party news website Nhan Dah reported Monday. They set out to solve 49 safety problems that the FAA found a year later, the website added.

The FAA inspected Vietnam’s civil aviation schemes again last year and gave high marks in most areas. It found just 14 “individual and not systematic problems,” the report says.

Clinching category 1 status from the world’s largest economy follows other signs of growing recognition.

The U.S. ran a $29.3 billion trade deficit with Vietnam in the first nine months of last year, but Washington did not make it a big issue. China and the United States, however, have been locked in disputes for about the past year partly because of China’s trade surplus with the United States.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who praised Vietnam’s economic momentum in 2017, is scheduled to visit Hanoi next week for his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Both sides picked Vietnam as host because it’s seen as geopolitically neutral.

Trump and his “hawkish colleagues” will see Vietnam as distinct from China in terms of trade, McCarty said.

“The degree of economic and trade closeness between Vietnam and the United States is always increasing,” said Tai Wan-ping, Vietnam-specialized international business professor at Cheng Shiu University in Taiwan. “Apart from Vietnam having trade deals, in substance the degree of progress is extremely high.”

Bigger economy, more fliers

Foreign investment in Vietnamese manufacturing is fueling economic growth of 6 to 7 percent since 2012. That trend is growing the middle class to about one-third of the 93 million population by next year, the Boston Consulting Group estimates.

Citizens are spending some of their new wealth on airfares.

The country saw 94 million passengers in 2017, including 13 million foreign nationals, up 16 percent over 2016. The domestic civil aviation industry has grown 17.4 percent over the past decade and the International Air Transport Association projects Vietnam will become the world’s fifth fastest growing aviation market by 2035.

Foreign investors are expected to keep flying in, too. In January Vietnam formally joined the 11-country Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership, a free-trade deal encompassing about 13.5 percent of the world economy. The European Union expects to ratify its own trade pact with Vietnam.

As part of a 10-member bloc of Southeast Asian countries, Vietnam trades freely with China. But political scientists say Vietnam avoids favoritism toward China, despite its having a similar political system and its significance as a source of raw materials. Vietnam has vied with China over territory for centuries and prefers a multi-country foreign policy today.

Loads of returnees, fewer tourists

Vietnamese in the United States are likely to pack the eventual direct flights as relatively few American tourists visit Vietnam, compared to other sources, McCarty said. Some Vietnamese-Americans go back to visit; others to invest.

The Migration Policy Institute estimates there are about 1.3 million people of Vietnamese heritage live in the United States today, many relocated after the U.S.-backed former South Vietnam lost to the Communist north in the 1970s. Foreign tourism to Vietnam surged to 14.1 million in the first 11 months of last year, led by citizens from China and South Korea.

 

“There are residents in the U.S. itself, so that alone would be good enough for airline connections if they see fit to,” said Song Seng Wun, regional economist in the private banking unit of CIMB in Singapore,  “Every country on the planet has representation in the U.S. population in one way or another. Obviously therefore it makes economic sense, commercial sense to have connectivity.”

Passengers on the eventual direct flights would avoid today’s stopovers in places such as Hong Kong and Taipei, Tai said.

 

 

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Trump’s National Emergency Declaration: What’s Next?

President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on Friday after Congress declined to fulfill his request for $5.7 billion to help build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border that was his signature 2016 campaign promise. His move aims to let him spend money appropriated by Congress for other purposes.

What’s next?

Legal challenges to Trump: On Monday, a coalition of 16 U.S. states led by California sued the Trump administration over the declaration and the president’s plan to use billions of dollars to erect a wall. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, came just days after Trump invoked emergency powers on Friday.

In Washington, D.C., the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen filed a federal suit Friday evening. The lawsuit argued against the constitutionality of the declaration and that Trump exceeded his powers.

Options before Congress: Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, could either join a lawsuit filed by a third party, or they could file a lawsuit of their own, although the legality of that is in question.

House Democrats are also preparing legislation — a “joint resolution of termination” — and it would likely pass, which would send it to the Republican-controlled Senate, where it may run into a roadblock. Should any legislation pass, a Trump adviser has said the president would veto it. Congress would then need a two-thirds majority to override a veto.

Other lawsuits?

The New York Times reported that at least two more lawsuits may be filed this week. The American Civil Liberties Union has said it will file a case but has not publicly identified its client, according to the report. And Protect Democracy, a watchdog group, and center-right policy institute the Niskanen Center, will file a suit on behalf of El Paso County and the Border Network for Human Rights, the Times reported.

Outcome: Any legal challenge is likely to tie up Trump’s efforts in court, delaying the building of a border wall. A protracted legal battle is likely, with an ultimate hearing seen before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Money for border wall

In a recent spending bill, Trump asked for $5.7 billion in government funding for a border wall; Congress provided just $1.37 billion. To avoid a government shutdown, Trump signed the legislation, yet declared a national emergency along the border to gain access to other funds. He identified funds, totaling $8 billion.

Where did the money come from?

$1.37 billion: Congress

$3.6 billion: Defense Department, military construction budget

$2.5 billion: Defense Department, drug interdiction efforts

$600 million: Treasury Department, drug forfeiture program

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Border Wall, Bullet Train: California vs. Trump Escalates

Disputes over President Donald Trump’s border wall and California’s bullet train are intensifying the feud between the White House and the nation’s most populous state.

The Trump administration on Tuesday said it plans to cancel or claw back $3.5 billion in federal dollars allocated to California’s high-speed rail project, a move Gov. Gavin Newsom called “political retribution” for the state’s lawsuit against Trump’s declaration of a national emergency. California led a 16-state coalition in filing the suit Monday, challenging Trump’s power to declare an emergency to earn more money to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“It’s no coincidence that the Administration’s threat comes 24 hours after California led 16 states in challenging the President’s farcical ‘national emergency,'” Newsom said in a statement. “This is clear political retribution by President Trump, and we won’t sit idly by.”

 

It’s the latest spat between Trump and California, which has styled itself as the Democratic-led “resistance” to the administration. Newsom, less than two months into his tenure, has appeared more eager to hit back at Trump than former California Gov. Jerry Brown. The lawsuit is California’s 46th against the Trump administration.

 

Using a broad interpretation of his executive powers, Trump declared an emergency last week to obtain wall funding beyond the $1.4 billion Congress approved for border security. The move allows the president to bypass Congress to use money from the Pentagon and other budgets.

Trump’s use of the emergency declaration has drawn bipartisan criticism and faces a number of legal challenges.

 

Still the president has told reporters he expects to prevail.

 

“I think in the end we’re going to be very successful with the lawsuit,” Trump told reporters, calling it an “open and closed” case.

 

Trump had earlier singled out California for its lead role in the suit, seeking to link the state’s high-speed rail project to his plan for the wall.

 

On Twitter, Trump claimed the “failed Fast Train project” was beset by “world record setting” cost overruns and had become “hundreds of times more expensive than the desperately needed Wall!”

 

The estimated cost for a San Francisco-to-Los Angeles train has more than doubled to $77 billion. That’s about 13 times the $5.7 billion Trump sought unsuccessfully from Congress to build the wall.

 

Hours later, the U.S. Department of Transportation told California it planned to cancel nearly $1 billion in federal money allocated to the rail project and wanted the state to return $2.5 billion it had already spent.

 

Trump’s comments about a “failed” project followed Newsom’s comments last week that the current plan for an LA-San Francisco train would cost too much and take too long. Instead, he said he’d focus immediately on a line through the Central Valley while still doing environmental work on the full line. That work is a requirement for keeping the federal money.

 

Still, the U.S. Department of Transportation said Newsom’s remarks reinforced concerns about the project’s ability to deliver. The department wrote Newsom’s comments mark a “significant retreat from the State’s initial vision and commitment and frustrated the purpose for which the Federal funding was awarded.”

 

California Republicans who have long called the project a waste of money applauded the Trump administration’s move to take back the money.

 

“It is time to move on from the broken high-speed rail project and redirect our efforts to infrastructure projects that work for Californians,” said U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, a city on the train’s route.

 

But Newsom said the state intends to keep the money. Losing it would be a major blow to the chronically underfunded project.

 

“This is California’s money, and we are going to fight for it,” he said.

 

The agreement with the federal government allows the administration to withhold or take back the money if the state fails to make “adequate progress” or “complete the project or one of its tasks.”

 

If the federal government decides to take the money back, it doesn’t have to wait for California to write a check. Instead it could withhold money from other transportation projects.

 

Tuesday’s comments won’t be the last; the administration has given California until March 5 to formally respond.

 

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Report Says Trump Asked For Ally to Lead Hush Money Probe, Trump Denies

U.S. President Donald Trump has denied asking his former acting attorney general to put a Trump ally in charge of a federal investigation into hush money paid to two women during the 2016 election campaign.

The allegation appeared Tuesday in a New York Times article that said Trump called Matthew Whitaker to see if he would put the probe in the hands of Geoffrey Berman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

“No, not at all. I don’t know who gave you that,” Trump told reporters when asked about the story. “Just more fake news. There’s a lot of fake, there’s a lot of fake news out there. No, I didn’t.”

If true, the episode could be used as evidence of Trump seeking to influence one of several ongoing law enforcement investigations into his conduct and that of his associates.

The Times cited several U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the phone call between Trump and Whitaker. The newspaper said Berman had already recused himself from the case due to conflict of interest.

The investigation involved payments made by Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime lawyer, to two women who said they had sexual affairs with Trump. The money was meant to keep their stories quiet and not harm Trump’s presidential run.

Cohen has pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations related to the payments.

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Amazon’s ‘Collaborative’ Robots Offer Peek into the Future

Hundreds of orange robots zoom and whiz back and forth like miniature bumper cars — but instead of colliding, they’re following a carefully plotted path to transport thousands of items ordered from online giant Amazon.

A young woman fitted out in a red safety vest, with pouches full of sensors and radio transmitters on her belt and a tablet in hand, moves through their complicated choreography.

This robot ballet takes place at the new Amazon order fulfillment center that opened on Staten Island in New York in September.

In an 80,000-square-meter (855,000-square-foot) space filled with the whirring sounds of machinery, the Seattle-based e-commerce titan has deployed some of the most advanced instruments in the rapidly growing field of robots capable of collaborating with humans.

The high-tech vest, worn at Amazon warehouses since last year, is key to the whole operation — it allows 21-year-old Deasahni Bernard to safely enter the robot area, to pick up an object that has fallen off its automated host, for example, or check if a battery needs replacing.

Bernard only has to press a button and the robots stop or slow or readjust their dance to accommodate her.  

Human-robot ‘symphony’

Amazon now counts more than 25 robotic centers, which chief technologist for Amazon Robotics Tye Brady says have changed the way the company operates.

“What used to take more than a day now takes less than an hour,” he said, explaining they are able to fit about 40 percent more goods inside the same footprint.

For some, these fulfillment centers, which have helped cement Amazon’s dominant position in global online sales, are a perfect illustration of the looming risk of humans being pushed out of certain business equations in favor of artificial intelligence.

But Brady argues that robot-human collaboration at the Staten Island facility, which employs more than 2,000 people, has given them a “beautiful edge” over the competition.

Bernard, who was a supermarket cashier before starting at Amazon, agrees.

“I like this a lot better than my previous jobs,” she told AFP, as Brady looked on approvingly.  

What role do Amazon employees play in what Brady calls the human-robot “symphony?”

In Staten Island, on top of tech-vest wearers like Bernard, there are “stowers,” “pickers” and “packers” who respectively load up products, match up products meant for the same customers and build shipping boxes — all with the help of screens and scanners.

At every stage, the goal is to “extend people’s capabilities” so the humans can focus on problem-solving and intervene if necessary, according to Brady.  

At the age of 51, he has worked with robotics for 33 years, previously as a spacecraft engineer for MIT and on lunar landing systems of the Draper Laboratory in Massachusetts.

He is convinced the use of “collaborative robots” is the key to future human productivity — and job growth.

Since Amazon went all-in on robotics with the 2012 acquisition of logistics robot-maker Kiva, gains have been indisputable, Brady says.

They’ve created 300,000 new jobs, bringing the total number of worldwide Amazon employees up to 645,000, not counting seasonal jobs.

“It’s a myth that robotics and automation kills jobs, it’s just a myth,” according to Brady.

“The data really can’t be denied on this: the more robots we add to our fulfillment centers, the more jobs we are creating,” he said, without mentioning the potential for lost jobs at traditional stores.

The ‘R2D2’ model

For Brady, the ideal example of human-robot collaboration is the relationship between “R2D2” and Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars.”

Their partnership, in which “R2D2” is always ready to use his computing powers to pull people out of desperate situations “is a great example of how humans and robots can work together,” he said.

But despite Brady’s enthusiasm for a robotic future, many are suspicious of the trend — a wariness that extends to the corporate giant, which this month scrapped high-profile plans for a new New York headquarters in the face of local protests.

Attempts by Amazon employees to unionize, at Staten Island and other sites, have so far been successfully fought back by the company, further fuelling criticism.

At a press briefing held last month as part of the unionization push, one employee of the facility, Rashad Long, spoke out about what he said were unsustainable work conditions.

“We are not robots, we are human beings,” Long said.

Sharing the benefits

Many suspect Amazon’s investment in robotics centers aims to eventually automate positions currently held by humans.

For Kevin Lynch, an expert in robotics from Northwestern University near Chicago, the development of collaborative robots is “inevitable” and will indeed eventually eliminate certain jobs, such as the final stage of packing at Amazon for instance.

“I also think other jobs will be created,” he said. “But it’s easier to predict the jobs that will be lost than the jobs that will be created.”

“Robotics and artificial intelligence bring clear benefits to humanity, in terms of our health, welfare, happiness, and quality of life,” said Lynch, who believes public policy has a key role to play in ensuring those benefits are shared, and that robotics and AI do not sharpen economic inequality.

“The growth of robotics and AI is inevitable,” he said. “The real question is, ‘how do we prepare for our future with robots?”

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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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Future Styles: Could Virtual Clothes Reduce Damage of Fast Fashion?

Striking a pose in the mirror, Swedish model and stylist Lisa Anckarman shows off a new jacket with a difference on Instagram – though it fits her perfectly in the photo, it’s a virtual design that does not exist in real life.

She is among a number of trendsetters embracing cutting-edge technology that offers the opportunity to sate appetites for fast fashion while dramatically slashing the emissions, pollution and labor abuses linked to the garment industry.

“I really liked the idea and the aspect that it’s good for the environment,” Anckarman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as she discussed her virtual styling. Actually I think it maybe looked too good because people didn’t really get that it was digital.”

“People were asking me ‘Where did you buy this?’ and I was saying, ‘It’s digital’, and they were like, ‘No, at what shop did you buy it?'”

Fashion is one of the world’s most damaging industries – it is responsible for about 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, sucks up scarce water and creates vast amounts of pollution and waste.

But the desire for the latest look is only increasing. Global fashion sales grew by about 4.5 percent to $1.7 trillion in 2018, found analysts at McKinsey and Company, who said social media is bringing trends to consumers at an ever swifter pace.

Some businesses are now looking to meet the demand for new styles through digital designs, with Scandinavian fashion firm Carlings convincing its customers to pay real cash for virtual clothes that are digitally “fitted” onto users’ photographs.

“It was kind of scary (launching it) but the response was so overwhelming that we were convinced we were on to something,” said Ronny Mikalsen, the firm’s brand director.

The first Carlings designs, costing between 10 euros ($11) and 30 euros, sold out and a second digital collection is due to be released in spring 2019.

High fashion, low emissions

Digital clothes create far lower emissions than physical clothes as they cut out the long, labor-intensive process of sourcing materials, producing fabrics, making garments and shipping them worldwide.

While virtual styles may still be niche, experts say they are set to grow as technology seeps into more aspects of human lives.

Younger generations in particular are keen to curate their online personas as much as their real-life image, said Matthew Drinkwater, the head of the Fashion Innovation Agency based at the London College of Fashion.

On Instagram you have to ask “how much of that is a real person and how much is an enhanced version or a way they wish to portray themselves?” he said.

The increasing use of filters on social media that can add cute dog ears or a flower crown on top of a photo or edit video in real time to make people vomit rainbows shows how people are already using digital effects to play with their image, he said.

“In a very simple sense people are beginning to enhance or alter the way that they look,” he said. “You can begin to see a drift towards this merging of physical and digital.”

Shopping habits are already changing to meet the demands of online images: nearly one in 10 people have bought clothes to wear once, with the aim of sharing their outfit on social media, according to a survey of 2,000 Britons by finance firm Barclaycard last summer.

“If you get caught wearing the same clothes too many times it’s seen as a bad thing,” said Morten Grubak from the Virtue creative agency, who came up with the Carlings campaign.

“One of the worst things you can write under images is ‘Not again’, making the hint they have posted that outfit before.”

‘Physics-defying’ outfits

Some involved in virtual fashion said they had set out to offer a new solution to the industry’s climate damage and waste rather than trying to persuade consumers to buy less.

“Right now (environmental campaigns) are always about, like, how much water did we save producing these jeans and people don’t care about that,” said Grubak.

“Instead of getting angry with people doing fashion on Instagram, how can we innovatively solve that problem by adding a new platform?”

Other companies said they had taken a deliberate decision to avoid the traditional fashion market entirely.

“We’ve made a very clear point of never wanting to be a physical fashion brand,” said Kerry Murphy of Dutch digital fashion house The Fabricant, which creates only virtual designs.

“We believe the world does not need more clothing. It’s an incredibly wasteful and polluting industry. That’s why we very consciously said we want to re-imagine fashion.”

Digital design also opens up new possibilities to play with fashion, from using fabrics like rubber which would be relatively uncomfortable in real life through to dabbling in exotic skins or even physics-defying fantasies.

“Clothing will definitely have a different meaning because it does not have the same functionality as physical clothing,” Murphy said.

“People can wear fire or they wear rain or they can be a dinosaur, so the possibilities are limitless.”

Those involved in the digital design industry said it will not offer a complete solution to fashion’s emissions and waste problems, but it can help by encouraging people to update their existing wardrobes with virtual flourishes.

And as technology advances, virtual fashion could sashay into the mainstream, said Drinkwater.

Within a decade, people could regularly wear high-tech glasses that can apply digital effects over what the wearer sees in real life, he predicted, meaning virtual clothes will no longer be restricted to a computer or phone screen.

“Could you imagine a point where your existing clothes could be constantly updated through digital design? Could we be downloading content that could portray ourselves differently? Would that stop us from simply buying more product?” he asked. “That potential is really quite exciting.”

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