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Portugal’s Finance Chief Tapped to Lead Eurozone Group

The finance ministers from the 19 countries that use the euro are deciding who should lead their regular meetings, with Portugal’s Mario Centeno widely tipped to take the helm of a group that has led the currency bloc’s crisis-fighting efforts.

The decision of who will succeed Dutchman Jeroen Dijsselbloem as president of the so-called eurogroup is expected later Monday. Dijsselbloem, who has held the post for nearly five years, has been one of the most high-profile European politicians during a period that saw a number of countries, notably Greece, teeter on the edge of bankruptcy and the euro currency itself come under threat.

 

Three other candidates are in the frame, too: Luxembourg’s Pierre Gramegna, Slovakia’s Peter Kazimir and Latvia’s Dana Reizniece-Ozola.

 

Whoever gets the presidency will inherit a eurozone in far better shape than the one that existed during Dijsselbloem’s tenure. The economy is growing strongly while worries over Greece’s future in the bloc have subsided and the country is poised to exit its bailout era next summer.

 

A victory for Centeno, who in Portugal has favored easing off budget austerity policies, has the potential to mark a new era for the eurozone.

 

While eurozone governments still insist that countries must keep their public finances in shape, there’s a greater acknowledgement that many people, particularly in southern Europe, have grown weary of austerity. Following the departure of long-time German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, a Centeno victory would encapsulate that shift.

 

Portugal was one of four eurozone countries that had to be bailed out during the region’s debt crisis. In 2011, the country required a 78 billion-euro rescue after its budget deficit grew too large and bond market investors asked for hefty premiums to lend to the government. In return for the financial lifeline, Portuguese governments had to enact a series of spending cuts and economic reforms.

 

Though the strategy may have worked in bringing Portugal’s public finances into better shape, austerity accentuated a recession and raised unemployment. Since Centeno took office in the Socialist government that came to power in December 2015, Portugal’s deficit has fallen to 2 percent, the lowest in more than 40 years while the unemployment rate is down to an almost 10-year low of 8.5 percent, after peaking at a record 16.2 percent in 2013.

 

Ahead of the meeting where the vote will take place, Centeno said his aim, should he come out on top, would be to “generate consensus” in the “challenging” period ahead.

 

“We have showed everyone that we can reach consensus, we can work with other parties, we can work with institutions,” he said. “Portugal is an example of that.”

 

Dijsselbloem said keeping the eurogroup “together and united” should be the primary purpose of the eurogroup president.

 

“It’s the only way we take decisions in the eurogroup,” he said.

 

 

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Ongoing Labor Abuse Found in Pepsi’s Indonesian Palm Oil Plantations

Workers at several Indonesian palm oil plantations that supply Pepsi and Nestle suffer from a variety of labor abuses, including lower-than-minimum wages, child labor, exposure to pesticides, and union busting, according to a new report from the Rainforest Action Network (RAN).

The report covers three palm oil plantations operated by Indofood, the biggest food company in Indonesia and the country’s only producer of PepsiCo-branded snacks, and follows up on previous reports from the same groups of plantation workers. Indofood remains certified as “sustainable” by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) despite ongoing labor abuses, which activists say raises the question of what possible incentives there are for a mega-corporation to reform its labor practices.

“Since our first report in June 2016, which broke the scandal, to this one nearly one and a half years later, hardly anything has changed,” said Emma Lierley, RAN’s Communications Manager. “Pepsi hasn’t even issued a public response.”

Pepsi Co., Indofood, and RSPO could not be reached for comment.

Widespread abuse

Workers at palm oil plantations on the islands of Kalimantan and Sumatra reported the same catalog of abuses that they suffered 17 months ago, such as exposure to dangerous pesticides with inadequate protective equipment. They also complain of withheld wages and unpaid overtime, as well as frequent use of daily contract workers and unpaid laborers (like workers’ wives), which the study authors say are all also risk factors for child labor.

“We’re asking that Indofood reform labor practices on its plantations immediately,” said Lierley. “PepsiCo has a significant amount of leverage.” “Indofood could certainly move the needle” as well, she said.

But the RSPO has no clear path forward, admitted Robin Averbeck, a RAN campaigner.

“The RSPO has failed to include workers as critical stakeholders in its system since its creation up until this very day,” said Averbeck. “Fundamentally it will never address labor rights issues in a meaningful way unless workers are integrated as key constituents in the system and play an active role in monitoring and enforcing the standard themselves.”

RSPO has never revoked a company’s sustainability certification for labor violations.

“After nearly a year and a half of an official RSPO complaint containing indisputable evidence documenting widespread labor violations on multiple Indofood plantations, the RSPO has failed to sanction or suspend Indofood,” said Averbeck, who said the inaction was a “fundamental failure” and suggested that the RSPO suspend Indofood immediately.

The palm oil problem

Labor abuse in Indonesia is not unique to the palm oil industry — it has been documented widely across the garment, domestic work, and mining sectors, among others — but in recent years, palm oil has become particularly ripe for exploiting workers.

Palm oil is found in countless household products and foods, from lipstick to potato chips, and it grows very well in the tropical rainforest of Southeast Asia. It is cheap and easy to plant at great scale and swathes of the Borneo rainforest in both Indonesia and Malaysia, have been transformed in recent years into the trademark bright green grids of a palm oil plantation.

But the crop has displaced dozens of indigenous communities and employed thousands of child laborers and unpaid, underpaid, and abused workers. Global demand for palm oil shows no sign of slowing down — the industry is estimated to be worth $93 billion by 2021.

Difficulty of labor reform

The best mechanism for workers’ rights remains trade unions, but there are a number of obstacles to effective organizing among palm oil workers, according to Andriko Otang of Indonesia’s Trade Union Rights Commission.

“For one thing, there is the sheer difficulty of organizing,” said Otang. “A worker has to spend 400,000 rupiah (about $28) for a one-way ticket to the regional capital.” A roundtrip could turn out to be half their monthly salary, he said.

Another factor is the logistical barriers to organizing in places like rural Kalimantan, where there is weak cell signal and low access to information. “If you want to organize even a single strike, it’s so difficult,” said Otang.

Beyond discriminating against actual and potential union members, according to the RAN report, Indofood employs a large impermanent workforce, who cannot unionize. According to its 2016 Sustainability Report, Indofood’s plantation arm, IndoAgri, reported 38,104 permanent workers and 34,782 casual workers.

Despite the formidable odds, said Otang, there have been success stories for palm oil workers: in South Kalimantan and Palembang, workers have organized multi-company collective bargaining agreements and abolished the practice of casual work.

“As long as you have a strong independent union and solidarity between officials and members, labor reform is possible,” he said.

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Luxury Car Makers Shift Gears from Sporty Sedans to SUVs

Luxury brands are switching gears at this year’s Los Angeles Auto Show. Manufacturers once known for iconic sports cars are facing an identity crisis — trying to compete with Tesla’s electric autos while still serving Americans’ love of SUVs (sport utility vehicles). Arash Arabasadi reports

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Venezuela to Launch Cryptocurrency to Fight U.S. Sanctions

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro says his government will launch a cryptocurrency, or digital currency, to circumvent what he called a financial “blockade” by the U.S. government.

The new currency will be called the “petro,” the leftist leader said in his TV address Sunday. It will be backed by the socialist-run OPEC nation’s oil, gold and mineral reserves.

That will allow Venezuela to advance toward new forms of international financing for its economic and social development, Maduro said.

“Venezuela will create a cryptocurrency – the petro-currency, the petro – to advance in monetary sovereignty, to make its financial transactions, to overcome the financial blockade,” he explained. “This will allow us to move toward new forms of international financing for the economic and social development of the country. And it will be done with a cryptocurrency issue backed by reserves of Venezuelan riches of gold, oil, gas and diamonds.”

Maduro did not give any details what the new currency’s value will be, how it will work or when it will be launched.

The government also announced the creation of a “blockchain observatory” software platform for buying and selling virtual currency.

Opposition leaders objected to Maduro’s announcement, saying the currency would need congressional approval. Some questioned whether the digital currency would even be introduced in the midst of turmoil.

Venezuela’s traditional currency, the bolivar, has significantly declined in recent weeks as U.S. sanctions make it harder for the country to stay current on its foreign debt.

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Facebook Opens New London Office, to Create 800 UK Jobs

Facebook opens its new London office on Monday and said it would add 800 more jobs in the capital next year, underlining its commitment to Britain as the country prepares for Brexit.

The social network said more than half of the people working at the site in central London will focus on engineering, making it Facebook’s biggest engineering hub outside the United States.

It will also house Facebook’s first in-house start-up incubator, called LDN_LAB, designed to help kick start fledgling British digital businesses.

EMEA vice president Nicola Mendelsohn said Facebook was more committed than ever to the U.K. and supporting the growth of the country’s innovative start-ups.

“The U.K.’s flourishing entrepreneurial ecosystem and international reputation for engineering excellence makes it one of the best places in the world to build a tech company,” she said.

“And we’ve built our company here – this country has been a huge part of Facebook’s story over the past decade, and I look forward to continuing our work to achieve our mission of bringing the world closer together.”

The new jobs, which come 10 years after the company set up its first London office, will take Facebook’s total British workforce to more than 2,300 by the end of 2018, it said.

Facebook, along with other U.S. digital giants including Google and Amazon, has not been deterred from expanding in London by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

It announced the new headquarters last year, shortly after Google said it was building a new hub in the city that will be able to accommodate more than 7,000 employees in total.

Facebook’s new office in the capital’s West End, designed by architect Frank Gehry, will house engineers, developers, marketing and sales teams working on products like Workplace, its business product which was built in London, it said.

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Trump Tweets About Russia Probe Spark Warnings From Lawmakers

A series of tweets by U.S. President Donald Trump about the investigation into contacts between his 2016 campaign and Russia prompted concerns on Sunday among both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham saying Trump could be wading into “peril” by commenting on the probe.

“I would just say this with the president: There’s an ongoing criminal investigation,” Graham said on the CBS program “Face the Nation.” “You tweet and comment regarding ongoing criminal investigations at your own peril,” he added.

On Sunday morning, Trump wrote on Twitter that he never asked former FBI Director James Comey to stop investigating Michael Flynn, the president’s former national security adviser – a statement at odds with an account Comey himself has given.

That tweet followed one on Saturday in which Trump said: “I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President (Mike Pence) and the FBI.”

Legal experts and some Democratic lawmakers said if Trump knew Flynn lied to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and then pressured Comey not to investigate him, that could bolster a charge of obstruction of justice.

Trump’s attorney, John Dowd, told Reuters in an interview on Sunday that he had drafted the Saturday tweet and “made a mistake” when he composed it.

“The mistake was I should have put the lying to the FBI in a separate line referencing his plea,” Dowd said. “Instead, I put it together and it made all you guys go crazy. A tweet is a shorthand.”

Dowd said the first time the president knew for a fact that Flynn lied to the FBI was when he was charged.

Dowd also clouded the issue by saying that then-acting U.S. attorney general Sally Yates informed White House counsel Don McGahn in January that Flynn told FBI agents the same thing he told Pence, and that McGahn reported his conversation with Yates to Trump. He said Yates did not characterize Flynn’s conduct as a legal violation.

Dowd said it was the first and last time he would craft a tweet for the president.

“I’ll take responsibility,” he said. “I’m sorry I misled people.”

Yates did not respond to an email seeking comment, and a lawyer for McGahn did not respond to requests for comment.

The White House also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

‘Continual tweets’

The series of tweets came after a dramatic turn of events on Friday in which Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations last December with Russia’s then-ambassador in Washington, Sergei Kislyak, just weeks before Trump entered the White House.

Flynn also agreed to cooperate with prosecutors delving into contacts between Trump’s inner circle and Russia before the president took office.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she believed the indictments in the investigation so far and Trump’s “continual tweets” pointed toward an obstruction of justice case.

“I see it most importantly in what happened with the firing of Director Comey. And it is my belief that that is directly because he did not agree to lift the cloud of the Russia investigation. That’s obstruction of justice,” Feinstein said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“The president knew [Flynn] had lied to the FBI, which means that when he talked to the FBI director and asked him to effectively drop this case, he knew that Flynn had committed a federal crime,” Adam Schiff, senior Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told the ABC program “This Week.”

The Russia matter has dogged Trump’s first year in office, and this weekend overshadowed his first big legislative win when the Senate approved a tax bill.

Flynn was the first member of Trump’s administration to

plead guilty to a crime uncovered by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. election and potential collusion by Trump aides.

Russia has denied meddling in the election and Trump has said there was no collusion.

Comey, who had been investigating the Russia allegations, was fired by Trump in May. He told the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee in June he believed his dismissal was related to the Russia probe, and said Trump asked him to end the investigation of Flynn.

“I never asked Comey to stop investigating Flynn. Just more Fake News covering another Comey lie!” Trump said on Twitter on Sunday.

On CBS, Graham criticized Comey, saying he believed the former FBI director made some “very, very wrong” decisions during his tenure. But Graham also said Trump should be careful about his tweets.

“I’d be careful if I were you, Mr. President. I’d watch this,” Graham said.

 

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2 Polls Split on Who Is Winning US Senate Race in Alabama

Four-decade-old sexual misconduct allegations against Alabama Republican Roy Moore are playing a major role for voters in his campaign for a U.S. Senate seat, but nine days ahead of the election two major polls are split whether he is ahead of Democrat Doug Jones.  

A CBS News/YouGov poll on Sunday said Moore, twice deposed from the Alabama Supreme Court for failing to adhere to federal court rulings, is ahead of Jones, a former federal prosecutor, by a 49-to-43 percent margin among likely voters.  A day earlier, The Washington Post-Schar School survey showed Jones ahead, 50-47.

The December 12 contest has been roiled by accusations from two women who alleged that Moore, when he was a local prosecutor in early 30s, sexually abused them when they were teenagers, while other women, now also in their 50s, said that Moore pursued them for dates when they were teens.

The CBS poll said that Republicans, by a 71-17 percent margin, think the allegations are false and that they believe Democrats and the media are behind the accusations.  One of the accusers, one of whom was 14 at the time, first told her account in the Post, while a second woman held a news conference.  The Post’s poll similarly showed Republicans’ disbelief about the allegations, with fewer than one in six Republican-leaning likely voters believing that Moore made unwanted sexual advances against the girls.

The CBS poll said half of Moore’s supporters are backing him because they want a senator who would cast votes for conservative causes, rather than because they think he is the best candidate in the election.  The Post said its survey showed that a quarter of voters say moral conduct will be the deciding factor if how they decide to vote, with Jones winning such voters over Moore by a 67-30 margin.

The election is for the last three years of the seat once held by Jeff Sessions, who resigned it to join President Donald Trump’s Cabinet as attorney general, the country’s top law enforcement official.

Trump has said Jones would prove to be an unwanted liberal vote in the Senate representing a deeply conservative state.  Other key Republicans have called for Moore to drop out of the race, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan and two former Republican presidential nominees, Mitt Romney and Senator John McCain.

Some Republicans say that Moore, if he wins and is seated in the Senate, should then be immediately expelled because of the sexual misconduct allegations.  McConnell on Sunday said it is up to Alabama voters to decide the election and that should Moore win, it would be up to the Senate Ethics Committee to consider the women’s accusations.

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Trump Says Former FBI Chief Comey Lied to Congress

U.S. President Donald Trump, in a series of Sunday morning tweets from the White House, attacked his own Federal Bureau of Investigation and said he never asked then-FBI Director James Comey to stop investigating his one-time national security adviser Michael Flynn about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to Washington.

 

The FBI’s reputation is “in Tatters – worst in History,” but the Trump administration will “bring it back to greatness,” the president declared on Twitter.

 

In a separate tweet on Comey’s sworn testimony before Congress that the president had asked him to stop the probe of Flynn, Trump said “Just more Fake News covering another Comey lie.”

The tweets come two days after Flynn pleaded guilty in Washington to lying to FBI agents about conversations he had with former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the weeks before Trump assumed power in January.

Trump, on Sunday on the same social media platform, also attacked the FBI amid revelations that an agent, who had written emails favoring Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton in the presidential election, was dropped from the probe after the emails were discovered.

“Now it all starts to make sense!” Trump said.

 

“The president should have no comment whatsoever on either of these investigations,” said Republican Senator Susan Collins on the NBC News “Meet the Press” program on Sunday. “And the only thing that he should be doing is directing all of his staff and associates to fully cooperate.”

 

A tweet sent out Saturday on the @realDonaldTrump account is also attracting significant scrutiny.

 

Trump tweeted that he “had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!”

 

That suggests the president was aware that when he fired Flynn on February 13 – after less than a month as his national security advisor – the president was aware the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency had lied to the FBI when agents interviewed him weeks earlier.

 

The president’s personal lawyer says he wrote that tweet and told the Axios news website on Sunday that it was “my mistake” that he passed along in a draft to White House social media director Dan Scavino.

“I’m out of the tweeting business,” John Dowd said with a chuckle, according to Axios. “I did not mean to break news.”

To many the tweet implies that the president is admitting obstruction of justice.

And many are questioning Dowd’s explanation of it.

“It seems as implausible as it is convenient to President Trump,” says Ned Price, who was a special assistant to President Barack Obama on the National Security Council staff.

“The idea that a lawyer would draft that – without any input from or clearance by Trump – doesn’t strike me as believable,” Price, a former CIA senior analyst and spokesperson, tells VOA. “Add that to the long list of cover-ups.”

As part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s criminal investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow, he is looking into whether the president obstructed justice in asking Comey to curb his investigation of Flynn and then later by firing the FBI director.

Flynn faces up to five years in prison following Friday’s guilty plea but has agreed to cooperate with the special counsel’s investigation.

 

“I do believe he will incriminate others in the administration. Otherwise, there was no reason for Bob Mueller to give Mike Flynn this kind of deal,”  Congressman Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on ABC’s “This Week” television program said, adding that, “whether that will ultimately lead to the president, I simply don’t know.”

 

Mueller is formulating a case of obstruction of justice against the president, according to the ranking Democrat on the Senate’s judiciary committee.

 

I think we see this in the indictments, the four indictments and pleas that have just taken place, and some of the comments that are being made. I see it in the hyper-frenetic attitude of the White House: the comments every day, the continual tweets,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

 

“And I see it, most importantly, in what happened with the firing of Director Comey and it is my belief that that is directly because he did not agree to lift the cloud of the Russia investigation,” according to Feinsten. “That’s obstruction of justice.”

 

Flynn was one of Trump’s close confidants during last year’s presidential campaign in which the Republican nominee pulled off a stunning upset over Clinton.

 

Flynn, who was also previously fired by President Barack Obama as DIA director, gained widespread public attention at the Republican National Convention when he led chants of “Lock her up,” referring to Clinton.

 

Outside the Federal District Courthouse in Washington on Friday, where he entered his perjury guilty plea, Flynn was taunted with chants of “Lock him up.”

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