NAFTA Nations Plan Talks Progress Under Barrage of Trump Threats

Trade negotiators plan to take small steps forward in a second round of talks to rework the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) this weekend, trying to ignore daily threats from U.S. President Donald Trump

to tear it up if he does not get his way.

Trump has used Twitter, press conferences and speeches to attack NAFTA in recent days, a ploy Mexican and Canadian officials regard as a negotiating strategy to wring concessions, but which has heightened uncertainty over the accord.

“Hopefully we can renegotiate it, but if we can’t, we’ll terminate it and we’ll start all over again with a real deal,” Trump told cheering workers at a factory in Missouri on Wednesday, as Mexico’s foreign and trade ministers met their U.S. counterparts in Washington to keep relations on track.

Away from the diplomatic noise, trade experts from the three NAFTA nations hope to advance the revamp during the five days of talks in Mexico that start on Friday by working through areas of greater consensus before turning to trickier issues.

“We want to see positive signs of progress at the

negotiating tables,” said Moises Kalach, head of the

international negotiating arm of Mexico’s CCE business lobby, which is leading the private sector in the talks. “Hopefully we’ll get it, even if it doesn’t have to be stated publicly. Hopefully we’ll start getting closure on some issues.”

Overall, the Mexican round, which follows talks two weeks ago in Washington, is expected to define more clearly the priorities of each nation rather than yield major breakthroughs.

The emergence of detailed positions on the tougher points looks less likely in this round, officials said.

Kalach and one Mexican negotiator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, saw broad agreement between the NAFTA members on how to improve conditions for small businesses, as well as in salvaging elements of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade accord that Trump ditched after taking office.

Some agreement but hurdles remain

Some consensus was forged between the three countries when the TPP was finalized in 2015 on issues including the environment, anti-corruption, labor rules and digital trade.

More divisive issues that could enter the talks range from exploring the scope to raise NAFTA content requirements for autos to the contested U.S. demand to scrap the so-called Chapter 19 dispute settlement mechanism for resolving complaints about illegal subsidies and dumping, officials say.

A key plank of the U.S. strategy is how to reduce its trade deficit with Mexico, which has sent negotiators scrambling for creative ways to rebalance trade, Kalach said.

One hope is that Mexico’s incipient oil and gas sector opening will result in more imports and infrastructure investment from U.S. companies, some of which have already entered the market, such as Exxon Mobil Corp and Chevron Corp.

Folding that reform into NAFTA in a way that would make any attempt to unwind it politically costly for a future Mexican government would give U.S. and Canadian investors more security, Kalach and the Mexican negotiator said.

The risk the reform will stall has preoccupied officials in the region because the current front-runner for Mexico’s July 2018 presidential election, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, opposed the opening of the energy industry.

“The best thing [the United States and Canada] can do is protect NAFTA because this essentially protects their investments,” said Kalach.

Throwing words around

Trump has accused Mexico and Canada of being “very difficult”, and officials from both countries say his words come as little surprise given his confrontational negotiating style.

Still, Mexico’s government has touted a back-up plan, seeing a “high risk” that NAFTA could unravel.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday shrugged off the threats and Canadian officials close to the process said they remained fully focused on the talks.

“There are always going to be words thrown about here and there but … we will continue to work seriously and respectfully to improve NAFTA to benefit not just Canadians but our American and Mexican friends as well,” Trudeau said.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer declined to comment directly on how Trump’s comments would affect the talks. However, trade experts say they are unlikely to foster a spirit of cooperation.

“I think his tweets and statements are just complicating what’s already a difficult negotiation,” said Wendy Cutler, a former deputy USTR and lead U.S. negotiator for the TPP. “I think it will embolden the naysayers in Canada and Mexico who don’t want to move in certain areas by telling the negotiators, ‘don’t move on these issues because the president has already said he probably won’t sign off on this deal’.”

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French Labor Reform Gives Firms Flexibility

The French government said on Thursday it would cap unfair dismissal payouts and give companies more flexibility to adapt pay and working hours to market conditions in a labor reform France’s biggest union said was disappointing.

The reform, President Emmanuel Macron’s first major policy step since his election in May, is also the first big test of his plans to reform the euro zone’s second-biggest economy.

For decades governments of the left and right have tried to reform France’s strict labor rules, but have always diluted them in the face of street protests.

The government said in a document presenting the reform that it will make it possible to adapt work time, remuneration and workplace mobility to market conditions based on agreements reached by simplified majority between employers and workers.

Workers compensation for dismissal judged in a labor court to be unfair would be set at three months of wages for two-years in the company with the amount rising progressively depending on how long a worker was with the firm, unions said.

However, normal severance pay would be increased from 20 percent of wages for each year in a company to 25 percent, Liberation reported.

The government consulted with unions for weeks as it drafted the reform, and only the hardline CGT union, the country’s second biggest, said from the start that it would hold a protest, set for Sept. 12.

France’s biggest union, the reformist CFDT, said that it would not call a strike against the reform but described the reform as a missed opportunity to improve labor relations.

“CFDT disappointed,” the union’s leader Laurent Berger told reporters after a meeting with the government, but he added: “Taking to the streets is not the only mode of action for unions.”

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Trump’s Immigrant Crackdown Could Slow Houston Rebuilding

In the coming weeks, as Houston turns its attention to rebuilding areas devastated by Tropical Storm Harvey, people like Jay De Leon are likely to play an outsized role — if they stay around.

De Leon, 47, owns a small construction business in Houston, and he and his 10 employees do exactly the kind of demolition and refurbishing the city will need. But like a large number of construction workers in Texas, De Leon and most of his workers live in the United States illegally, and that could make things complicated.

The Pew Research Center estimated last year that 28 percent of Texas’s construction workforce is undocumented, while other studies have put the number as high as 50 percent. Construction employed 23 percent of working undocumented adults in Texas at the end of 2014, higher than any other sector, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Undocumented immigrants nervous

However, undocumented immigrants are growing increasingly nervous in Texas because of an immigration crackdown by the Trump administration that has cast a wide net.

In addition, a new Texas law that would have taken effect later this week bars cities from embracing so-called sanctuary policies, where they offer safe harbor to illegal immigrants, and allows local police to inquire about a person’s immigration status. A federal judge Wednesday temporarily blocked most of the law from taking effect.

De Leon, who has lived in the country for 20 years and has two citizen children, says the changes have spooked the city’s migrant workforce. In recent weeks, he said, one of his employees left the state and another returned to Mexico. Both feared that if they stayed they risked arrest.

Departing workers, he says, pose a problem for Houston in the wake of Harvey, which has caused flood damage to commercial buildings, houses, roads and bridges expected to run into tens of billions of dollars.

“The situation that Houston is going through now with the hurricane is going to be the trial by fire for the Republicans and the governor that approved these radical laws,” De Leon said. “They will need our migrant labor to rebuild the city. I believe that without us it will be impossible.”

Undocumented workers perform a wide range of construction jobs, from framing and dry-walling to plumbing and wiring.

Shortage of U.S. trained workers

Stan Marek, chief executive of Marek Construction in Texas, said his company doesn’t hire undocumented immigrants and has long had difficulty finding enough trained U.S. workers.

“It’s a crisis,” Marek said. “We are looking at several thousand homes that have flood damage. There is no way the existing (legal) workforce can make a dent in it.”

Marek would like to see the federal government grant emergency work authorization for undocumented workers in the rebuilding effort, he said. Otherwise, those immigrants are likely to be hired by firms that do not pay payroll taxes or provide benefits like workers’ compensation and legally mandated overtime.

It isn’t yet possible to estimate how many construction jobs will be added in Texas as it rebuilds, but in the 12 months after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Louisiana added 14,800 jobs in the sector, U.S. government data shows.

About 25 percent of the construction workers involved in the cleanup of New Orleans were undocumented, according to a study by researchers at Tulane and UC Berkeley universities. Those without papers were “especially at risk of exploitation,” the study found.

Worker exodus

The labor shortages are likely to grow worse, many builders warn. Earlier this year, a group of Hispanic contractors sent a letter to Texas Governor Greg Abbott warning that the pending ban on sanctuary city policies would make it “difficult to find and retain experienced workers.”

Javier Arrias, chairman of the Hispanic Contractors Association de Tejas and one of the letter’s signers, told Reuters that “many construction workers are already moving to other states.”

Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the role undocumented workers might play in the recovery.

Elizabeth Theiss, president of Houston-based anti-immigration group Stop the Magnet, sees another option besides looking to workers in the country illegally. She says the rebuilding effort should be used to help train U.S. veterans and other citizens who need jobs.

Theiss acknowledged that reconstruction might proceed more slowly, at least initially, if immigrants without work documents are not part of the effort, but she noted that rebuilding would be slow under any scenario.

Personal hardships

Whatever role undocumented people play in rebuilding Houston, they could face hardships rebuilding their own lives.

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides emergency food, water and medicine to anyone, regardless of immigration status, cash assistance and other longer term aid is only available to citizens and immigrants in households where at least one family member has legal status.

Immigrant advocates are launching private fundraising drives to help fill the void.

“It is deeply tragic and un-American that so many of those working men and women who will be rebuilding Houston and the rest of the state will be doing so while facing tragedy in their own lives,” said Jose Garza, executive director of the Workers Defense Project.

De Leon said his family was lucky and did not suffer flood damage. He is now busy rounding up supplies for immigrant families stuck at shelters who are afraid to seek out more help from authorities.

In the end, he says, President Donald Trump has to know “it’s going to be impossible to rebuild Houston without the labor force of immigrants. It is illogical, what he says with his words and what really has to happen.”

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Change in US Policy Makes It Harder to Rebuild for Future Floods

Two weeks before Harvey’s floodwaters engulfed much of Houston, President Donald Trump quietly rolled back an order by his predecessor that would have made it easier for storm-ravaged communities to use federal emergency aid to rebuild bridges, roads and other structures so they can better withstand future disasters.

Now, with much of the nation’s fourth-largest city under water, Trump’s move has new resonance. Critics note the president’s order could force Houston and other cities to rebuild hospitals and highways in the same way and in the same flood-prone areas.

“Rebuilding while ignoring future flood events is like treating someone for lung cancer and then giving him a carton of cigarettes on the way out the door,” said Michael Gerrard, a professor of environmental and climate change law at Columbia University. “If you’re going to rebuild after a bad event, you don’t want to expose yourself to the same thing all over again.”

Trump’s action is one of several ways the president, who has called climate change a hoax, has tried to wipe away former President Barack Obama’s efforts to make the United States more resilient to threats posed by the changing climate.

Consideration of climate predictions

The order Trump revoked would have permitted the rebuilding to take into account climate scientists’ predictions of stronger storms and more frequent flooding.

Bridges and highways, for example, could be rebuilt higher, or with better drainage. The foundation of a new fire station or hospital might be elevated an extra 3 feet (1 meter).

While scientists caution against blaming specific weather events like Harvey on climate change, warmer air and warmer water linked to global warming have long been projected to make such storms wetter and more intense. Houston, for example, has experienced three floods in three years that statistically were once considered 1-in-500-year events.

The government was still in the process of implementing Obama’s 2015 order when it was rescinded. That means the old standard — rebuilding storm-ravaged facilities in the same way they had been built before — is still in place.

Trump revoked Obama’s order as part of an executive order of his own that he touted at an August 15 news conference at Trump Tower. That news conference was supposed to focus on infrastructure, but it was dominated by Trump’s comments on the previous weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Trump didn’t specifically mention the revocation, but he said he was making the federal permitting process for the construction of transportation and other infrastructure projects faster and more cost-efficient without harming the environment.

“It’s going to be quick, it’s going to be a very streamlined process,” Trump said.

Asked about the revocation, the White House said in a statement that Obama’s order didn’t consider potential impacts on the economy and was “applied broadly to the whole country, leaving little room or flexibility for designers to exercise professional judgment or incorporate the particular context” of a project’s location.

Construction curbs

Obama’s now-defunct order also revamped Federal Flood Risk Management Standards, calling for tighter restrictions on new construction in flood-prone areas. Republicans, including Senator John Cornyn of Texas, opposed the measure, saying it would impede land development and economic growth.

Revoking that order was only the latest step by Trump to undo Obama’s actions on climate change.

In March, Trump rescinded a 2013 order that directed federal agencies to encourage states and local communities to build new infrastructure and facilities “smarter and stronger” in anticipation of more frequent extreme weather.

Trump revoked a 2015 Obama memo directing agencies developing national security policies to consider the potential impact of climate change.

The president also disbanded two advisory groups created by Obama: the interagency Council on Climate Preparedness and Resilience and the State, Local and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience.

Obama’s 2015 order was prompted in part by concerns raised by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper after severe flooding in his state two years earlier. Hickenlooper was dismayed to learn that federal disaster aid rules were preventing state officials from rebuilding “better and smarter than what we had built before.”

The “requirements essentially said you had to build it back exactly the way it was, that you couldn’t take into consideration improvements in resiliency,” Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said Tuesday. “We want to be more prepared for the next event, not less prepared.”

Bud Wright, the Federal Highway Administration’s executive director during George W. Bush’s administration, said this has long been a concern of federal officials.

He recalled a South Dakota road that was “almost perpetually flooded” but was repeatedly rebuilt to the same standard using federal aid because the state didn’t have the extra money to pay for enhancements.

“It seemed a little ridiculous that we kept doing that,” said Wright, now the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ executive director.

Big federal ‘checkbook’

But Kirk Steudle, director of Michigan’s Department of Transportation, said states can build more resilient infrastructure than what they had before a disaster by using state or nonemergency federal funds to make up the cost difference.

“That makes sense, otherwise FEMA would be the big checkbook,” he said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Everybody would be hoping for some disaster so FEMA could come in and build them a brand-new road to the 2020 standard instead of the 1970 standard.”

Even though Obama’s order has been revoked, federal officials have some wiggle room that might allow them to rebuild to higher standards, said Jessica Grannis, who manages the adaptation program at the Georgetown Climate Center.

If local building codes in place before the storm call for new construction to be more resilient to flooding, then federal money can still be used to pay the additional costs.

For example, in Houston regulations require structures to be rebuilt 1 foot (30 centimeters) above the level designated for a 1-in-100-year storm. And in the wake of prior disasters, FEMA has moved to remap floodplains, setting the line for the 1-in-100-year flood higher than it was before.

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IMF Says Transport, Food Costs Are Up in Qatar After Rift

The International Monetary Fund said Wednesday that transportation and food costs in Qatar had “edged up” because of a diplomatic rift that led four Arab countries to cut ties with the small Gulf state.

An IMF team visited the capital, Doha, this week, saying in a statement that Qatar’s government was able to soften the immediate impact of trade disruptions, but that some costs had gone up as a result of delays caused by rerouting trade. Non-oil growth is projected to shrink to 4.6 percent this year, down 1 percentage point.

In June, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and transport links with Qatar. Saudi Arabia also sealed Qatar’s only land border, a major conduit for imports.

Qatar turned to other exporters like Turkey, Iran and Morocco to fill gaps in its food imports and the construction material needed to build infrastructure for soccer’s World Cup in 2022, set to take place there. Qatar also rerouted its shipments through ports in Oman after the UAE blocked Qatar-bound shipments from using its national waters.

The IMF said Qatar’s banking sector remained sound and that the impact of the severed ties was mitigated by liquidity injections by the Qatar Central Bank and increased public sector deposits. The international lender said Qatar was prepared for any withdrawal of nonresident deposits.

The four countries accused Qatar of sponsoring terrorism and backing extremist groups. Qatar denied the accusations and said the moves were aimed at pressuring the country to fall in lockstep with policies formulated in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

The IMF warned the rift could have a wider impact across the Gulf Cooperation Council, which consists of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman.

“Over the longer term, the diplomatic rift could weaken confidence and reduce investment and growth, both in Qatar and possibly in other GCC countries as well,” the statement said.

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Waiting, Watching: Business Owners Worry About Harvey Damage

With the animals sent to safety before Harvey hit, the owners of CityVet in Houston kept watch on their empty practice by security camera, hoping not to see floodwaters rush in.

But they lost the video stream Monday morning, apparently when power to the building near Houston’s Galleria failed. So, it was impossible to assess if any damage was occurring, said Paul Kline, a veterinarian based in and watching from Dallas. To his relief, the video came back Tuesday and “we could see cars going by on the street outside — a good sign,” Kline said. By Wednesday, with the rains gone, he could see the practice had escaped the flooding in the area.

Plenty of small-business owners spent a long five days, waiting to see if the rainfall that totaled more than 50 inches in some places would flood their businesses. Harvey’s winds and rains damaged or destroyed many small businesses in the storm’s path along the Gulf Coast.

It was a tornado spawned by Harvey that destroyed the office of Kenneth Bryant’s used-car dealership in Katy, Texas, just west of Houston. The winds Saturday morning picked up the office and slammed it into the building next door.

“I lost everything in there: titles to vehicles, keys, paperwork, computers,” said Bryant, whose business was not insured. Two of the 10 cars in his inventory were destroyed.

There was more bad news Wednesday: The remaining cars had been flooded. Bryant won’t know how severely they were damaged until he is able to unlock them.

“Where do we go from here? I don’t know. It’s going to be such a long road ahead,” Bryant said.

Lost sales, revenue, profits

For many companies, damage to their premises was just the start. Some lost inventory that would cost them future sales. Workers were stranded or dealing with the devastation of their homes. Companies that couldn’t operate were losing revenue and profits every day.

Fiyyaz Pirani estimates that his Houston-based company, Medology, lost $100,000 in new business. It’s been operating with six staffers instead of its usual 60 since the storm began, and accommodating only existing customers.

“We had a couple of employees who sustained a lot of damage to their homes, and some people are in shelters,” he said.

The company, which helps patients get low-cost lab tests and other services, moved back to its regular location Tuesday from temporary quarters, with generator power but no air conditioning. Staffers were working around some puddles of water at their top-floor office.

Eleanor Rem had several inches of water in her Houston home, which also houses her business. Rem, who helps children with dyslexia learn to read, opted not to try what might have been a difficult evacuation with an 88-year-old relative.

The rains that flooded her street, backyard and driveway on Monday began creeping into her home. She and her husband got their first-floor furniture upstairs, but the carpet was soaked. Rem said she was constantly checking to see how bad the damage was.

“We’re pretty exhausted. You’re kind of nervous to go to sleep,” she said Wednesday. She expects she won’t be able to work for several weeks, in part because her students may not be able to get to her home.

‘Cross your fingers and hope for the best’

Other business owners who tried to keep an eye on their companies by watching the video from surveillance cameras ran into the same problems as the veterinary practice.

With all three of Clint Hall’s Beef Jerky Outlet stores near Houston in danger of flooding, he watched from his home in Cypress. The Galveston Island store got a foot of water as the rains continued Monday and Tuesday, but he could see the Tomball location was safe. The League City shop lost power and its cameras Saturday, so Hall had to rely on the owner of a nearby pizzeria for periodic updates. When the rains finally stopped, it had suffered one minor leak.

It was a hard five days. As Hall watched his cameras, he said, “we’re doing as well as we can.” He planned to open at least two of the stores Wednesday.

Lindsey Rose King spent five days not knowing whether the inventory for Mostess, her home decor gift box company, was safe. The warehouse where it’s all stored — cloth napkins and tablecloths, bottles of spices and cocktail mixes and other items — is in the Galleria section. The warehouse owners had to evacuate their home and couldn’t monitor the situation.

“It’s nerve-wracking. If that inventory gets wet, that’s my whole business,” King said. But Wednesday morning, the email came: Although the building did get some water, King’s merchandise was safe and dry.

Merin Guthrie worried about the possibility that water had seeped into the old loft building near downtown Houston that houses Kit, her clothing design business. Her studio is on the second floor, but friends in similar buildings said they had water coming in through their windows. Even if her fabric, samples and sewing equipment were dry, there was a threat of mold.

She got into the building Wednesday morning, found that water had indeed gotten in, but that her supplies and equipment were OK.

“You have to cross your fingers and hope for the best,” Guthrie said.

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Alexa, Cortana Talk to Each Other in Amazon-Microsoft Deal

Microsoft and Amazon are pairing their voice assistants together in a collaboration announced Wednesday.

Both companies say later this fall, users will be able to access Alexa using Cortana on Windows 10 computers and on Android and Apple devices. They’ll also be able to access Cortana on Alexa-enabled devices such as the Amazon Echo.

Microsoft says the tie-up will allow Alexa customers to get access to Cortana features such as for booking meetings or accessing work calendars. Cortana users, in turn, can ask Alexa to switch on smart home devices or shop on Amazon’s website.

The use of voice assistants is growing. Google and Amazon already have smart speakers on the market. Apple has HomePod coming with its Siri assistant, while Samsung plans one with Microsoft’s Cortana.

Amazon has little to lose from the partnership, and Microsoft’s Cortana — which has been largely limited to laptops — might get discovered by more users because of it, said Carolina Milanesi, a mobile technology analyst at Creative Strategies.

“Cortana might get a little bit more out of it because it gets Cortana out of the PC,” she said. “For Cortana to really get to be more important, it needs to be consistently used every day for different tasks.”

Milanesi said that for Amazon especially, which wants more people to consider Alexa as their first choice, the partnership also might be designed to send a message to customers and rivals.

“They both get something out of it, which is mainly showing Apple and Google that they’re willing to work together to get stronger,” Milanesi said.

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Peru Opposition Leader Investigated in Connection With Odebrecht

The Peruvian attorney general’s office has opened a criminal probe into opposition leader Keiko Fujimori for allegedly laundering money for scandal-plagued Brazilian builder Odebrecht, Fujimori’s attorney said on Tuesday.

The twice-defeated right-wing presidential candidate and eldest daughter of Peru’s imprisoned former leader Alberto Fujimori denied that she or her political party ever took money from Odebrecht.

“I’m certain the investigation will confirm that Odebrecht did not give us any money,” Fujimori said on Twitter. “I’ve always collaborated with all investigations and this will not be an exception.”

Fujimori’s lawyer, Edward Garcia, told Reuters the preliminary probe was opened in connection with notes that mention Fujimori by name that were taken by Odebrecht’s jailed former chief executive, Marcelo Odebrecht.

The attorney general’s office, which declined to comment, said on Monday it had received the contents of notes made on the cellphone of Odebrecht, but did not detail them.

Fujimori is already the subject of a money-laundering investigation related to 2016 campaign donations, but a probe in connection with Odebrecht might do more to hurt support for her and her Popular Force party, which controls a majority of seats in Congress.

Odebrecht is at the center of Latin America’s biggest corruption scandal and is reviled by many in Peru since admitting late last year to having bribed local officials over a decade-long period.

News website IDL Reporteros has published what it says are  notes taken by Odebrecht and confiscated by Brazilian authorities that include the phrase: “Raise Keiko to 500 and pay her a visit.”

Prosecutor German Juarez will lead the investigation into Fujimori, Garcia said.

Juarez recently persuaded local courts to jail former President Ollanta Humala for up to 18 months before trial while he is investigated for accusations of taking undeclared campaign donations from Odebrecht.

Humala narrowly defeated Fujimori during her first presidential bid in 2011. He is now sharing a prison with her father, who is serving a 25-year sentence for human rights violations and graft.

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Harvey’s Floods Scatter Cattle in Texas, Swamp Cotton Fields

South Texas ranchers are scrambling to relocate cattle from massive flooding spawned by Tropical Storm Harvey, with many hauling livestock up to the north of the state while others rush to move the animals to higher ground nearby.

About 1.2 million cattle are located in a 54-county disaster area drenched by Harvey, which made landfall as a hurricane last weekend. With more torrential rain in the forecast, ranchers are expressing worry that some animals could perish despite efforts to save them.

State is top producer of cattle, cotton   

Texas leads U.S. states in cattle and cotton production. An estimated $150 million worth of cotton has been lost as the storms ripped the bolls off plants and left white fiber strewn across fields.

Texas Gulf Coast export terminals that handle about a quarter of U.S. wheat exports also remained shuttered.

Of immediate concern to ranchers were cattle stranded by high water infested with venomous snakes, fire ants and alligators, said Hollis “Peanut” Gilfillian, a cattle rancher in Winnie, Texas, about 60 miles (96 km) east of hard-hit Houston.

“We’re in gator country … period,” said Gilfillian, adding that nearly every pond on the ranches in his area contain alligators.

“It’s not unusual to see an alligator in my backyard or road ditch,” he said, but added, “There’s plenty other animals that they (alligators) would much rather eat, such as fish, as opposed to trying to go after cattle.”

Ranchers had tried to prepare for the storm last week by moving cattle to the nearest hills or trucking them to safety in the north of the state, cattle industry groups said.

Chuck Kiker, who raises cattle on his farm near Beaumont, about 60 miles (96 km) northeast of Houston, opted to leave his animals in place but was caught off guard by the storm’s severity.

“You can’t move animals at this point, so you’re kind of stuck because of high water everywhere. There’s really no place to move them,” he said.

Disaster area declared

Texas Governor Greg Abbott has declared 54 counties a disaster area. About 27 percent of the state’s 4.46 million-head beef cow herd is in those 54 counties, according to Texas A&M University livestock economist David Anderson.

“Given that it’s August, I’m not sure that we would’ve seen a lot of the calves already sold. So you’ve a lot of young calves out there too that are in that disaster area,” Anderson said.

Grain terminals closed

Longer-term concerns for the cattle include foot rot from standing in water or muddy fields for long periods and the risk of disease from mosquitoes.

Heavy rains and flooding closed bulk grain terminals along the Texas Gulf Coast owned by major exporters including Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, although the companies say the facilities were not severely damaged.

BNSF Railway and Union Pacific suspended service to the flood-ravaged region, depriving exporters of a fresh supply of grain. The U.S. Coast Guard closed Texas Gulf ports including Houston, Galveston and Corpus Christi.

“With additional flooding likely during the next few days, normal train flows in the area may not resume for an extended period,” BNSF said in a customer service advisory.

Cotton blown away

On cotton farms, more than 300,000 bales have likely been lost, between cotton yet to be harvested and bales sitting on fields awaiting ginning, according to John Robinson, an agricultural economist at Texas A&M University.

The loss, though a small part of the total U.S. cotton crop of about 20 million bales a year, was devastating for individual farmers.

“The cotton that was where the hurricane hit was affected by the winds, it was blown right off the plant. Some of those fields are obliterated,” Robinson said.

“Some of the cotton will still be on the plant but strung out like someone papered your field with toilet paper,” he said.

Record crop lost

South Texas and Coastal Bend cotton farmers were expecting a record crop this year. Thirteen of the counties in the disaster area are major cotton producers.

“The South Texas Cotton and Grain Association has preliminary crop losses projected at $150 million. That’s just devastating to all of farmers down there,” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said in a statement.

Monday’s Intercontinental Commodity Exchange benchmark cotton price spiked 2.5 percent as a portion of the unharvested crop in Texas was destroyed or damaged by rain and high winds, traders said.

“The cooperative’s growers still have a lot of cotton in the field, maybe like 50 percent still out there. A lot of that will be lost because of the wind and rain,” said Jimmy Roppolo, general manager of United Agricultural Cooperative Inc in El Campo, Texas.

“It was the best cotton crop we ever raised. We really needed it this year to make up for other years,” Roppolo said.

 

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World’s Biggest Drone Drug Deliveries Take Off in Tanzania

Tanzania is set to launch the world’s largest drone delivery network in January, with drones parachuting blood and medicines out of the skies to save lives.

California’s Zipline will make 2,000 deliveries a day to more than 1,000 health facilities across the east African country, including blood, vaccines and malaria and AIDS drugs, following the success of a smaller project in nearby Rwanda.

“It’s the right move,” Lilian Mvule, 51, said by phone, recalling how her granddaughter died from malaria two years ago.

“She needed urgent blood transfusion from a group O, which was not available,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Malaria is a major killer in Tanzania, and children under age 5 often need blood transfusions when they develop malaria-induced anemia. If supplies are out of stock, as is often the case with rare blood types, they can die.

Tanzania is larger than Nigeria and four times the size of the United Kingdom, making it hard for the cash-strapped government to ensure all of its 5,000-plus clinics are fully stocked, particularly in remote rural areas.

The drones fly at 100 kph (62 mph), much faster than traveling by road. Small packages are dropped from the sky using a biodegradable parachute.

The government also hopes to save the lives of thousands of women who die from profuse bleeding after giving birth.

Tanzania has one of the world’s worst maternal mortality rates, with 556 deaths per 100,000 deliveries, government data show.

“It’s a problem we can help solve with on-demand drone delivery,” Zipline’s chief executive, Keller Rinaudo, said in a statement. “African nations are showing the world how it’s done.”

Companies in the United States and elsewhere are keen to use drones to cut delivery times and costs, but there are hurdles ranging from the risk of collisions with airplanes to ensuring battery safety and longevity.

The drones will cut the drug delivery bill for Tanzania’s capital, Dodoma, one of two regions where the project will first roll out, by $58,000 a year, according to Britain’s Department for International Development, one of the project’s backers.

The initiative could also ease tensions between frustrated patients and health workers.

“We always accuse nurses of stealing drugs,” said Angela Kitebi, who lives 40 kilometers east of Dodoma. “We don’t realize that the drugs are not getting here on time due to bad roads.”

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Study: Cereal, Drink Companies Often Overlook Risk of Forced Labor in Sugarcane

Food and beverage companies face the risk of forced labor in countries where they obtain sugarcane but most fall short in efforts to tackle the problem that threatens millions of workers, according to a study released on Tuesday.

Most of 10 companies studied offered only limited details of how they assess and monitor risks of forced labor in specific countries, and most of grievance procedures for workers are weak, said KnowTheChain (KTC), a partnership founded by U.S.-based Humanity United.

Sugarcane, a major agricultural commodity, can be found in a list of household foods and beverages from cereals to sauces and is often harvested by rural migrant workers with machetes who work long hours for low wages in hazardous conditions.

KTC said there is often little law enforcement and those workers are vulnerable to becoming victims of forced labor, especially by recruiters who deceive them about work and wages in other regions or countries.

“It is possible that the sugar in the cereal you ate for breakfast or the soda you drank at lunch was produced with forced labor,” said Kilian Moote, KnowTheChain project director, in a statement.

“Agricultural workers, particularly migrants, are at most risk of abuse.”

Sugarcane produced by forced labor has been found in Bolivia, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Myanmar and Pakistan, according to a list published in 2016 by the U.S. government.

Risk Assessment?

Verite, a KTC partner, also found reports of debt bondage of sugarcane workers in India and found sugarcane workers in Guatemala at a high risk of trafficking.

Globally, about 21 million people are victims of forced labor, made to work for free after falling into debt or forced to work due to deception, coercion or threat of violence, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).

In Brazil, the world’s largest producer of sugarcane, roughly a half million people work cutting the crop, according to industry statistics.

The companies studied were Coca-Cola, Fomento Economico Mexicano S.A.B (FEMSA), Monster Beverage, PepsiCo, The Hershey Co., Mondelēz International, Nestlé, Archer Daniels Midland, Associated British Foods (ABF) and Wilmar International.

PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Nestlé and ABF were the only four companies to undertake forced labor risk assessments of sugarcane supply chains in specific countries, the study said.

Coca-Cola has committed to conduct 28 country-level studies on child labor, forced labor, and land rights for its sugar supply chains by 2020, it said.

Most companies were lacking in revealing details of their risk assessment, monitoring and grievance procedures, it said.

“Few companies disclose information explaining how they address forced labor risks in specific countries, and, where they do, the information is typically focused on understanding and assessing risks, with limited information on concrete follow-up steps,” the researchers said.

Asked for a response, a Coca-Cola spokesman said the company provided detailed information to KTC.

“We believe the report speaks for itself,” a spokesman said, citing Coca-Cola’s policies on human and workplace rights posted on its website.

Contacted by email, none of other nine companies responded immediately to requests for comment.

The study compared policies and practices and used a questionnaire, to which eight of the 10 companies responded. ADM supplied only limited answers and Monster Beverage, a U.S. maker of energy drinks, did not respond, it said.

Coco-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé listed the countries they sourced from most, while Hershey, Mondelēz and Monster Beverage disclosed just one of their sugarcane-sourcing countries, it said.

ADM and Monster Beverage disclosed nothing about if or how they monitor working conditions in their sugarcane supply chains, it said.

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Are Consumers Ready to Give Augmented Reality a Try?

You might have gotten a taste of “augmented reality,” the blending of the virtual and physical worlds, as you chased on-screen monsters at real-world landmarks in last year’s gaming sensation, “Pokemon Go.”

Upcoming augmented reality apps will follow that same principle of superimposing virtual images over real-life settings. That could let you see how furniture will look in your real living room before you buy it, for instance.

While “Pokemon Go” didn’t require special hardware or software, more advanced AR apps will. Google and Apple are both developing technology to enable that. Google’s AR technology is already on Android phones from Lenovo and Asus. On Tuesday, Google announced plans to bring AR to even more phones, including Samsung’s popular S8 and Google’s own Pixel, though it didn’t give a timetable beyond promising an update by the end of the year.

As a result, Apple might pull ahead as it extends AR to all recent iPhones and iPads in a software update expected next month, iOS 11. Hundreds of millions of AR-ready devices will suddenly be in the hands of consumers.

But how many are ready to give AR a try?

Early applications

Of the dozen or so apps demoed recently for Android and iPhones, the ones showing the most promise are furniture apps.

From a catalog or a website, it’s hard to tell whether a sofa or a bed will actually fit in your room. Even if it fits, will it be far enough from other pieces of furniture for someone to walk through?

With AR, you can go to your living room or bedroom and add an item you’re thinking of buying. The phone maps out the dimensions of your room and scales the virtual item automatically; there’s no need to pull out a tape measure. The online furnishing store Wayfair has the WayfairView for Android phones, while Ikea is coming out with one for Apple devices. Wayfair says it’s exploring bringing the app to iPhones and iPads, too.

As for whimsical, Holo for Android lets you pose next to virtual tigers and cartoon characters. For iPhones and iPads, the Food Network will let you add frosting and sprinkles to virtual cupcakes. You can also add balloons and eyes — who does that? — and share creations on social media.

Games and education are also popular categories. On Apple devices, a companion to AMC’s “The Walking Dead” creates zombies alongside real people for you to shoot. On Android, apps being built for classrooms will let students explore the solar system, volcanoes and more.

Beyond virtual reality

Virtual reality is a technology that immerses you in a different world, rather than trying to supplement the real world with virtual images, as AR does. VR was supposed to be the next big thing, but the appeal has been limited outside of games and industrial applications. You need special headsets, which might make you dizzy if you wear one too long.

And VR isn’t very social. Put on the headset, and you shut out everyone else around you. Part of the appeal of “Pokemon Go” was the ability to run into strangers who were also playing. Augmented reality can be a shared experience, as friends look on the phone screen with you.

Being available vs. Being used

While AR shows more promise than VR, there has yet to be a “killer app” that everyone must have, the way smartphones have become essential for navigation and everyday snapshots.

Rather, people will discover AR over time, perhaps a few years. Someone renovating or moving might discover the furniture apps. New parents might discover educational apps. Those people might then go on to discover more AR apps to try out. But just hearing that AR is available might not be enough for someone to check it out.

Consider mobile payments. Most phones now have the capability, but people still tend to pull out plastic when shopping. There’s no doubt more people are using mobile payments and more retailers are accepting them, but it’s far from commonplace.

Expect augmented reality to also take time to take off.

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US Gearing Up for Digital Arms Race

In the straight-laced world of the U.S. military, the big room with glossy white paint stands out.

Beyond the desks lined with computer screens, the overhead projectors or the digital clock displaying the time in various world cities, the walls demand your attention.  

 

They are covered from floor to ceiling with questions, equations, sketches and ideas — scribbled frantically or in moments of inspiration — all representing the best thinking of some of the U.S. military’s best analysts.

 

“There are precious few places in this building where you can write on a wall,” said Albert Bolden, not surprisingly given that this is, after all, part of a military base.

But according to Bolden, the director of innovation at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, that’s part of the point for the so-called Innovation Hub, or iHUB.

 

“People from across the agency can come into this space and figure out how to solve our problems,” he said.

 

‘Relevant in this digital age’

 

While all this may sound like a feel-good tale of military structure melding with Silicon Valley ingenuity to make life easier by using technology, it is actually about much more.

 

“If we don’t embrace it, our adversaries will,” said outgoing DIA Director, Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart. “The fight for remaining relevant in this digital age is what keeps me awake.”

 

And Stewart was clear. It is, in many ways, an arms race.

 

“Our adversaries have been modernizing,” he warned, speaking to a small group of reporters in August, as the agency welcomed private companies and academics to the iHub for a series of so-called Industry Days.

 

And it is these encounters between the DIA’s own top thinkers and some of the best outside of government that form a second, crucial component of the iHub strategy. It is a chance to see how off-the-shelf technologies might be able to help solve problems the agency’s analysts have identified.

 

One company making a pitch to be part of this overall effort is an Austin, Texas-based artificial intelligence start-up called SparkCognition.

 

SparkCognition already has attracted interest from the U.S. Air Force. And companies like Verizon and Boeing are now investing more than $30 million in the company’s neural networks, designed to mimic the functionality of a human brain in order to predict likely outcomes.

 

“What we’ve done is automate that research that a data scientist would do,” said SparkCognition’s Sam Septembre following a question-and-answer session at the DIA’s iHub.

 

Instead of taking weeks or days, however, Septembre said SparkCognition’s systems can deliver results in hours or even minutes.

 

“We’re not just a black box,” added the company’s director of business operations, Timothy Stefanick. “We have why the [computer] model thought that.”

 

SparkCognition says its platforms already have succeeded in predicting Brexit, Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. And the company says it nearly correctly predicted President Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election by looking at sales of campaign merchandise, like Trump’s “Make America Great Again” baseball caps.

 

“The human factor got involved and skewed it,” said Stefanick, explaining that in the run-up to the election, the company’s analysts didn’t trust the initial prediction of a Trump victory because it differed so much from the polls. He said they then decided to have the computer models take into account additional factors, causing them to predict a Trump loss.

 

AI for video

 

Another company vying for a DIA contract is Percipient.ai, which focuses on applying artificial intelligence to video.

 

“This is a kind of capability that helps you get into productive analytics and helps you protect forces,” said company co-founder, ret. Brig. Gen. Balan Ayyar, a former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer who commanded a task force in Afghanistan.

“You can check any person in any video,” he said.

 

Ayyar and fellow Percipient.ai co-founder Raj Shah, say their platform can save analysts considerable time, for example scouring hundreds of hours of video from the scene of a terror attack to quickly identify if any suspected terrorists were nearby.

 

Even mobile phones could be used to track potential adversaries, programmed to vibrate, for instance, if a person of interest turns up in a “selfie.”

 

“With this kind of system, the [terror] watch list could be much, much bigger,” said Shah, who previously headed up Google Maps.

 

Already, Ayyar and Shah say Percipient.ai’s systems can identify suspicious activity, or tradecraft, like the use of specific getaway vehicles.

Handwriting on the wall

 

For DIA, the early results have been promising.

 

“We’ve seen examples when machines are able to provide insights to the analysts that they haven’t had,” said Randy Soper, a senior DIA analyst for analytics modernization.

 

To speed up the process, DIA even awards seed money — up to about $250,000 — to projects that have shown the most promise.

 

Two have already been approved and another four projects are set to receive funding once the once the money becomes available.

 

More projects could soon be added to the list. DIA’s Innovation Hub is still considering the latest pitches from industry and academia, like those from SparkCognition and Percipient.ai.

 

The agency says that overall, the response has been “overwhelming.”

 

But the success in reaching out to industry and academia also has brought some changes to the program.

 

Last week [August 22], the DIA opened up a new Innovation Hub.

 

At first glance, it looks sleek and modern, a row of screens and a digital world clock etched smoothly into wood-paneled walls, while a large conference table dominates the center of the room.

 

To be sure, it seems like quite a departure from the old iHub, which almost had the feel of a useful but makeshift classroom.

 

Some things, though, have not changed. The wood-paneling only extends so far. Much of the rest of the room is covered in that white, glossy paint.

 

“You can still write on the walls,” said one official.

 

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ДФС: після перевірки виявили 1,6 тисячі працівників, найнятих без трудових угод

У Державній фіскальній службі заявляють, що у ході перевірки виявили 1,6 тисячі найманих працівників, які не оформили трудові відносини з роботодавцем.

Як повідомляє прес-служба ДФС, з початку 2017 року під час перевірки суб’єктів господарювання порушення податкового законодавства виявлені в 61 відсотка перевірених платників.

Крім того, за даними служби, за результатами роз’яснювальної роботи роботодавці додатково уклали близько 23 тисяч трудових угод з найманими працівниками.

У ДФС також додають, що у січні – липні 2017 року погашено заборгованість із заробітної плати у сумі близько мільярда гривень, надійшло 118,2 мільйона гривень податку на доходи фізичних осіб та 375,2 мільйона гривень єдиного внеску.

До прокуратури спрямували матеріали щодо 40 юридичних осіб, які мали довготривалу заборгованість із виплати заробітної плати, зауважують у фіскальній службі.

З 2017 року в Україні вдвічі зросла мінімальна зарплата. Тепер де-юре роботодавці не можуть платити своїм працівникам менше ніж 3200 гривень.

Водночас у липні економісти в ефірі Радіо Свобода заявили, що номінальне підвищення рівня зарплати на сьогодні не є відчутним для громадян, оскільки реальні доходи українців є значно меншими. Тенденція до зростання зарплат є, однак в Україні вони досі лишаються значно меншими, ніж у сусідніх європейських країнах.

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Sky High Lifeguard Soon to be Monitoring Australian Beaches

It is still true that a person is more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a shark; but, that does not matter much to the 150 or so people who experienced what the International Shark Attack File calls “shark-human interaction in 2016. Still, some Australian eyes in the sky are helping lifeguards look out for the predators just offshore. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

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Peru Sees ‘Ambitious’ Trade Deal with Australia as Early as 2018

Peru expects a “very ambitious” free trade deal with Australia that covers goods, services and investments to be implemented as early as next year, Peru’s deputy trade minister said on Monday.

The two countries resumed free trade talks in Australia on Monday following a first round of negotiations in July in which “a lot of progress was made,” said Deputy Trade Minister Edgar Vasquez.

“This is going to be an agreement that we should be able to implement as soon as possible, starting in 2018,” Vasquez said by telephone in Lima. “That’s what we’d like to happen and what we think is viable.”

Peru and Australia are important global producers of minerals and their bilateral trade is relatively small.

Forging a free trade deal so quickly would mark one of the first steps toward reducing trade barriers in the Pacific region after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, which Australia and Peru had signed onto.

The remaining signatories to the TPP are in Australia this week discussing ways to salvage the deal. The 11 countries, which include Japan, Canada and Mexico, have a combined gross domestic product of $12.4 trillion.

Vasquez said the experience of negotiating the TPP had put Peru and Australia on solid footing for quickly hashing out a bilateral agreement.

“We also both have very open economies, so we’re really going to see a broad inclusion of sectors that will benefit from it – goods as well as services and investments,” Vasquez said.

Peru’s trade ministry said last month that rules of origin, migration and e-commerce were also under discussion and that Peru was eager to increase agricultural exports to Australia while spurring trade of mining and other professional services.

Australian trade officials were not immediately available for comment.

Peru’s exports to Australia amounted to $260 million last year, according to Peru’s trade ministry.

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