Saturday, July 17, 2010

Labor and Media in China

spent the past five days meeting people and learning the conventions, practices, international agreements and organizations, etc that are consequential to the duties of a Labor Officer. Part of my portfolio when I arrive in Kingston will be labor issues, which includes reporting on labor conditions in the countries, the government's compliance in enforcing international labor standards (as agreed upon within the International Labour Organization), major strikes or organized labor movements, etc. The US foreign affairs community is interested in labor issues on several fronts, and the "Decent Work" agenda is supported by the government, the business community, and of course the national labor unions.

Today we had meetings and heard presentations at the Solidarity Center, where the focus was on the international labor movement, especially how labor activists in the US were not only forging and maintaining bonds with communities of workers in other countries but how they American unions are supporting and helping to develop labor movements in countries where labor standards are not well enforced.
China was always an interesting caveat in these discussions, since the government controlled union is one of the world’s largest and because it is illegal to form private unions. While this poses challenges to the broader community of workers seeking solidarity with the workers of China, that is not to say that labor plays a small role in the country. On the contrary, despite the controlled nature of much of China’s news media, labor activists that I talked to today said how prominently workers issues, working standards, and worker actions against unacceptable work conditions were featured in Chinese media.

Even Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping remarked recently on the importance of labor unions in the country – see “China’s labor unions play unique role: Vice President” in The People’s Daily, a national English Language news source from China.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Finally, an Ambassador for Jamaica

"New US ambassador will be extremely valuable to Jamaica"

Well, almost... but not quite yet. The Jamaica Observer, among other publications, speaks of Amb Bridgewater's nomination as "pending." The US mission in Kingston has gone without an ambassador for 18 months. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Immigration and Consular Work: A challenge to ideals?

This is not a post about policy, or even about practice. This is a rumination on the beliefs, not fully formed though they are, I have developed regarding immigration, and how those views may be challenged once I get to the embassy in Kingston and begin interviewing people who want to come to the US for any number of reasons.

Training at the Foreign Service training institute gives me an opportunity to meet colleagues and share experiences, to get a plethora of opinions, useful hints, impressions on countries and Foreign Affairs life and practice. All Foreign Service Officers pass through FSI now and again - some are training for their first assignment, like me, some are coming back to the USA for the first time in 8 years to get a little training so they can go out and do it again. Talking to these veterans is often one of the most useful and most interesting part of a day.

However, a great piece of advice I got from a more seasoned colleague: no two officers have the same experience nor the same point of view, so be careful making any decisions or forming any expectations based on the stories of one person.

I have come to believe that immigration is one of the things that makes the United States a great country. Restricting the flow of smart and ambitious people that want to come to this country to build their home and life will strangle off one of the US's greatest comparative advantages.

I was struck, however, by the candor of a conversation I had with a colleague who had worked as a Consular Officer in a country where, like Jamaica, there are a large number of applicants for both Immigrant and Non Immigrant  Visas as well as a high occurrence of fraud in these Visa applications. No matter how liberal your views on immigration, this person told me, by the time you finish 12 months of interviewing 50 or more people a day, you are going to feel differently. Having people lie to you, over and over and over, the person said, wears you down, adding that many people have no respect for you as a representative of the United States or the legal process for the immigration process.

I am eager to get to Kingston and to have my ideals challenged. I am sure that there are people out there who will lie because they think it will increase their chances of making it into the US. Other, perhaps more optimistic Officers, have told me that people do often fudge the truth in their applications and their interviews, but more often than not it is because they simply do not fully understand the process or realize that the truth does not necessarily disqualify them for a visa.

However, whether I like it or not, it is my responsibility to realize that there are people who want to move across national borders in order to commit crimes or hurt other people. There is a lot of money to be made from moving drugs, for example, to the US. And of course, in a worse case scenario, there are people like the nefarious underwear bomber who boarded a US bound plane on a valid visa.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Chapter 3, where our hero meets the people and learns the words

Chapter one in the memoirs of a Foreign Service Officer usually chronicles the ridiculously long and tedious process of simply getting in, from the Written Test to each painful step to finally "getting off the register" and being placed in an incoming class. Chapter two is usually the now five week orientation training (still called A-100 after the original classroom). It is a shared experience, everyone goes through it, and it helps you establish a core group of colleagues and friends, a small tribe within the larger State Department, that can march together through their careers that inevitably diverge after A-100. I, and 92 other new FSO's, are members of the "Legendary 152nd" class, indeed, the 152nd class of new recruits to receive this training since they started the new counting system some twenty or so years ago.

The current chapter is for training, learning. We are all taking classes and consulting with people that are relevant to our specific jobs in the specific countries we are to go to.

I finished my Consular Officer training last week, and next week I start training as a Labor Officer at the Foreign Service Institute, giving me time this week for "consultations" and errand running. Aside from getting my new black U.S. passport, applying for my Jamaican visa, and booking travel from DC to Kingston, I also have an opportunity to schedule meetings with the people working here in Washington that form the backbone of support I will rely on when I do my job in Kingston.

For every issue that I may run across on the job in Jamaica - a case of child abduction, reporting on a labor dispute between a union and a large mining company, the Jamaican Government's deal with the IMF, a convicted drug smuggler applying for a tourist visa to "visit Disney World..." there is probably someone that works specifically with that issue back here at the State Department or one of the other agencies.

Getting out of the classroom and actually meeting these people, learning the words they use and seeing the way they communicate, within their own office and with posts around the world, is without a doubt very valuable. I have a feeling that I will appreciate everything I do now to reduce the learning curve once I get to post, where I will undoubtedly need to "drink water from a fire hose," as people like to say around here.  These people teach me the parlance, they know the context and the hot topics, they are familiar with the personalities that play important roles.

Interestingly, they each welcome me into their respective little empires as if I am a new member of their family, eager to be excited for me as they recall the excitements, turmoils, challenges and adventures of their first assignments. The sense of teamwork and camaraderie in the Foreign Service are powerful forces.