Texas judge blocks student debt relief. Child labor law violations at JBS meatpacking plants. Myanmar civil war on the agenda at Asian summit.
Texas judge blocks student debt relief
Federal District Judge Mark T. Pittman, a Trump-appointee, has vacated an order by the Biden administration that would forgive about $400 billion in student loans to some 43 million borrowers. The decision came in a joint lawsuit with two plaintiffs. One of the plaintiffs was disqualified from receiving student loan relief after the Biden administration eliminated FFEL loan recipients from the program to fend off another lawsuit. The other plaintiff qualified to receive $10,000 in debt relief but was upset he didn’t qualify for the $20,000 in forgiveness for low-income Pell Grant recipients.
Persis Yu of the Student Borrower Protection Center, which advocates for debt relief, says the plaintiff’s case is an example of “the toddler problem”. In other words, “‘If I can’t have it, you can’t have it either’,” Yu says. “And that’s not how the law works. And it’s not how the courts should apply the law”.
But the crux of Pittman’s decision wasn’t whether the two plaintiffs had been aggrieved or even had standing. Instead, Pittman cast the executive order as government overreach, arguing that the President does not have the authority to forgive student debt without approval from Congress. The Biden administration has used the HEROES Act as its basis for Congressional authorization. In Pittman’s decision, he wrote, having interpreted the HEROES Act, the Court holds that it does not provide ‘clear congressional authorization’ for the Program proposed by the Secretary,” referring to the Secretary of Education.
Applications on hold
Debt relief advocates have argued that the 1965 Higher Education Act gives the President absolute authority over student financial assistance policies. Some have criticized the White House for adopting the more tenuous authorization of the HEROES Act. The Justice Department is appealing Pittman’s ruling. From there, the case would go to the 5th Circuit, one of the most conservative US Circuit Courts. If the 5th Circuit strikes down the order again, DOJ would have to appeal to the Supreme Court.
For now, the Department of Education has frozen new applications for the debt relief program. About 26 million people had already applied. Following another recent court case that temporarily blocked relief, the Department of Education had encouraged people to continue applying.
It’s uncertain what will happen now when a moratorium on student loan payments expires in January. When Biden announced the debt relief and an extension of the moratorium in August, he said that this would be the last extension.
Child labor law violations at JBS meatpacking plants
The Labor Department has discovered that children are illegally working in dangerous overnight cleaning jobs ad JBS meatpacking plants in Minnesota and Nebraska. One 13-year-old worker suffered severe burns from a caustic cleaning agent. JBS contracts its cleaning services out to Packers Sanitation Services, or PSSI. PSSI employs about 17,000 workers to perform contract labor at about 700 food processing plants. Investigators found that PSSI had illegally hired at least 31 children -between 13 and 17 years of age.
The Fair Labor Standards Act prohibits minors 13 years old and younger from working. The Act also restricts what hours 14- and 15-year-old employees can work and bars minors from working with hazardous equipment. The Department of Labor has accused PSSI of knowingly violating all of these labor laws.
PSSI claims it has a “zero-tolerance” policy on child labor and claims they were misled by individuals with fake IDs. However, the Labor Department says PSSI attempted to interfere with their investigation by intimidating minor workers to discourage them from cooperating with investigators, and by deleting and manipulating its employment files.
JBS claims to have been unaware of the violations taking place at several of its plants and says it is conducting a third-party investigation.
In a related story, a Hyundai plant in Alabama was accused of contracting with a firm that illegally employed minors earlier this year. Again Hyundai claimed to know nothing. The contracting firm, SMART Alabama, claimed they’d been deceived by individuals with fake IDs. Other workers at SMART said it was very obvious some of the employees were underage.
Biden attends Asian summit; Myanmar civil war on the agenda
In February 2021, a military coup removed Myanmar’s democratically-elected president Aung San Suu Kyi from power. Since then, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military junta) has been fighting against armed, pro-democracy rebels. Tatmadaw forces have carried out numerous massacres in its border regions where most of Myanmar’s ethnic minority populations reside. The military enters villages, slaughters all the men and sets the village ablaze in an attempt to suppress armed resistance.
Military courts have also imprisoned most of Myanmar’s civilian leadership and even executed a few. Throughout all this, the West has been quick to condemn the brutality of the Tatmadaw and has even imposed some sanctions. Some countries have also halted arms sales to Myanmar’s military. Other than that, the West has done little to aid Myanmar’s minority groups and protesters.
Meanwhile, senior Tatmadaw general Min Aung Hlaing has continued to procure weapons and military aircraft from Russia, and has voiced support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi has called on the West to impose sanctions to clamp down on Myanmar’s international oil and gas sales. Yi says the Tatmadaw gets around half of its financing through oil and gas sales. The EU has imposed restrictions on Myanmar’s fossil fuel industries, but the US and UK have not.
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