Face masks fail to hide Malaysia’s annual haze problem

A woman wears a mask as the Petronas Twin Towers are shrouded in haze in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday. (Reuters)
Updated 12 September 2019

Face masks fail to hide Malaysia’s annual haze problem

  • Malaysia has been hit by haze from forest fires in neighboring Indonesia since last week.

KUALA LUMPUR: When the reading on the Air Pollution Index (API) began to fluctuate between 200 and 300 on Tuesday evening, it prompted Malaysia’s National Disaster Management Agency to send 500,000 face masks to Sarawak. 

The toxicity in the air had put more than 150,000 students at risk, forcing the Education Ministry to suspend classes for 409 primary and secondary schools due to health concerns. 

Malaysia has been hit by haze from forest fires in neighboring Indonesia since last week. The resulting smog situation — a yearly issue for the country — is worsening in several areas of Malaysia, including the capital Kuala Lumpur, and engulfing other areas in the region, including Indonesia, Singapore, southern Thailand and the southern Philippines. 

On Wednesday, Malaysian authorities cautioned people against breathing in the smoke, warning that continuous exposure could have long-term effects on their lungs. “The public are advised to stay at home … any physical activities outside would make a person breath more of the air pollutants and increase the risk of haze-related illnesses,” said Dr. Noor Hisham Abdullah, department head at Malaysia’s Ministry of Health.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian government has opted for cloud seeding measures to create artificial rainfall and clear the air of pollutants.

“The Malaysian government will continue to do cloud seeding whenever the situation allows and send assistance to Indonesia if and when they accepted the offer,” said Yeo Bee Yin, minister of energy, science, technology, environment and climate change.

The haze problem has become a recurring issue for decades in the Southeast Asia region, despite the ratification of the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in 2014.

According to ASEAN’s Specialized Meteorological Center (ASMC), the hotspots consistently experiencing the problem are the provinces of Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra and Lampung. 

“This problem started in 1997 — that’s 20 years of ‘talking,’” said Prof. James Chin, an Australia-based political analyst, adding that “it’s the people and animals like the orangutan who are paying the price.”

“Indonesian (has) no capacity to fight fires. The fires are too many and are in the deep jungle. Besides that, there is too much corruption happening at the local level,” Chin said.

The root cause of the forest fires in Indonesia is complicated. Singapore-based analyst Dr. Oh Ei Sun told Arab News that among the causes of the current haze are the “slash-and-burn” techniques used by oil palm plantation owners and local residents.

“Most of the oil palm plantation are owned by non-Indonesians, and the weak enforcement of the law in Indonesia allowed the clearing forests to open more lands for planting oil palms,” he said. 

“So until these two practices could be somehow addressed, the haze could not be cleared,” he warned.

The Indonesian government has deployed thousands of fire-fighters and helicopters to prevent the fires from further engulfing the forests in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

“When traditional beliefs are replaced by the capitalist spirit, greed and profits become paramount,” said Australia-based anthropologist Prof. Alberto Gomez.

“We need more governmental and civil society organizations to work with communities to seek alternative economic pursuits such as agroforestry, instead of the fixation on cash crops like palm oil,” he told Arab News. 

Thousands of members of the United Auto Workers have walked out of General Motors facilities in the first nationwide strike in 12 years

Updated 29 min 35 sec ago

Thousands of members of the United Auto Workers have walked out of General Motors facilities in the first nationwide strike in 12 years

  • Late on Sunday, US President Donald Trump on Twitter urged the UAW and GM to “get together and make a deal!.”
  • A strike will very quickly shut down GM’s operations across North America and could hurt the broader US economy

DETROIT/WASHINGTON: The United Auto Workers (UAW) went on strike at General Motors just after midnight Sunday and about 48,000 hourly workers at its facilities are headed for the picket lines in the morning, union officials said early Monday.

US labor contract talks reached an impasse on Sunday, the UAW called for the first nationwide strike at GM in 12 years. “We do not take this lightly,” Terry Dittes, the UAW vice president in charge of the union’s relationship with GM, said at a news conference in downtown Detroit on Sunday.

“This is our last resort.” GM said in a statement that its offer to the UAW during talks included more than $7 billion in new investments, 5,400 jobs — a majority of which would be new — pay increases, improved benefits and a contract-ratification bonus of $8,000.
“We have negotiated in good faith and with a sense of urgency,” the automaker said.

Late on Sunday, US President Donald Trump on Twitter urged the UAW and GM to “get together and make a deal!.” GM spokesman Tony Cervone said the automaker “couldn’t agree more” with Trump’s call.

A strike will very quickly shut down GM’s operations across North America and could hurt the broader US economy. Prolonged industrial action would also cause hardship for GM hourly workers on greatly reduced strike pay.

GM’s workers last went out on a brief two-day strike in 2007 during contract talks. A more painful strike occurred in Flint, Michigan, in 1998, lasting 54 days and costing the No. 1 US automaker more than $2 billion.

No further talks were scheduled before the strike is set to begin, a union spokesman and GM said. Talks are set to resume on Monday at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT).

The union has been fighting to stop GM from closing auto assembly plants in Ohio and Michigan, and arguing workers deserve higher pay after years of record profits for GM in North America.

GM argues the plant shutdowns are necessary responses to market shifts, and that UAW wages and benefits are expensive compared with competing non-union auto plants in southern US states. In its statement, the automaker said its offer to the union included solutions for the Michigan and Ohio assembly plants currently lacking products.

A person familiar with GM’s offer said that could include producing a future electric vehicle in Detroit. It could also include turning a plant in Lordstown, Ohio, into an electric vehicle battery plant or going through with the proposed sale of the plant to a group affiliated with electric vehicle start-up Workhorse Group Inc.

A new battery plant could give some UAW workers at Lordstown the chance to remain with GM. The closure of Lordstown drew widespread criticism, including from Trump, who met with GM Chief Executive Mary Barra on Sept. 5. Ohio is crucial to Trump’s re-election bid in 2020.

But several Democratic presidential candidates said they backed the UAW, including Senators Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, former Vice President Joe Biden and Representative Tim Ryan.

Sanders noted GM received a US-taxpayer funded $50 billion bailout a decade ago. “Our message to General Motors is a simple one: End the greed, sit down with the UAW and work out an agreement that treats your workers with the respect and the dignity they deserve,” Sanders said in a statement.

Biden said on Twitter he backed the UAW’s demand for “fair wages and benefits for their members. America’s workers deserve better.”
The union has framed the plant closures as a betrayal of workers who made concessions in 2009 to help GM through its government-led bankruptcy.

“General Motors needs to understand that we stood up for GM when they needed us,” Ted Krumm, head of the union’s bargaining committee in talks with GM, said at the Sunday news conference. These are profitable times ... and we deserve a fair contract.”

The UAW says significant differences remain between both sides over wages, health care benefits, temporary employees, job security and profit sharing.

The strike will test both the union and GM at a time when the US auto industry is facing slowing sales and rising costs for launching electric vehicles and curbing emissions.

Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics at the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research (CAR), said the strike at GM’s US facilities will also shut its plants in Canada and Mexico as the automaker’s supply chain is so integrated.

“That’s going to have a big effect on the economy,” she said. GM starts off the strike with healthy levels of inventory of some its key, high-margin vehicles.

As of Sept. 1, the automaker had 96 days supply of its Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck, 59 days supply of its Chevrolet Equinox SUV and more than 100 days supply of the Cadillac Escalade.

If the strike is short, hourly workers should not suffer much. But strike pay provided by the UAW, which has been building up reserves in preparation for possible industrial action, is just $250 per week.

The automaker has 12 vehicle assembly plants, 12 engine and power train facilities and a handful of other US stamping plants and other facilities.

On Friday, the UAW announced temporary contract extensions with Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV (FCA) while it focused its attention on GM.

The union had targeted GM as the first automaker with which it wanted to conclude contract talks. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which transports some GM vehicles to dealerships, said it would honor the UAW’s GM picket lines.