US to Proceed With Mexico Trade Pact, Keep Talking to Canada

U.S. President Donald Trump notified Congress on Friday of his intent to sign a trade agreement with Mexico after talks with Canada broke up earlier in the day with no immediate deal to revamp the tri-nation North American Free Trade Agreement.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said U.S. officials would resume talks with their Canadian counterparts next Wednesday with the aim of getting a deal all three nations could sign.

All three countries have stressed the importance of NAFTA, which governs billions of dollars in regional trade, and a bilateral deal announced by the United States and Mexico on Monday paved the way for Canada to rejoin the talks this week.

But by Friday the mood had soured, partly on Trump’s off-the-record remarks made to Bloomberg News that any trade deal with Canada would be “totally on our terms.” He later confirmed the comments, which the Toronto Star first reported.

“At least Canada knows where I stand,” he later said on Twitter.

Ottawa has stood firm against signing “just any deal.” 

​’Making progress’

But at a news conference Friday afternoon, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland expressed confidence that Canada could reach agreement with the United States on a renegotiated NAFTA trade pact if there was “goodwill and flexibility on all sides.”

“We continue to work very hard and we are making progress. We’re not there yet,” Freeland told reporters.

“We know that a win-win-win agreement is within reach,” she added. “With goodwill and flexibility on all sides, I know we can get there.”

The Canadian dollar weakened to C$1.3081 to the U.S. dollar after The Wall Street Journal first reported that the talks had ended Friday with no agreement. Canadian stocks remained 0.5 percent lower.

Global equities were also down following the hawkish turn in Trump’s comments on trade.

Lighthizer has refused to budge despite repeated efforts by Freeland to offer some dairy concessions to maintain the Chapter 19 independent trade dispute resolution mechanism in NAFTA, The Globe and Mail reported Friday.

However, a spokeswoman for USTR said Canada had made no concessions on agriculture, which includes dairy, but added that negotiations continued.

The United States wants to eliminate Chapter 19, the mechanism that has hindered it from pursuing anti-dumping and anti-subsidy cases. Lighthizer said on Monday that Mexico had agreed to cut the mechanism. For Ottawa, Chapter 19 is a red line.

Trump argues Canada’s hefty dairy tariffs are hurting U.S. farmers, an important political base for his Republican Party.

But dairy farmers have great political clout in Canada too, and concessions could hurt the ruling Liberals ahead of a 2019 federal election.

At a speech in North Carolina on Friday, Trump took another swipe at Canada. “I love Canada, but they’ve taken advantage of our country for many years,” he said.

Poland Counts WWII Damages It Wants to Seek from Germany

Poland says it lost more than 5 million citizens and over $54 billion dollars (46.6 billion euros) worth of assets under the Nazi German occupation of the country during World War II.

A parliamentary commission announced the numbers as part of the current Polish government’s declared intent to seek damages from Germany.

Poland spent decades under Soviet domination after the war and wasn’t able to seek damages independently. However, Germany is making payments to Polish survivors of Nazi atrocities.

Preliminary calculations done for the commission put the number of Polish citizens killed from 1939 to 1945 at 5.1 million, including 90 percent of Poland’s Jewish population.

Losses in cities were estimated to be worth 53 billion zlotys ($14 billion; 12 billion euros). Additional losses in agriculture and transportation infrastructure also were factored in.

Nicaragua to Expel UN Team Following Critical Report

The government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is expelling a United Nations human rights team two days after the body published a critical report blaming it for the violent repression of opposition protests.

Guillermo Fernandez Maldonado, chief of the U.N.’s human rights mission in Nicaragua, said Friday that he and his team were leaving the country.

“We are suspending any planned activity,” he said.

In a statement, the U.N. human rights regional office for Central America said it had received a letter Thursday from the foreign ministry notifying it that the government’s invitation was over.

“The letter indicates that said invitation was extended with the purpose of accompanying the Verification and Monitoring Commission and that with the reasons, causes and conditions finished that spurred said invitation, the invitation is considered concluded,” according to the statement.

The U.N. statement said the team will continue monitoring and reporting on the situation remotely.

It was a rough day for the U.N. in Central America. While the human rights mission was preparing to leave Nicaragua on Friday, military vehicles surrounded the U.N.-backed anti-corruption mission headquarters in Guatemala’s capital. Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales is facing an attempt to strip his immunity so he can be investigated for illicit campaign financing.

The U.N. Security Council will discuss the situation in Nicaragua on September 5.

The report released Wednesday by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights described repression in the country that stretched from the streets to courtrooms, where some protesters face terrorism charges.

More than 300 people have been killed since popular protests began in mid-April triggered by cuts to the social security system. Ortega reversed the cuts, but demonstrations quickly expanded and turned into a call for him to step down.

In July, the government forcefully cleared the last of the roadblocks erected by protesters that had snarled the country’s traffic. It also retook the last of the university campuses occupied by students.

The U.N. report called on the government to immediately halt the persecution of protesters and disarm the masked civilians who have been responsible for many of the killings and arbitrary detentions. It also documented cases of torture and excessive force through interviews with victims and local human rights groups.

In response, the government said that the report was biased and did not consider that its actions occurred in the context of what it alleges was a failed coup attempt. It said the report ignored the violence afflicted against members of his Sandinista party.

Ortega has called the protesters “terrorists” working in coordination with domestic and foreign interests which want him removed from office.

The government also accused the U.N. team of overstepping its authority in violation of Nicaragua’s sovereignty and said the U.N. had not been invited to evaluate the human rights situation, but to accompany the commission working to end the crisis.

A national dialogue aimed at finding a resolution ultimately stalled, and Ortega accused the Roman Catholic bishops who were mediating talks of working with coup mongers.

Denis Moncada, Nicaragua’s foreign minister, met with U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres this week in New York.

Guterres’ spokeswoman said after the meeting that Nicaragua’s path out of the crisis had to be “politically inclusive.”

UNHCR: Asylum Seekers on Greek Islands Live in Squalid Conditions

The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) warns asylum seekers and migrants who came ashore on the Greek islands are living in conditions unfit for human habitation. The agency is urging the Greek government to speed up the  transfer of these individuals to the mainland so they can receive proper care.

According to UNHCR, thousands of asylum seekers and migrants who made the perilous journey across the Aegean Sea are forced to live in squalid, overcrowded centers on the Greek islands of Lesbos, Samos, Chios and Kos.

For example, the agency said more than 7,000 asylum-seekers and migrants on Lesbos are crammed into shelters built to accommodate just 2,000 people, one-quarter of them children.

UNHCR spokesman Charlie Yaxley said these conditions are having a devastating impact on peoples’ well-being.

“We are seeing increasing numbers of people including children presenting with mental health problems,” he said. “… We are seeing rising levels of sexual assaults because there is insufficient security in place and the sanitary facilities as well. On recent missions to the islands, staff have commented that the sanitary facilities are essentially unusable in some cases.”

Yaxley noted an average of 114 people are arriving on the islands every day — more than 70 percent are families from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He said the new arrivals are adding to the congestion and deteriorating conditions.

The UNHCR said Greek authorities must do more to overcome bureaucratic delays that are preventing the speedy transfer of people to the mainland. If no ready solution can be found, it said extraordinary measures should be considered, including the use of emergency accommodations, hotels, and other alternative housing facilities.

However, at the request of the Greek government, the UNHCR said it has “exceptionally agreed to continue its support in transport of asylum-seekers to the mainland in September in order to avoid further delays.”

Ukraine Separatists Report Leader Killed in Cafe Blast

The leader of the Russia-backed separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region was killed Friday by an explosion at a cafe, the separatists’ news agency said Friday.

Rebel news agency DAN said the afternoon explosion killed Alexander Zakharchenko, 42, the prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. The separatist government’s revenue minister, Alexander Timofeev, was severely injured in the blast, Russian news agencies reported.

The Donetsk People’s Republic, along with a separatist republic in neighboring Luhansk, has fought Ukrainian forces since 2014, the same year Zakharchenko became DPR’s prime minister. More than 10,000 people have died in the armed conflict.

Russian President Vladimir Putin lauded Zakharchenko as “a true people’s leader” and promised residents of Donetsk that “Russia always will be with you.”

The cafe in the city of Donetsk that was hit by the explosion, named Separ, was separatist-themed and had camouflage netting hanging from its eaves, recent photographs show.

It was not immediately clear if a bomb caused the blast or it resulted from something else. Russia’s Interfax news agency cited local sources as saying suspects had been detained, but there was no official confirmation.

Denis Pushilin, the speaker of the separatists’ parliament, blamed Ukrainian forces for the explosion, calling it “the latest aggression from the Ukrainian side,” according to DAN.

A spokeswoman for the Ukrainian Security Service, Elena Gitlyanskaya, said “The Ukrainian special services don’t have any kind of connection to this.”

There have been several assassinations or attempted slayings of prominent rebels in recent years. It never was established if pro-Kyiv attackers were responsible or if the violence resulted from factional disputes within the rebel ranks or Moscow’s possible desire to eliminate individuals it found inconvenient.

Among the prominent separatists who have been targeted are former Luhansk leader Igor Plotnitsky, who was severely injured in 2016 when a bomb exploded near his car; Arsen Pavlov, a feared squadron leader known as “Motorola” who died when the elevator of his apartment building was bombed; and fighter Mikhail Tolstykh, whose office is believed to have been hit by a shoulder-fired rocket.

Russia denies providing troops or equipment to the separatists despite widespread allegations it has done so. Russia is believed to have supplied a mobile Buk missile launcher that a team of international investigators claims shot down a Malaysian passenger jet while flying over rebel territory in 2014, killing all 209 people aboard.  

The rebellion in Donetsk and Luhansk arose soon after pro-Russia Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was driven from power amid mass protests in February 2014. Russian-speakers predominate in the two regions, and separatist sentiment skyrocketed.

Encouraged by Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which also came after Yanukovych’s ouster, rebel leaders initially hoped their regions would be absorbed by Russia as well.

Fighting fell off significantly after the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France in 2015 signed an accord in Minsk, Belarus, on ending the conflict. But most of the agreement’s provisions remain unfulfilled and clashes break out sporadically.

“Instead of fulfilling the Minsk accords and finding ways to resolve the internal conflict, the Kyiv war party is implementing a terrorist scenario,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said of Zakharchenko’s death. “Having failed to fulfill the promise of peace, apparently they decided to turn to a bloodbath.”

Pope Francis ‘Serene’ Despite Hovering Sex Abuse Scandal

Pope Francis was described Thursday by a top aide as ‘serene’ in the face of the unprecedented public skirmishing breaking out among Catholic prelates over an explosive charge that the pontiff knew about sexual misconduct allegations against a U.S. cardinal but chose to ignore them.

The Vatican’s secretary of state said Francis is maintaining his grace despite “bitterness and concern” in the Vatican over the accusation leveled against him by a onetime top Catholic envoy, who has demanded the Pope resign.

The Pope’s accuser, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, a former Vatican ambassador and a doctrinal opponent of Francis, has gone into hiding after making his claim last Sunday in a scathing 11-page document that was crafted with the assistance of a well-known Italian journalist and a stalwart critic of the Pope. According to Vigano, Francis ignored misconduct allegations against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

The incendiary document, which also warned of a homosexual culture in the church, was leaked to several conservative Catholic newspapers and blogs, all determined foes of Francis. They agreed to publish it on the second and final day of Francis’s trip to Ireland, in a coordinated effort, say Francis loyalists, to cause him maximum damage.

The publication of the letter upended the visit to Ireland, where Pope Francis had hoped to stanch the damage being done to the Holy See by the clerical sex abuse crisis that has roiled the Roman Catholic Church worldwide for decades. Just two weeks before the Ireland trip, the Church was rocked by further clerical abuse allegations with the release of a grand jury report in the U.S. which detailed the abuse of children in six Pennsylvania dioceses over the past seven decades by hundreds of “predator priests.”

In Ireland, Pope Francis met Irish abuse victims and asked for the faithful to forgive the church for its failings. “We ask forgiveness for the times that we did not show [abuse] survivors compassion or the justice they deserve in the search for truth,” he said. And he then added: “We ask forgiveness for members of the Church hierarchy who did not take care of these situations and kept quiet.”

But Vigano says Francis is one of the church leaders who’s colluded in covering up abuse or has been too ready to overlook abuse allegations when leveled against friends and progressive allies. He has also claimed that a tolerant attitude towards homosexuality in the Vatican — even alleging a progressive gay cabal in the upper echelons of the Church — is the root cause of clerical sex abuse. Francis supporters scoff at that charge, noting that clerical sex abuse has been going on for decades and for most of that time traditionalists were in control of the Vatican.

‘Conspiracy of silence’

Midweek Vigano reemerged to give an interview to La Verità newspaper, saying he spoke up out of a sense of duty to the Catholic Church and not because the Pope had passed him over for promotion. “I have never had feelings of vendetta or rancor,” he said, adding that there is a “conspiracy of silence” in the Church “not so dissimilar from the one that prevails in the mafia.”

Vigano says Francis was aware of the grave allegations of sexual misconduct against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who’s been accused of abusing young priests and molesting seminarians for decades. Unlike his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, who imposed sanctions on McCarrick, Francis and his circle of advisers chose to rehabilitate the U.S. cardinal, argues Vigano.

The claims are shaking Francis’s five-year papacy.

Amid the swirl of charge and counter-charge between church liberals and conservatives locked in a power struggle, there’s mounting anxiety in the Vatican that traditionalists, opposed to the Pope’s efforts to make the Church more inclusive and less rigid doctrinally, are determined to use the clerical sex abuse scandal to gain politically.

The pope’s supporters say Francis’ doctrinal opponents won’t be satisfied until they have either forced him to resign, or so damaged him that he’s stripped of the authority needed to drive the reforms they’re determined to halt. They say traditionalists have been emboldened by the resignation of Benedict, whose stepping down as leader of the Catholic Church in 2013 made him the first pope to relinquish the office since 1415, setting a modern-day precedent for pontiffs not having to stay in office until they die.

Abuse survivors are also suspicious of the motives of Vigano and the circle of traditionalists supporting him. Despite their own frustrations with Francis at what they see as a failure by his Vatican to take concrete steps to root out corrupt clergy, they worry traditionalists are enlisting homophobia in their campaign against Francis and are not truly focused on the well-being of abuse survivors.

Not a word

Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga, one of the Pope’s closest advisers, dismissed Vigano’s attacks, telling La Repubblica newspaper Thursday, “Transforming information of a private nature into a bombshell headline that explodes around the world damaging the faith of many people doesn’t seem to me to be a correct action.” But Maradiaga did not engage with the details of Vigano’s central charge — that the pope ignored misconduct allegations against McCarrick, who last month resigned, becoming the first cardinal to do so since 1927.

Francis, too, has continued to remain silent about McCarrick.

The 81-year-old pope told journalists who accompanied him on his two-day visit to Ireland that he wouldn’t comment. Asked in an impromptu press conference on board his plane on the return to Rome about Vigano’s accusation, the Pope said he left it up to the journalists to judge for themselves. “I won’t say a word about it,” he said.

Vatican analysts say the Holy See appears to be hoping that by ignoring the substance of the claim against Francis, the storm can be ridden out.  But they warn that appears to be a forlorn hope — by shunning the charge, Francis is fueling it and prompting the question, ‘why won’t the pope answer?’ If the claim is inaccurate, “why wouldn’t the pope correct it, just as he has spoken so openly about so many other things?” queried commentator Tim Stanley in a commentary for the London Sunday Telegraph.

Francis’ conservative critics are gearing up to press formally for an answer. In an open letter to his diocese in Tyler, Texas, Bishop Joseph Strickland midweek said: “Let us be clear that they are still allegations, but as your shepherd I find them to be credible.” He says he will agitate for an investigation.

Other prelates are plotting to do so as well, next month in Rome at a synod of bishops to discuss young people and faith.

The Diocese of Dallas in Texas has petitioned the Pope to hold a special synod, or summit, of bishops on the clerical sex abuse scandal.

Progressives started to rally Friday around Francis with prelates from Latin America, the pope’s home continent, as well as Portugal  leading the charge.

Of the accusations, Cardinal António dos Santos Marto, of Fatima, Portugal, told the Observador newspaper, “It’s a campaign organized by ultra-conservatives to mortally wound the pope.”

Marto predicted Francis will be strengthened by the controversy, adding, however, that “in this moment it’s necessary for the entire Church to manifest her support for the pope.” He said Francis may soon switch tactics and address head-on the accusations against him.

Francis also received backing from a top aide to his predecessor, Benedict XVI. Archbishop Georg Ganswein dismissed Vigano’s claim that Benedict had informed Francis of the misconduct allegations against McCarrick. He told Italian newspapers Friday: “It’s all rubbish.”

 

 

Merkel Wraps Up Africa Tour with Talk of Business, Migration

German Chancellor Angela Merkel wrapped up a tour of three African nations Friday. She said her goals during the visit were two-fold: to promote business ties with Germany and to curb the wave of migration from the continent to Europe.

But Merkel faces many other issues on the continent, analysts say: the rise of China, the declining image of the United States, and a still-festering wound in Namibia over Germany’s actions in that country more than 100 years ago.

Analyst Jakkie Cilliers of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies notes that Merkel’s trip follows recent visits by French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May.

“So, in one sense, one could make the argument that Merkel is playing catch-up,” he told VOA. “But I actually think these [visits] reflect, to a large degree, real concerns in Germany about migration and, of course, radicalism and radical terrorism in West Africa.”

Merkel’s tour included stops in three of West Africa’s most vibrant economies: Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria. Nearly a dozen German CEOs keen on promoting business ties accompanied Merkel on her trip.

Cilliers also says that Merkel may be trying to fill a vacuum created by what he described as a “faltering” of U.S. leadership in the last two years.

“Africa is, in my view, an important pivot, a battleground in a certain way, about the future of rules-based order at a time when American leadership clearly is faltering,” he said. “So you can, in that context, make the argument that to a degree perhaps, Angela Merkel is partly stepping into the vacuum that has been left by the U.S. retreat.”

Merkel’s tour coincided with a major development in Berlin. Earlier this week, her government handed over the remains of indigenous Namibians killed by German forces in the early 1900s. German troops are believed have killed tens of thousands of indigenous Herero and Nama people after they revolted against colonial rule.

Vekuii Rukoro is the elected chief of the Herero people, who number about 400,000, and he attended the ceremony in Berlin. He says he welcomed the gesture.

“We feel happy that after more than 114 years we were able to bring back these remains, back home to the land of their ancestors, and reunite them with the spirits of the ancestors,” he told VOA.

But, he says, it’s not enough. His group is suing the German government in U.S. District Court in New York — which is home to a large concentration of expatriate Hereros — seeking an apology and group reparations.

Until Germany does more, he says, he sees no point in a visit from Germany’s chancellor.

“What would she come and do,” he said, “in the absence of them having acknowledged genocide, them having even issued an appropriate apology?”

Canada, US Push Toward NAFTA Deal by Friday

Top NAFTA negotiators from Canada and the United States increased the pace of their negotiations Thursday to resolve final differences to meet a Friday deadline, with their Mexican counterpart on standby to rejoin the talks soon.

Despite some contentious issues still on the table, the increasingly positive tone contrasted with U.S. President Donald Trump’s harsh criticism of Canada in recent weeks, raising hopes that the year-long talks on the North American Free Trade Agreement will conclude soon with a trilateral deal.

“Canada’s going to make a deal at some point. It may be by Friday or it may be within a period of time,” U.S. President Donald Trump told Bloomberg Television. “I think we’re close to a deal.”

Trilateral talks were already underway at the technical level and Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo was expected to soon rejoin talks with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, possibly later on Thursday, people familiar with the process said.

Trump said in a Bloomberg interview: “Canada’s going to make a deal at some point. It may be by Friday or it may be within a period of time,” Trump said. “I think we’re close to a deal.”

Negotiations entered a crucial phase this week after the United States and Mexico announced a bilateral deal on Monday, paving the way for Canada to rejoin talks to modernize the 24-year-old accord that underpins over $1 trillion in annual trade.

The NAFTA deal that is taking shape would likely strengthen North America as a manufacturing base by making it more costly for automakers to import a large share of vehicle parts from outside the region. The automotive content provisions, the most contentious topic, could accelerate a shift of parts-making away from China.

A new chapter governing the digital economy, along with stronger intellectual property, labor and environmental standards could also work to the benefit of U.S. companies, helping Trump to fulfill his campaign promise of creating more American jobs.

Trump has set a Friday deadline for the three countries to reach an agreement, which would allow Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto to sign it before he leaves office at the end of November. Under U.S. law, Trump must wait 90 days before signing the pact.

The U.S. president has warned he could try to proceed with a deal with Mexico alone and levy tariffs on Canadian-made cars if Ottawa does not come on board, although U.S. lawmakers have said ratifying a bilateral deal would not be easy.

Dairy, dispute settlement

One sticking point for Canada is the U.S. effort to dump the Chapter 19 dispute-resolution mechanism that hinders the United States from pursuing anti-dumping and anti-subsidy cases. Lighthizer said on Monday that Mexico had agreed to eliminate the mechanism.

Trump also wants a NAFTA deal that eliminates dairy tariffs of up to 300 percent that he argues are hurting U.S. farmers, an important political base for Republicans.

But any concessions to Washington by Ottawa is likely to upset Canadian dairy farmers, who have an outsized influence in Canadian politics, with their concentration in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

 “Ultimately, we’ve got huge issues that are still to be resolved,” said Jerry Dias, head of Canada’s influential Unifor labor union. “Either we’re going to be trading partners or we’re going to fight.”

Microsoft to Contractors: Give New Parents Paid Leave

Microsoft will begin requiring its contractors to offer their U.S. employees paid leave to care for a new child.

It’s common for tech firms to offer generous family leave benefits for their own software engineers and other full-time staff, but paid leave advocates say it’s still rare to require similar benefits for contracted workers such as janitors, landscapers, cafeteria crews and software consultants.

“Given its size and its reach, this is a unique and hopefully trailblazing offering,” said Vicki Shabo, vice president at the National Partnership for Women and Families.

The details

The new policy affects businesses with at least 50 U.S.-based employees that do substantial work with Microsoft that involves access to its buildings or its computing network. It doesn’t affect suppliers of goods. Contractors would have to offer at least 12 weeks of leave to those working with the Redmond, Washington-based software giant; the policy wouldn’t affect the contractors’ arrangements with other companies. Leave-takers would get 66 percent of regular pay, up to $1,000 weekly.

The policy announced Thursday rolls out over the next year as the company amends its contracts with those vendors. That may mean some of Microsoft’s costs will rise to cover the new benefits, said Dev Stahlkopf, the company’s corporate vice president and general counsel.

“That’s just fine and we think it’s well worth the price,” she said.

Microsoft doesn’t disclose how many contracted workers it uses, but it’s in the thousands.

The new policy expands on Microsoft’s 2015 policy requiring contractors to offer paid sick days and vacation.

Facebook

Other companies such as Facebook have also committed to improve contractor benefits amid unionization efforts by shuttle drivers, security guards and other contract workers trying to get by in expensive, tech-fueled regions such as the San Francisco Bay Area and around Washington’s Puget Sound.

Facebook doesn’t guarantee that contract workers receive paid parental leave, but provides a $4,000 new child benefit for new parents who don’t get leave. A much smaller California tech company, SurveyMonkey, announced a paid family leave plan for its contract workers earlier this year.

Washington state law

Microsoft said its new policy is partially inspired by a Washington state law taking effect in 2020 guaranteeing eligible workers 12 weeks paid time off for the birth or adoption of a child. The state policy, signed into law last year, follows California and a handful of other states in allowing new parents to tap into a fund that all workers pay into. Washington will also require employers to help foot the bill, and will start collecting payroll deductions next January.

A federal paid parental leave plan proposed by President Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, could rely on a similar model but has gained little traction.

“Compared to what employers are doing, the government is way behind the private sector,” said Isabel Sawhill, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has urged the White House and Congress to adopt a national policy.

Sawhill said it is “very unusual and very notable” that Microsoft is extending family leave benefits to its contract workers. Microsoft already offers more generous family leave benefits to its own employees, including up to 20 weeks fully paid leave for a birth mother.

Pushing the feds

Microsoft’s push to spread its employee benefits to a broader workforce “sends a message that something has to happen more systematically at the federal level,” said Ariane Hegewisch, a program director for employment and earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Until then, she said, it’s helpful that Microsoft seems willing to pay contracting firms more to guarantee their workers’ better benefits.

“Paid family leave is expensive and they acknowledge that,” Hegewisch said. Otherwise, she said, contractors with many employees of child-bearing age could find themselves at a competitive disadvantage to those with older workforces.

Republican state Sen. Joe Fain, the prime sponsor of the measure that passed last year, said Microsoft’s decision was “a really powerful step forward.”

By applying the plan to contractors and vendors around the country, “it really creates a pressure for those state legislatures to make a similar decision that Washington made.”

Argentina Boosts Interest Rate to 60%; Peso Sinks

Argentina’s Central Bank on Thursday increased its benchmark interest rate to 60 percent — the world’s highest — in an effort to halt a sharp slide in the value of the peso, which plunged to a record low.

The peso fell more than 13 percent against the dollar, closing at an all-time low of 39.2 per greenback, after slipping about 7 percent the day before.

The Central Bank said in a statement that it was hiking its benchmark interest rate by 15 percentage points to 60 percent in response to the currency problems and the risk of greater impact on local inflation, which is already running at about 30 percent a year.

The tumult in the exchange market came a day after President Mauricio Macri said he was asking for an early release of some International Monetary Fund money under an $50 billion backup financing arrangement approved earlier.

Some experts said the announcement, combined with the interest rate hike, had the unintended effect of fueling the crisis of confidence.

“I think today’s interest hike announcement will do nothing but leave investors even more jittery,” said Monica de Bolle, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

“I’m finding it difficult to understand why, after yesterday’s announcement about front-loading more of the IMF funding, the government thought the hike was warranted,” she said. “Hyperactivity starts to look like desperation.”

Macri has struggled to calm markets and bring confidence to Argentines who continue to lose purchasing power. Many are frustrated with layoffs, higher utility rates and a rise in poverty levels.

Many also have bad memories of the IMF and blame its free-market economic policies for contributing to the country’s worst crisis in 2001-02, when one of every five Argentines went unemployed and millions fell into poverty.

Seeing journalists filming screens showing the exchange rates in downtown Buenos Aires, Ruben Montiel, 55, burst out: “Macri is an embarrassment!”

“You can’t live like this. The prices of everything go up on a daily basis,” he said. “There’s no work, utility rates have gone through the roof … people are sleeping on the streets.”

Macri, a pro-business conservative who came into office in 2015, had promised to trim Argentina’s fiscal deficit, reduce poverty and curb inflation. He cut red tape and tried to reduce the government’s budget deficit by ordering layoffs and cutting utility subsidies, but it triggered labor unrest.

Then in December, officials announced a rise in the inflation target, which caused investors to begin doubting Macri’s commitment to taming price rises.

Meanwhile, the peso slumped against the dollar as rising U.S. interest rates lured investors to pull greenbacks out of Argentina.

That caused jitters among Argentines, who have been used to stashing away dollars as a cushion since the 2001 crisis, when banks froze deposits and put up sheet-metal barricades as thousands of protesters unsuccessfully tried to withdraw their savings. Dozens died in protests and looting in December 2001 as the economy unraveled and Argentina eventually suffered a record $100 billion debt default.

“The government will need to shuffle its cabinet and strike deals with provincial governors for next year’s budget,” said Argentine economist Marcos Buscaglia. “In the short-term, the government just needs to stop this crisis.”