Uber sues California over gig-economy labor law

SAN FRANCISCO: Ride-hailing giant Uber and delivery company Postmates have filed a lawsuit against the state of California, claiming a new law that would treat gig-economy freelancers as employees is unconstitutional.

The legislation, due to go into effect on Wednesday (Jan 1), would mean that – under certain conditions – independent contractors are classified as employees and granted the minimum salary and health insurance benefits that entails.

This would include drivers for both Uber and Postmates.

“Plaintiffs bring this lawsuit to protect their constitutional rights and defend their fundamental liberty to pursue their chosen work as independent service providers and technology companies in the on-demand economy,” said the lawsuit filed on Monday.

Uber warned earlier this year that it would oppose any change of status for its drivers, which will cost the company extra in social security costs.

In the suit, Uber and its co-plaintiffs argue the law targets independent service providers while exempting direct salespeople, travel agents, construction truck drivers and commercial fishermen.

“There is no rhyme or reason to these nonsensical exemptions,” it said.

Uber and its American rival Lyft have each put aside 30 million dollars to organise a referendum, allowed under Californian law, to replace the legislation with a compromise on social rights that has been put before the state Governor.

Drivers are divided between those who want the same security as employees and those who want the flexibility of being able to choose the hours they work.

The gig economy has given drivers “opportunities to earn money when and where they want, with unprecedented independence and flexibility,” the lawsuit said.

Turkish Airlines, Boeing reach 737 Max aircraft compensation deal

Turkish Airlines and Boeing Co have agreed on compensation for certain losses caused by grounded and undelivered Boeing 737 Max aircraft, the Turkish airline said on Tuesday.

Grounded Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are seen parked at Renton Municipal Airport in Renton
FILE PHOTO: Grounded Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are seen parked in an aerial photo at Renton Municipal Airport near the Boeing Renton facility in Renton, Washington, U.S. July 1, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

ISTANBUL: Turkish Airlines and Boeing Co have agreed on compensation for certain losses caused by grounded and undelivered Boeing 737 Max aircraft, the Turkish airline said on Tuesday.

The statement to the Istanbul stock exchange did not specify the deal’s value, but Hurriyet newspaper said it was worth US$225 million: US$150 million in compensation and US$75 million covering things such as spare parts and training.

Turkish Airlines has 24 Boeing 737 MAX planes in its fleet. The 737 MAX has been grounded since March after two crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed 346 people within five months, costing the plane manufacturer more than US$9 billion so far.

In December, a media report had said Turkish Airlines was preparing to open a court case against Boeing in relation to its losses.

Last week, Boeing fired chief executive Dennis Muilenburg after the company repeatedly failed to contain the fallout from the crashes, which halted output of its best-selling jetliner and tarnished its reputation.

Boeing acknowledged this month it would not be able to reach its 2019 targets and announced it would halt 737 MAX production in January.

(Additional reporting by Ceyda Caglayan; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Gerry Doyle)

From opioid deaths to student debt: A view of the 2010s economy in charts

REUTERS: The 2010s saw the U.S. economy achieve its longest-ever expansion, with notable milestones such as 110 months of uninterrupted job gains and an unemployment rate near a half-century low becoming easy bragging points for politicians and economists alike.

Yet the obvious data points don’t capture a number of the socio-economic developments – from a soaring number of opioid overdose deaths to record levels of student debt to what and where today’s jobs are. These developments are subtle but they are profoundly shaping the economy and the discourse about it, as the ’20s come into view.

GRAPHIC: A workforce scarred – https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/editorcharts/USA-ECONOMY-YEAREND/0H001QXR1B0Y/index.html

OPIOIDS AND THE WORK FORCE

The number of overdose deaths involving opioids doubled in the 2010s and appears to have hit a peak in 2017 at 47,600, which accounted for 68per cent of all fatal drug overdoses that year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On top of that, more than 10 million Americans over the age of 12 were found to have misused opioids in 2018, the last year figures were available from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Long recognized as a nationwide health and social crisis, the opioid epidemic has become a growing focus for economists concerned it may be one of the factors behind the decade’s slump in labor force participation among prime-age workers 25-54 years old. While improving since late 2015, participation remains below levels seen in the 1990s.

GRAPHIC: The rich got (a lot) richer – https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/editorcharts/USA-ECONOMY-YEAREND/0H001QXR2B11/index.html

THE WEALTH GAP

A soaring stock market and strong job growth have helped make Americans on the whole wealthier than ever, with total household net worth topping US$107 trillion versus less than US$60 trillion at the dawn of the decade.

But those gains have not be shared evenly. The richest 1per cent of households account for 32.4per cent of all wealth, up roughly 4 percentage points from the end of 2009.

The phenomenon is feeding the national political debate, and some Democratic presidential contenders are now pushing for a national wealth tax.

GRAPHIC: Job growth concentrated in a handful of cities – https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/mkt/13/262/262/Pastedper cent20Image.jpg

THE LUCKY FEW

Just as wealth is increasingly harnessed by a few, job opportunities are also concentrated in a handful of places around the country.

Between 2010 and 2017, 40per cent of all new jobs were created in just 20 cities, with places like Nashville and Portland, Oregon, punching significantly above their relative population weight.

GRAPHIC: Winners keep winning – https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/mkt/13/261/261/Pastedper cent20Image.jpg

THE INNOVATION ELITES

What’s more, an even smaller clutch of five cities – four on the West Coast and one in the East – are gaining effectively all of the new jobs in so-called “innovation” industries seen as essential to future economic success.

GRAPHIC: Jobs of the 2010s – https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/mkt/13/267/267/Pastedper cent20Image.jpg

HEALTH AND FITNESS

What Americans do for a living has changed a lot in the last 10 years.

Many old-school industries saw minimal job growth, like manufacturing, or extended declines, like department stores.

The evolving needs of an increasingly technology-oriented economy drove rapid growth in many IT jobs, while an aging population was behind a surge in the number of home health workers. Americans’ changing spending habits – increasingly on experiences over things – helped make fitness center jobs among the fastest growing of the decade.

GRAPHIC: American dream comes later and later – https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/editorcharts/USA-ECONOMY-DECADE/0H001QXS2B41/index.html

DELAYING THE DREAM

Buying their first home used to be a milestone that many Americans achieved by the time they were 30.

But a shortage of homes for sale is driving up prices and making it harder for younger consumers to break into the market, said Jessica Lautz, vice president of demographics and behavioral insights at the National Association of Realtors.

Student debt loads are also making it more difficult for some borrowers to set aside sufficient cash for a down payment, or to qualify for a mortgage, she said. That helps to explain why the median age of the first-time home buyer ticked up to 33 in 2019 from 30 in 2010, according to the association. 

GRAPHIC: Paying the higher education tab – https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/editorcharts/USA-ECONOMY-DECADE/0H001QXS3B44/index.html

PAYING OFF COLLEGE

In fact, no category of consumer debt grew as fast in the 2010s as student loans, and serious delinquency rates are more than 10 times higher than for mortgages.

Total balances owed to pay for higher education more than doubled since 2009 to around US$1.5 trillion today – equal to nearly 8per cent of annual U.S. economic output. Nearly 11per cent of the total outstanding is 90 days or more behind in payments.

Economists and politicians worry it is delaying or crowding out more productive spending, and some fear it may prove to be the “debt bubble” of the future.

(Editing by Dan Burns and Steve Orlofsky)

Fathers supporting breastfeeding: A network to help fellow dads in Indonesia

JAKARTA: Mr Agus Rahmat Hidayat and his wife Mdm Ayu Damayantie had imagined that the arrival of their firstborn baby would bring them pure bliss, but the experience proved to be a mixed bag of emotions.

The premature boy, born after 32 weeks of pregnancy in 2010, had problems latching on.

“The first three months were a real drama,” said Mr Hidayat, 39, recalling the stress and confusion.

The couple had been told in antenatal classes that the most important thing was to believe they can breastfeed. When he brought this up, Mdm Damayantie felt pressured.

The first-time parents subsequently resorted to infant formula, but this only lasted a week as the newborn was allergic to milk.

At his wit’s end, Mr Hidayat took to Twitter for support. He wrote about their problems, which were later retweeted by the Indonesian Breastfeeding Mothers Association (AIMI).

Many people responded, sharing their own experiences.

“I showed my wife and it helped her psychologically because she didn’t feel alone afterward. There were many out there who have the same problem,” he said.

AIMI counsellors also taught them breastfeeding techniques they had never learned before. As it turned out, premature babies require a different breastfeeding approach.

With the newfound knowledge, Mdm Damayantie was able to breastfeed in three days.

READ: Breastfeeding relaxation therapy for mothers helps babies eat more

Ayah ASI Indonesia book
Agus Rahmat Hidayat and his friends pen a book about their experiences as new fathers learning how to support their wives who breastfeed. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

On the invitation of AIMI, Mr Hidayat met up with seven other new fathers who had also turned to Twitter for help when their wives could not breastfeed.

They discussed the need to raise awareness on breastfeeding among men, as it is equally important for the husbands to learn so they can support their wives in their breastfeeding journey.

They decided on writing a book about their respective experiences. The manuscript was close to completion when a publisher pointed out that it would be difficult to market their book when they were nobody – just ordinary fathers and not doctors or lactation experts.

To gauge public response, the group set up a Twitter account called Ayah ASI Indonesia (translated into Indonesian fathers who support breastfeeding) for men to discuss breastfeeding.

“Surprising, there was a huge interest. People were excited, we had many followers,” Mr Hidayat said.

Their book was eventually launched in 2012, and Ayah ASI became a well-known breastfeeding advocacy group in Indonesia.

READ: Exclusive breastfeeding tied to healthier cholesterol in teens

A PLATFORM FOR MEN TO TALK FREELY

In Indonesia, early initiation of breastfeeding in 2017 was only 57.8 per cent, far below the 90 per cent target, according to the health ministry data.

Meanwhile, malnutrition remains a serious problem. Ministry data showed that 17.7 per cent of children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition in 2018.

In an attempt to help improve the situation, Ayah ASI teaches men about the technical aspects of breastfeeding in seminars and classes.

It also shares with the participants that their support can come in many forms, such as doing house chores and refrain from adding on to the stress of breastfeeding mothers.

The events are for men, because the aim is to promote and normalise breastfeeding in Indonesia from a male perspective.

“Men actually do not mind talking about breastfeeding.

“It’s just that when women are present, men tend to sit there quietly and let the women do all the talking.

“That’s why we decided to conduct the classes for men only so that they can talk freely,” said Mr Hidayat, who works in a Jakarta-based non-governmental organisation focusing on HIV.

Ayah ASI Indonesia class
Ayah ASI Indonesia has held numerous classes across Indonesia. (Photo: Ayah ASI Indonesia)

He noted that the men who take part in their classes come from various backgrounds. They could be new fathers, or young men sent there by their girlfriends.

As its followers grew, Ayah ASI opened up chapters in other Indonesian cities. There are now 10 Ayah ASI chapters in Sumatra, Java and Bali.

They attracted lots of followers on social media. The main Ayah ASI, for instance, has 413,000 followers on Twitter and 64,000 on Instagram.

Surprisingly, Ayah ASI has a lot of female fans as well. On Instagram, its female followers outnumber the male followers.

“It seems women feel at ease sharing their experience on our platform because we don’t judge.

“Some share with us that they sometimes get comments like ‘you’re simply not trying hard enough’ at other platforms,” Mr Hidayat said.

READ: Commentary – Quit telling women breastfeeding is an optional lifestyle choice

TEACHING DISASTER VICTIMS 

Since Ayah ASI Indonesia was set up to be a fun community, the eight co-founders have no intention to make it a legal entity, fearing that it would become too serious and boring.

But this also meant that they do not have full-time staffers to strategise and run their programmes, and have to fund the activities out of their own pockets.

Profits from their book have been donated to AIMI.

Over time, the Ayah ASI work also became mundane for the eight men, who are no longer newbies in parenthood as each of them now has two kids.

(ks) Ayah ASI Indonesia in Palu
Ayah ASI Indonesia was invited to speak at evacuation shelters in Palu. (Photo: Ayah ASI Indonesia)

Earlier this year, they had the opportunity to expand their reach and equip more fathers with breastfeeding knowledge in disaster-hit zones.

“A volunteer in Palu, Sulawesi, reached out to us and asked whether we would give breastfeeding classes for the earthquake and tsunami victims living in shelters.

“We developed a module on breastfeeding during disasters and also held a similar class for evacuees in Lombok,” Mr Hidayat said.

READ: Breastfeeding tied to lower risk of diabetes, high blood pressure

OPPORTUNITY FOR DADS TO BOND WITH BABIES

Mdm Elva Sativia, a mother of two living in Jakarta, told CNA that she is happy to have a network like Ayah ASI to talk about issues affecting pregnant mothers.

Her husband also follows Ayah ASI, which turns out to be helpful when she was pregnant with her second child in 2015.

“When breastfeeding caused me so much pain, he took the initiative to seek help from AIMI and Ayah ASI via email,” Mdm Sativia said.

In addition to programmes related to breastfeeding, Ayah ASI also started a “I Support Pregnant Women” campaign, handing out pins to members of the public to encourage them to offer seats to pregnant women on public transport.

Ayah ASI has never imagined that its programmes can reach so many people.

It was even invited to speak in Penang in Malaysia this year at the World’s Alliance for Breastfeeding Action.

Mr Hidayat said people are usually surprised to know that there are fathers who care about breastfeeding. All these motivate them to continue with their voluntary work.

“We now have a module, which we hope many people can learn and use.

“For instance, if health clinics are interested, we can share the module with them too. This is our dream for 2020,” Mr Hidayat said.

To reach out to more Indonesians, Ayah ASI might also host classes for mothers with babies up to three months old.

Ayah ASI Indonesia and women
Ayah ASI Indonesia hopes to reach out to women too in 2020. (Photo: Ayah ASI Indonesia)

It plans to engage the parents until the baby reaches six months old.

“To us, supporting breastfeeding is a way for fathers to be involved in parenting.

“When you support breastfeeding, you learn how to hold a baby. While at it, you learn how to bond with the baby, perhaps telling stories to the baby.

“You learn how to share chores with your wife. And all these are very important as you take the next steps in life together,” said Mr Hidayat. 

What’s new in 2020? 5 laws that kick in on Jan 1

SINGAPORE: When the clock strikes 12 on Tuesday night (Dec 31), Singapore will usher in 2020 with a flurry of fireworks and raucous celebrations. 

The turn of the decade will also see multiple new laws go into effect – read on to keep up with the changes.

LEGAL AGE FOR SMOKING RAISED TO 20

The minimum legal age for the purchase, use, possession, sale and supply of tobacco products will be raised from 19 to 20 years old from Wednesday (Jan 1).

This is the second step of the Government’s three-year plan to progressively raise the minimum legal age to 21 years old. It was debated and passed in Parliament in 2017, as part of the Tobacco (Control of Advertisements and Sale) (Amendment) Bill.

READ: Legal age for smoking to be gradually raised from 18 to 21

READ: Minimum legal age for smoking to be raised to 19 on Jan 1

Retailers who sell any tobacco products to a person below the minimum legal age could be fined up to S$5,000 for a first offence and S$10,000 for subsequent offences. 

In addition, their tobacco retail licence will be suspended for the first offence and revoked for subsequent offences.

Underage smokers who are caught using, buying or possessing tobacco products could be fined up to S$300.

The minimum legal age will be raised to 21 on Jan 1, 2021.

HARSHER PUNISHMENTS FOR FLOUTING E-SCOOTER FOOTPATH BAN

Electric scooters have been banned from footpaths since Nov 5.

Until the end of today, errant users will be given warnings as part of an advisory period to allow riders to adjust to the new regulations.

However, the Land Transport Authority’s (LTA) “zero-tolerance” approach kicks in when the new year begins.

From Jan 1, 2020, those caught riding an e-scooter on footpaths will be liable for a fine of up to S$2,000 and/or jail of up to three months.

E-scooter banned on footpaths Singapore

Food delivery riders who relied on the machines had an option to trade in their e-scooters for cash that ended on Dec 31.

With the move, e-scooter sightings when out and about will likely become rarer.

READ: E-scooter ban on footpaths: 5 things you need to know

READ: Commentary: Can we co-exist with PMDs? Yes, but we need to take a different path

LONG-AWAITED PENAL CODE REFRESH

A refresh of the Penal Code kicks in on Jan 1.

Part of the reforms target crimes brought about by advances in technology, such as voyeurism, “cyber flashing”, – or the sending of unsolicited images of genitals – and doxxing.

READ: Voyeurism, ‘cyber flashing’ to be criminalised from January as legal reforms kick in

The Big Read: Singapore’s voyeurism problem – what’s wrong with men, or the world?

The law will also be harsher on criminals who prey on vulnerable victims and young people.

This covers crimes against those below 14 years old, domestic workers and those with mental or physical disabilities. 

There are also new offences for sex crimes against victims under 18 years old but above 16 – the age of consent for sexual activity.

While the age of consent will be kept at 16, exploitative sexual penetration or sexual grooming of a minor who is between 16 and 18 are now crimes.

Other new offences include sexual communication with a minor below 16, engaging in sexual activity in front of a minor or causing them to look at a sexual image.

Marital immunity for rape will be fully repealed, while attempted suicide will be decriminalised.

Commentary: What took us so long to move against marital immunity for rape?

CIGARETTE BUTTS CAUSING VEGETATION FIRES

Watch where you flick that butt after lighting up.

Authorities will be able to take firmer action against those who do not properly dispose of lighted materials such as cigarette butts.

Starting Jan 1, 2020, a person will be presumed to have substantially contributed to the risk of causing a dangerous fire if that fire occurs within 60 minutes at or near the place where the person “threw, placed, dropped or deposited any thing likely to cause fire, unless the contrary is proven”, said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).

READ: No ifs or butts: Cigarette rubbish is littering Singapore’s coastline

READ: 350 roadside vegetation fires per year, mostly caused by cigarette butts: MHA

Cigarette butts
Cigarette butts are seen on a patch of soil. (File photo: Hidayah Salamat)

The offence was introduced as part of the Criminal Law Reform Act (CLRA) passed in Parliament on May 6.

Those convicted can be punished with up to seven years’ jail and/or fined.

The first half of 2019 saw a marked spike in the number of vegetation fires with 555 cases, a 56 per cent increase from the 356 cases in the same period last year.

MALAYSIA EATERY SMOKING BAN

For those who have a habit of lighting up, it’s not just the new laws in Singapore that you need to be aware of. There’s something you need to take note of when you cross the causeway.

Malaysia has instituted a ban on smoking at all food establishments to protect the public from exposure to cigarette smoke.

“The ban also covers food stalls and vehicles which provide tables and chairs for people to eat, as well as restaurants on ships and trains,” said the Malaysian Ministry of Health’s director-general of health Noor Hisham Abdullah.

Anyone found guilty of smoking in banned areas can be fined up to RM10,000 (US$2,450) or jailed up to two years.

Something to keep in mind when travelling across the Causeway for a hearty meal.

China’s Huawei says ‘survival first priority’ after 2019 sales fall short

BEIJING: Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei said on Tuesday (Dec 31) that “survival” was its first priority after announcing 2019 sales were expected to fall short of projections as a result of US sanctions.

Chairman Eric Xu said Huawei – banned from working with American firms over national security fears – estimates sales revenue will reach 850 billion yuan for 2019 (US$121 billion) – up roughly 18 per cent from the previous year, but much lower than initially expected.

In January this year, the company forecast sales revenue of US$125 billion.

In a New Year’s message addressed to employees, Xu said the US government was in the midst of a “strategic and long-term” campaign against the company that would create a “challenging environment for Huawei to survive and thrive”.

“Survival will be our first priority” in 2020, said Xu, the current chairman under the company’s rotating leadership scheme.

He said Huawei would need to “go all out” to build up its mobile services ecosystem – its answer to the Google apps and services – to “ensure that we can keep selling our smartphones in overseas markets”.

While telecom experts consider Huawei a global leader in 5G equipment – in terms of both technology and price – the company has faced obstacles and suspicion from the US and other foreign nations wary of its close relationship with the Chinese government.

US intelligence chiefs state flatly that Huawei cannot be trusted and its equipment is a threat to national security – an accusation the company has dismissed.

Founded in 1987 by former People’s Liberation Army engineer Ren Zhengfei, Huawei was dragged into the spotlight a year ago when Ren’s daughter, senior Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in Canada at the request of the United States.

Washington wants to put her on trial for allegedly lying to banks about violating Iran sanctions.

The backlash against Huawei has only grown since Meng’s arrest.

Washington has banned US companies from selling equipment to Huawei, locking out the smartphone giant from access to Google’s Android operating system.

European telecommunications operators including Norway’s Telenor and Sweden’s Telia have also passed over Huawei as a supplier for their 5G networks as intelligence agencies warned against working with them.

Australia and Japan have meanwhile taken steps to block or tightly restrict the firm’s participation in their rollouts of 5G networks. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson also strongly hinted that Britain would follow suit.

Chinese law requires individuals and organisations to assist and cooperate with national intelligence efforts.

Xu also said cybersecurity and user privacy were at the “absolute top” of Huawei’s agenda, and that the company would “continue to adhere to all related laws and regulations in the markets where we operate”.

Thousands trapped on Australia beach encircled by fire

SYDNEY: Thousands of holidaymakers and locals were trapped on a beach in fire-ravaged southeast Australia on Tuesday (Dec 31), as blazes ringed a popular tourist area leaving no escape by land.

As many as four thousand people are trapped on the foreshore of the encircled seaside town of Mallacoota, as smoke turned day to night and the authorities said nearby fires were causing extreme thunderstorms and “ember attacks”.

“We’ve got a fire that looks like it’s about to impact on Mallacoota,” Victoria’s Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp told public broadcaster ABC, adding that firefighters have been deployed to protect the group.

Authorities had for days been warning up to 30,000 tourists enjoying Australia’s summer holidays to leave the area, which is just one of the hundreds ravaged by this devastating bushfire season.

“We’ve got three strike teams in Mallacoota that will be looking after 4,000 people down on the beach there,” Crisp said. “We’re naturally very concerned about communities that have become isolated.”

READ: Thousands evacuated from Australian tourist haven as bushfires rage

Preparations were reportedly under way for a sea or airborne evacuation if needed.

On social media, residents said they were putting on life jackets in case they need to seek refuge from the fire in the water.

Temperatures in bushfire areas can hit hundreds of degrees Celsius (Fahrenheit) killing anyone nearby, long before the flames reach them.

The ocean is a “last resort option” according to Victoria’s emergency management agency.

Local radio journalist Francesca Winterson said she was watching the fire approach the town and her own home while she tried to broadcast emergency warnings amid a powercut.

“I’d rather be alive than have a house,” she told ABC Gippsland.

To the north, on the New South Wales coast, holidaymakers were also warned that several “dangerous” blazes were moving quickly and they should seek shelter on beaches if necessary.

“These fires moved quickly this morning. They pose a serious threat to life. Do not be in their path. Avoid bushland areas. If the path is clear, move to larger towns or beaches to take shelter,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service said.

FIREWORKS TO GO AHEAD

Australia’s unprecedented bushfires have been burning for months, but a new heatwave and high winds have wrought new devastation.

The crisis has hit cities like Sydney and Melbourne, home to several million people.

READ: Heatwave fans bushfires ahead of New Year’s Eve fireworks in Sydney

On Monday, around 100,000 people were urged to flee five Melbourne suburbs as the spiralling bushfire crisis killed a volunteer firefighter battling a separate blaze in the countryside.

Authorities in the country’s second-biggest city downgraded an earlier bushfire emergency warning but said residents should steer clear of the blaze, which has burned through 40 hectares of grassland.

Local media showed images of water bombers flying over neighbourhoods, and families hosing down their homes in the hope of halting the fire’s spread.

A volunteer firefighter died in New South Wales state and two others suffered burns while working on a blaze more than five hours southwest of Sydney, the Rural Fire Service said.

“It’s believed that the truck rolled when hit by extreme winds,” the agency said in a tweet.

Ten others, including two volunteer firefighters, have been killed so far this fire season.

The blazes have destroyed more than 1,000 homes and scorched more than three million hectares – an area bigger than Belgium.

Australia bushfires
Graphic showing the bushfires on Australia’s East coast. (AFP/John SAEKI)

The fires have been turbocharged by a prolonged drought and climate change, but conditions worsened on Monday with high winds and temperatures soaring across the country.

The mercury has reached 47 degrees Celsius in Western Australia and topped 40 degrees in every region – including the usually temperate island of Tasmania.

The crisis has focused attention on climate change – which scientists say is creating a longer and more intense bushfire season – and sparked street protests calling for immediate action to tackle global warming.

While conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison belatedly acknowledged a link between the fires and climate change, he has continued his staunch support of Australia’s lucrative coal mining industry and ruled out further action to reduce emissions.

Sydney was again shrouded in toxic bushfire smoke haze on Tuesday, a situation that has for weeks forced children to play indoors and caused professional sporting events to be cancelled.

But city officials said Sydney’s New Year’s Eve fireworks would go head, but a similar event has been cancelled in Canberra and several regional towns.

Nestle wraps up US$20.7b share buyback, launches new programme

ZURICH: Swiss food giant Nestle said on Monday (Dec 30) it had completed a 20 billion Swiss franc (US$20.7 billion) share buyback programme and reiterated plans for a new one up to the same amount starting next year.

Since Jul 4, 2017, Nestle said it had repurchased 225,186,059 of its shares at an average price per share of 88.82 Swiss francs.

“Nestle will start a new share buyback programme of up to CHF 20 billion as announced on Oct 17, 2019,” the company said in a statement. “Nestle plans to commence repurchases on or after Jan 3, 2020. The new share buyback programme shall be completed by the end of December 2022.”

European stocks lower on year-end profit-taking

LONDON: European stock markets were lower on Monday (Dec 30), taking their lead from softer prices on Wall Street, as investors wound down and took profits at the end of year.

At the close of trade in Europe, London’s benchmark FTSE 100 index was down 0.8 per cent compared with Friday.

In the eurozone, Frankfurt’s DAX 30 shed 0.7 per cent and the Paris CAC 40 lost 0.9 per cent.

On the other side of the Atlantic, New York’s the Dow – which ended last week on a fresh record high – was showing a mid-session loss of 0.6 per cent.

Earlier in Asia, Tokyo’s Nikkei stocks index closed down 0.8 per cent as investors cashed in ahead of the New Year holidays, but the final day of trading still saw the benchmark end up 18.2 per cent from a year earlier.

“Investors appear to be growing a tad apprehensive about chasing the record-setting US equity market … into year-end,” said AxiTrader market strategist, Stephen Innes.

OANDA analyst Edward Moya described trading as “light” but said that “expectations remain in place for US stocks to continue march higher” at the start of 2020.

The US Federal Reserve “has clearly signalled they will not be tightening anytime soon, the US consumer continues to impress, and as fears of both a complete collapse with global trade talks and Brexit have abated,” he said.

Briefing.com analyst Patrick O’Hare similarly believed that the declines seen on Monday would not undo the strong rally of recent weeks.

These past few weeks were “a terrific turn in a terrific quarter (+8.8 per cent) that is ending a terrific year,” he said.

Analysts attribute the successive series of US records to upbeat investor sentiment based on a lower risk of recession in the immediate future, a mellowing of US-China trade tensions, and accommodative monetary policy.

In Asia, investors will be watching for key policy announcements in the region later this week.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is set to give his New Year’s speech on Wednesday, with all eyes on nuclear-armed Pyongyang’s threat of a “new way” after its end-of-year deadline for sanctions relief from the US, analysts said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is also scheduled to give a New Year’s address.

Key figures around 1645 GMT:

London – FTSE 100: DOWN 0.8 per cent at 7,587.05 points (close)

Frankfurt – DAX 30: DOWN 0.7 per cent at 13,249.01 (close)

Paris – CAC 40: DOWN 0.9 per cent at 5,982.22 (close)

EURO STOXX 50: DOWN 0.9 per cent at 3,749.20

Tokyo – Nikkei 225: DOWN 0.8 per cent at 23,656.62 (close)

Hong Kong – Hang Seng: UP 0.3 per cent at 28,319.39 (close)

Shanghai – Composite: UP 1.2 per cent at 3,040.02 (close)

Euro/dollar: UP at US$1.1217 from US$1.1177

Dollar/yen: DOWN at 108.84 yen from 109.11

Pound/dollar: UP at US$1.3135 from US$1.3118

Euro/pound: UP at 85.40 pence from 85.36 pence

Brent Crude: DOWN 0.7 per cent at US$66.34 per barrel

West Texas Intermediate: DOWN 0.6 per cent at US$61.38 per barrel

Satellite imagery company Maxar to sell Canadian unit for CUS$1 billion

U.S. satellite imagery company Maxar Technologies Inc said on Monday it would sell its Canadian space robotics business to a consortium led by Northern Private Capital (NPC) for CUS$1 billion (US$765 million), in a bid to ease its debt.

FILE PHOTO: The Canadarm2 robotic arm is seen over the uncrewed SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft at t
FILE PHOTO: The Canadarm2 robotic arm, built by Canadian technology company MDA, is seen over the uncrewed SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft as it makes the first Commercial Crew vehicle to visit the International Space Station March 4, 2019. NASA/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

REUTERS: U.S. satellite imagery company Maxar Technologies Inc said on Monday it would sell its Canadian space robotics business to a consortium led by Northern Private Capital (NPC) for CUS$1 billion (US$765 million), in a bid to ease its debt.

The company’s shares were up 16.2per cent in premarket trading.

Maxar will retain its U.S.-based space robotics division, which is responsible for developing the robotic hardwares used in NASA’s Mars 2020 rover.

“This transaction combined with the recently completed sale of real estate in Palo Alto reduces Maxar’s overall debt by more than US$1 billion,” said Chief Financial Officer Biggs Porter. As of September, Maxar had a total debt of US$3.1 billion.

The acquisition of MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) will be financed through a combination of equity and debt.

MDA, which has helped construct part of the International Space Station, will operate as a stand-alone company within NPC’s portfolio following the transaction.

Reuters first reported in June that Maxar was exploring sale of its space robotics business.

MDA, which started in the basement of a Vancouver home, makes defense and maritime systems, radar geospatial imagery, space robotics, satellite antennas, and communication subsystems.

(Reporting by Amal S in Bengaluru; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli and Amy Caren Daniel)