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Merkel, Xi Agree to Work on Steel Overcapacity Within G-20

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Saturday discussed overcapacity in world steel markets and agreed to work on

solutions within the framework of the Group of 20 industrialized nations, Merkel’s spokesman said.

The two leaders emphasized close ties between the two countries, which are both facing planned U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs, and agreed to deepen the strategic partnership between them, Steffen Seibert said in a statement.

He said Merkel invited Chinese officials to visit Berlin for consultations, and Xi invited Merkel to visit China.

They also discussed the situation in North Korea regarding its nuclear and missile development efforts.

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Visa Tests Biometric Fingerprint Reader on Cards

Fingerprints can unlock doors, phones and more, but are consumers ready to pay with them? Visa thinks so. More companies are exploring biometrics, the analysis of unique biological traits to verify identity, but how secure is the technology? Tina Trinh reports from New York

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A Sweet Way to Help Syrian Refugees in US

Namoura. Ma’amoul. Barazek. The names are unfamiliar to American consumers, but the tastes of honey, cinnamon and nuts are not. 

These Syrian pastries are for sale at the Syrian Sweets Exchange in Phoenix, Arizona, held at local farmers markets and a series of special sales like one recently at Changing Hands Bookstore. Bake sales are a fundraising fixture of American life, so it was no stretch for a group of volunteers who wanted to do something to help the 300 Syrian families in the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas.

Syria is famous for its sweets, but program co-founder Tan Jakwani said volunteers learned about them firsthand.

“When the volunteers would visit the Syrian refugees … to bring them donated furniture, they would bring out delicious sweets to greet the volunteers,” she said.

Through the exchange, the bakers’ skills have been turned into revenue. All proceeds are given back to the 20 bakers, who are licensed by the state of Arizona to bake goods at home and sell them.

The bakers

“I sell my sweets every Saturday in the farmers market … and it sells very well,” said baker Noor al Mousa. “I have customers every Saturday coming for me for selling my sweets and thank me. And I thank them.”

Al Mousa was an engineer in Syria. Now, her husband supports the family of seven — four children born in Syria and one in the U.S. — by driving cars at the Phoenix airport while she bakes.

“We send a lot of money to my family in Syria and in Jordan,” Al Mousa said. “My sister and my aunts and the brother of my husband are all in Syria. … I am very worried for them.”

After al Mousa and one of her young daughters were shot in Syria and their house collapsed, the family walked to Jordan overnight where they stayed for four years before arriving in the U.S.

“I made sweets just for family in my country,” al Mousa said. “Now volunteers help me sell my sweets in farmers markets.

“When I bake, I am happy. I am very happy,” she added. 

The volunteers

The sweets exchange is part of a larger group called Refugee Connection Phoenix, whose volunteer members have grown from 60 to 800 over the last year. The Facebook-based group also has other programs, such as helping expectant mothers and teaching refugee children to read.

The Syrian Sweets Exchange founders and other volunteers, who drive the bakers to the sales and interpret for them, are mostly women who come from various walks of life and from different faiths. 

Tan Jakwani’s motivation to help refugees stems from her own background. Her father — a major in the South Vietnamese Army — was evacuated at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and took refuge in the U.S. It was 10 years before Jakwani, her mother and three siblings arrived in the U.S.

“When we came, he already had a small house for us. So we did not have to go through the phase of living as refugees,” Jakwani said. “But my dad always told us about the time when he first came. He had a family sponsor who helped him with getting his driver’s license, getting a library card, and helped him get a job.”

Refugees have a lot of needs, Jakwani says, but she adds that if everyone does a little, “a lot can be done” to help.

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3-D Printed House Offers Quick, Cheap Solution for Poor Worldwide

Imagine building a stronger, cheaper home in as little as 12 hours. That goal now appears feasible with the help of a 3-D printer. A 3-D-printed home was unveiled in Austin, Texas, during the South by Southwest (SXSW) technology conference and music festival this week.

“So I’m standing in front of the first permanent 3-D-printed home in America,” said Jason Ballard, co-founder of Austin-based ICON, a construction company that uses robotics, software and advanced materials to build houses.

The two-bedroom prototype contains space that can be used as a living/dining area, as well as three rooms that can be converted into bedrooms, a study or a bathroom, depending on where the home is located and the resources available. The homes will be anywhere from 56 square meters to 74 square meters in size.

At 35 square meters, the prototype home was successfully printed in a neighborhood near downtown Austin during a rainstorm, as strong winds kicked up dust in the area, according to Ballard.

3-D-printed homes for the poor

The goal is to print homes in developing countries during extreme weather conditions and amid the unpredictability of having electricity and water.

“We work with really the poorest families in the world that don’t have shelters,” said Brett Hagler, founder and chief executive officer with the nonprofit organization New Story. It aims to bring 3-D-printed homes first to Latin America and then expand to other developing countries. Hagler notes that using innovation and new technology will change how homes are manufactured to meet the need for housing around the world.

“The magnitude of the problem that we face is so big, it’s about a billion people that don’t have one of life’s most basic human needs, and that’s safe shelter,” he said.

“What we really need for the size of the issue is exponential growth,” he added, “and that has to come through significantly decreasing cost, increasing speed while doing that without sacrificing quality.”

ICON says the 3-D printer is 4.5-meters tall, 9 meters wide and made of lightweight aluminum. ICON created the device, software and unique mortar material it describes as “proprietary small-aggregate cementitious material” used to print the house. The 3-D printer is transportable because homes are printed on site. Ballard said he can imagine having many 3-D printers scattered around the world making homes.

“It’s actually a lot more simple to build a printer than it is to build a house,” Ballard said.

​Faster and cheaper

“We ran this printer at about a quarter speed to print this house, and we were able to complete the house in less than 48 hours of print time,” Ballard said.

At full speed it could be as little as 12 hours to print a house. Building a traditional New Story home would take 15 days.

“Instead of it taking about a year to build a community, we could do it in just a few months,” Hagler said.

A 3-D-printed home is also less expensive.

“Traditional style on a New Story home is about $6,500 per home. We believe over time, we can get the new home below $4,000,” Hagler said.

Ballard said the material used to print the home is another highlight to this innovative way of building the property.

“We believe the comfort and the energy dynamics of this building are actually going to be once again better than conventional buildings. These houses should be more comfortable and they should require less energy to stay comfortable.”

Ballard said that a 3-D-printed house, “is a complete paradigm shift that has unbelievable advantages in speed, affordability, resiliency, sustainability, waste reduction, you name it. This isn’t just a slight improvement. This is a revolutionary improvement that I think is going to be quite disruptive in the industry.”

This new building technology will be brought to the world’s poorest and underserved first. New Story is working with local nonprofits, governments and families to help fund these homes. The nonprofit plans to start printing homes in El Salvador this year.

The goal is to create permanent 3-D-printed homes and communities in developing countries and beyond that will last for generations.

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3-D-Printed House Offers Quick, Cheap Solution for Poor Worldwide

Imagine building a stronger, cheaper home in as little as 12 hours. That is now possible with the help of a 3-D printer. A 3-D-printed home was unveiled in Austin, Texas, during the South by Southwest (SXSW) technology conference and music festival. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee explains how this new technology could change the lives of families throughout the developing world.

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Former Siemens Executive Pleads Guilty in Argentine Bribery Case

A former midlevel employee of German industrial giant Siemens pleaded guilty Thursday of conspiring to pay tens of millions of dollars to Argentine officials to win a $1 billion contract to create national ID cards.

Eberhard Reichart, 78, who worked for Siemens from 1964 to 2001, appeared in federal court in New York to plead guilty to one count of conspiring to violate the anti-bribery Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and to commit wire fraud.

Reichart was arraigned last December in a three-count indictment filed in December 2011 charging him and seven other Siemens executives and agents with participating in the decadelong scheme, the Justice Department said Thursday. 

The men were accused of conspiring to pay more than $100 million in bribes to high-level Argentine officials to win the contract in 1998. 

As part of his guilty plea, Reichart admitted in court that he engaged in the bribery conspiracy and that he and his co-conspirators used shell companies to conceal the illicit payments to Argentine officials.

The Argentine government terminated the contract in 2001, but the Siemens executives “sought to recover the profits they would have reaped” through an illicitly obtained contract, said Preet Bharara, former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, in 2011. 

“Far too often, companies pay bribes as part of their business plan, upsetting what should be a level playing field and harming companies that play by the rules,” acting Assistant Attorney General John Cronan said Thursday.

In 2008, Siemens pleaded guilty of violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in connection with the Argentine bribery scheme, agreeing to pay the Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission $800 million in criminal and civil penalties.

The company paid the German government another $800 million to settle similar charges brought by the Munich Public Prosecutor’s Office.

The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act bars U.S. companies and foreign firms with a presence in the U.S. from paying bribes to foreign officials.

Last year, 11 companies paid just over $1.92 billion to resolve charges brought under the anti-bribery law, according to data compiled by the FCPA Blog.

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HSBC Has 59 Percent Gender Pay Gap, Biggest Among British Banks

HSBC will reveal a gender pay gap of 59 percent at its main U.K. banking operation, the biggest yet disclosed by a British bank, according to a copy of the lender’s report on the subject seen by Reuters on Thursday ahead of its publication.

The bank will also disclose a mean gender bonus gap of 86 percent at HSBC Bank Plc, which is the biggest of the lender’s seven entities in Britain and employs 23,507 people.

A spokeswoman for the bank confirmed the contents of the report.

The gender pay gap is the biggest yet reported by a British financial firm, according to government data, with some firms yet to provide figures ahead of an April deadline set by Prime Minister Theresa May last year.

Almost 50 years since the passage of Britain’s equal pay act, the continued gulf in earnings between men and women has attracted significant public attention over the past year or so.

In common with other banks, HSBC said its pay gap was largely accounted for by the bank having fewer women in senior roles.

The gender pay gap measures the difference between the average salary of men and women, calculated on an hourly basis.

HSBC said women held only 23 percent of senior leadership positions in its workforce in Britain, despite accounting for more than half of total staff.

The bank said it was taking a number of steps to reduce the pay gap, including committing to an aspirational target of women holding 30 percent of senior roles by 2020.

Last month, Asia-focused Standard Chartered reported a gap of 30 percent in Britain, while Virgin Money — the only major UK lender run by a woman — said its female staff earned on average 32.5 percent less per hour than its male workforce.

Lloyds Banking Group and Royal Bank of Scotland reported gender pay gaps of 32.8 percent and 37 percent respectively.

Barclays said last month it paid women in its international division, which houses its investment bank, on average 48 percent of what men earned in fixed pay.

The pay gaps have drawn criticism from lawmakers and are likely to spur questions from investors in the upcoming season for shareholder meetings, with stock prices and future earnings potential strongly linked to banks’ efforts to revive their reputations in the wake of the global financial crisis.

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Germany Says Trade War Could Damage Global Recovery

Germany said on Thursday that any escalation of U.S. President Donald Trump’s tariffs on metal imports into a full-blown trade war could cause tangible damage to the global recovery, although the tariffs themselves should have only a limited effect.

Trump last week ordered the imposition of duties on incoming steel and aluminum and threatened to levy a tax on European cars if the European Union did not remove “horrific” tariffs and trade barriers on a range of goods.

“The German economic upswing is continuing at the beginning of 2018. The global economic environment is still favorable,” the Economy Ministry said in its monthly report. But it said U.S. trade policies were creating a sense of uncertainty.

The tariffs on steel and aluminum will affect trade flows in some regions, but their overall implications for the global economy are likely to be manageable, it said.

“But a possible escalation into a trade war and rising uncertainty among market participants could cause tangible damage,” it added.

European Council President Donald Tusk on Wednesday urged the United States to revive trade talks rather than escalate a dispute over tariffs on metals and cars.

And Swiss National Bank Chairman Thomas Jordan said on Thursday that U.S. protectionism could be a threat to the export-dependent Swiss economy and trigger safe-haven flows that would drive up the value of the Swiss currency.

‘At a crossroads’

Germany’s new economy minister, Peter Altmaier, said Trump was challenging the multilateral trade system as defined by the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

“We are at a very important crossroads,” Altmaier said, warning of a scenario in which countries could start a spiral of tit-for-tat trade restrictions.

“This is a really huge challenge with implications for all of us,” Altmaier added. He said consumers in all countries would end up footing the bill because tariffs would push up prices for many kinds of products.

The threat of a full-blown trade war will also be on the agenda of the G-20 meeting in Argentina, where finance ministers and central bank governors from the world’s 20 biggest economies meet from March 17 to 20.

Germany’s new finance minister, Olaf Scholz, will meet his U.S. counterpart Steven Mnuchin on Sunday or Monday on the sidelines of the meeting to discuss trade, banking regulation and other issues, senior German officials said on Thursday.

“The minister will have bilateral meetings with all G-7 counterparts,” one of the officials said, on condition of anonymity, adding that multilateral trade would “certainly be a big topic” at the G-20 meeting.

The taxation of profits from digital business and regulation of crypto currencies will also be in focus, the official added.


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Surge in Airline Hiring Boosts Interest in Aspiring Pilots

Major U.S. airlines are hiring pilots at a rate not seen since before 9/11, and that is encouraging more young people to consider a career in the cockpit.

Hiring is likely to remain brisk for years. Smaller airlines in the U.S. are struggling with a shortage that will continue as they lose pilots to the bigger carriers, which in turn will need to replace thousands of retiring pilots over the next few years.


Aircraft maker Boeing predicts that the U.S. will need 117,000 new pilots by 2036. Just a decade ago thousands of pilots were furloughed and some abandoned the profession.


The shortage has been felt most keenly at regional carriers where many pilots start their airline careers.


Last summer, Alaska Airlines subsidiary Horizon Air canceled more than 300 flights over two months for lack of pilots. Republic Airways filed for bankruptcy protection in 2016, citing a pilot shortage that forced it to ground flights.


Many regional carriers fly smaller planes for American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express. Signing bonuses and higher pay have helped them hire more than 17,000 pilots in the past four years, but that only replaced those who moved up to the major carriers, according to the Regional Airline Association.


Demand at the major airlines is expected to grow as thousands of pilots at American, Delta, United and Southwest hit the U.S. mandatory pilot-retirement age of 65 in the next several years.


American Airlines CEO Doug Parker believes the industry will cope.


“Economics is going to take care of this, and I think that’s what is happening now,” Parker says. “The [flight] schools are starting to fill up with people who realize, ‘If I can get myself to 1,500 hours [the minimum flight hours needed to get an airline-pilot license], I can be assured of a career as a pilot.’ That’s not something people could convince themselves of from 9/11 on until now.”


Pilot hiring nosedived after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks that led to a decline in travel, and again during the global financial crisis in 2008-2009. Major U.S. airlines hired only 30 pilots in 2009, according to Future & Active Pilot Advisors, a career-counseling business for pilots.


The job market didn’t pick up significantly until around 2014. Last year 10 of the largest U.S. passenger and cargo airlines hired 4,988 pilots, the most since 2000 when they hired 5,105.


“It’s the best sellers’ market I have seen in the last 45 years of monitoring airline pilot hiring,” says Louis Smith, a retired airline pilot who runs the pilot-counseling outfit.


Smith says forums for aspiring pilots that once drew a couple dozen people now sometimes attract more than 150. Some hope to make a mid-career change, which was rare just a few years ago.


Aaron Ludomirski is one of those career-changers. The 31-year-old from Asbury Park, New Jersey, says he always wanted to be a pilot but studied business instead because the bleak job opportunities for pilots in the years after 9/11 didn’t justify the cost of school and flight training. After college he started an online marketing business.


“Year after year I found myself less and less satisfied with my work,” he says. “I started thinking about what kind of career would really lead me to feeling fulfilled and accomplished, and I kept coming back to aviation.”


Ludomirski did some fresh research and learned that pilots were back in demand — and more would be retiring in the next few years. He quit his job and went to flight school. Now he is working as a flight instructor to gain the required flying time for an airline pilot.


“I can interview for and even accept a conditional letter of employment and know I have my dream job lined up for me when I’m ready,” he says.


Applications for commercial aviation majors at the University of North Dakota, a big aeronautical school, have more than doubled in the last three years, says Elizabeth Bjerke, an aviation professor and one of the authors of the university’s widely watched forecast on pilot supply.


Some students graduate early to take advantage of the job market and the chance to move up the seniority list quickly because so many older pilots are retiring.


“Our graduates will fly at the regionals for a very short period,” Bjerke said. “They are getting picked up by the major carriers in their mid-20s, which would have been just crazy to think of 15 or 20 years ago.”


Michael Wiggins, chairman of the aeronautical science department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, says his school’s graduates are getting multiple job offers from regional airlines.


Pilots who become captains on jumbo jets that fly international routes can earn more than $300,000 a year. But for anyone starting out in the profession, the training is expensive — upward of $100,000.


A few years ago, those who made it faced starting pay for first officers or co-pilots at regional airlines in the low-$20,000s. With bonuses and higher hourly rates, some regionals now claim to offer starting pay of $80,000 or more, but even that might not be enough to meet future demand.


The Regional Airline Association is pushing to change a 2013 federal rule that requires 1,500 hours of flying time — usually in small, single-engine planes — by replacing some of it with supervised classroom instruction. The group’s president, Faye Malarkey Black, says supervised training would produce aviators with skills more relevant to piloting an airliner.


But a similar proposal appears stalled in Congress, partly due to opposition from families of the 50 people who died in the last deadly crash of a U.S. airliner, a Colgan Air plane in 2009. Black believes the Trump administration has the authority to change the minimum flight hours without waiting for Congress to act, but she admits that will be difficult “as long as those changes are successfully cast as rolling back safety.”


JetBlue Airways is beginning a small-scale program of training people with no flying experience — an approach used by Lufthansa and other international airlines. The JetBlue program costs about $125,000, however, the airline says it is looking into providing financial assistance.


Even with assistance, however, life for newcomers can be taxing. In addition to flying smaller planes for lower wages, they work on holidays and spend lots of time away from home.


Starting pilots need “a passion for flying that drives the thrill of going to work,” says Smith, the career adviser. “It’s certainly not for everyone.”


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Reports: Toys ‘R’ Us to Shut or Sell All US Stores

Toys ‘R’ US plans to sell or close all of its US stores, potentially hitting 33,000 jobs, U.S. media reported Wednesday.

The debt-plagued retailer, which filed for bankruptcy protection in September, told employees that the retailer planned to file liquidation papers ahead of a Thursday court hearing, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post reported.

“We’re putting a for sale sign on everything,” CEO David Brandon said on a conference call with staff, according to the Journal.

Company officials did not immediately reply for a request for comment.

Started in 1948 amid the postwar US economic boom, Toys ‘R’ US has 881 stores in U.S. territories and nearly 65,000 employees globally, according to the company’s most recent press release last month.

The New Jersey-based company was saddled with debt following a leveraged buyout in 2005 by a consortium that included the KKR Group and Bain Capital.

Much like other retailers, Toys ‘R’ Us has also been bruised by competition from Amazon and other online retailers.

A weak holiday shopping season weighed on the company’s efforts to reorganize, analysts said.

Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail, blamed the company’s woes on poor leadership.

“As the competitive dynamics of the toy market intensified, management failed to respond and evolve. As such, the brand lost relevance, customers and ultimately sales,” Saunders said in a note Wednesday.

“The main tragedy of liquidation will be the extensive loss of jobs. In our view, those on the shop-floor have been badly let down by management and those doing financial deals.”

The company is exploring strategies for keeping the brand alive, including the sale of 200 U.S. stores that could be packaged with its Canadian business, CNBC and the Journal reported.

Brandon outlined this and other possibilities at the New Jersey meeting, CNBC reported. Brandon also told workers they have 60 more days of employment at the company.

In February, the company’s British business announced plans for an “orderly wind-down” of the company’s store portfolio. Toys ‘R’ Us employs 3,200 people at 100 stores in Britain.