Media and Labor Rights

How the Media’s Portrayal of Labor Rights Violations can Impact Change

STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM -- Tragedies with numerous death tolls almost always land a primary spot in news and social media outlets, especially when the tragedy is a result of inequity and injustice. This is because people are more aware and empathetic towards the disparities that exist around the world, especially those exercised towards the underprivileged and the voiceless. However, even though the accidents that have been occurring in factories and manufacturing shops are being portrayed in the media some of the time, the public attention this media coverage receives is usually short lived. Once the retail industries make promises about change that they may or may not carry out, concerned consumers may find comfort in these promises and move on with their lives. Nevertheless, past experiences have shown that the way media portrays the incidences that occur as a result of labor rights violations have had an impact on public engagement in the matter, and consequently on improving the conditions and the labor environment of factory workers, manufacturers, or farmers at the bottom of the supply chain. This brings us to ask: how does the media coverage of labor tragedies influence public engagement for the protection and defense of labor rights?

Punjab in India is a major consumer of pesticides (177 kg per hectare compared to 90kg per hectare on a national level.) It has also been witness to an outstanding surge in the number of cancer cases. (Donthi, 2010). According to an epidemiological study in 2008, villages where farmers' use of pesticides is more intensive have significantly higher rates of cancer cases in comparison to the villages that use less pesticide. Media covered this story, but they did it poorly. Even though the correlation between the surge in cancer cases and the abuse of pesticide was becoming increasingly obvious, different sources were reluctant to attest to that on the grounds of other factors, such as tobacco or pollution (Zwerdling, 2009). Furthermore the media did not investigate this controversy and only provided a shallow coverage instead of grilling the hesitant sources for further information.



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Bangladesh is a place where at least once a year a tragedy related to human rights violation occurs. This is mainly because in Bangladesh handiwork is very cheap and the working conditions are deplorable. Great commercial dealers work with the fabric produced here because of the low costs. Companies do not care if the working conditions are bad, as long as their supplies are on time. All of this is part of the globalization we are living in nowadays, where things move at a very fast pace without looking back for what is left behind. Globalization works only for the higher parts of the chain, where the ultimate consumers are the ones to be satisfied.

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On the other hand, labor rights violations do not only happen in factories or closed spaces; they can happen in front of our eyes, and in open clear spaces, such as farms. Punjab is a place where cotton plantations are vast. The Punjabi district is a major producer of cotton and also a major consumer of pesticides. The problem is that these pesticides contain carcinogenic substances which seriously endangering the farmers’ health. Sixty-seven sorts of pesticides used in India are banned in other places around the world because of their high levels of toxicity (Nayak, 2013).

We are inherently entitled to our human rights from birth and labor rights are a substantial part of those rights. According to the UN there are at least four basic rights that should not be conflicted while laboring: the freedom of association, the elimination of compulsory and forced labor, the abolition of child labor, and the elimination of discrimination.

But how does the media cover stories involving labor rights violations? Media outlets have the power to inform people of what happens around the world, telling them what they should worry about and how it could affect their lives. At times, news of general interest is minimized because it could have a negative effect on the government or the economy. This is the case of many events where people don’t get to know what really happened simply because media editors don’t think this kind of information may really be relevant. In this study we contrast the way the media covered the cases of a recent fire in a Bangladeshi factory that supplied garments to big companies such as Gap and H&M, and of a cotton farm’s unregulated use of carcinogen pesticides. 

Media coverage did not help the case of the Punjabis, for recent articles show that the cancer rates are still high, with an average of 18 people dieing of cancer every day (TNN, 2013). A recent article in the Indian Express newspaper explains the shortcomings of the Indian government in tackling the problem. Finding a solution fell solely on conducting a national survey and providing affordable treatments for the ill, instead of imposing strict regulations on the use of pesticides and other harmful chemicals (Salaria, 2013). The poor coverage of the severe cancer epidemic in Punjab is quite evident. Even though the problem has

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been going on for years you can only find limited media resources on this story and very little follow up on the progress of the events. The consequent low level of public engagement must have discouraged corporations and the local government from making any prominent changes in their safety standards.

A recent tragedy struck in Bangladesh when a factory building, called Rana Plaza, collapsed and killed more than 1,100 workers. The absence of fire safety and building security were the root cause of this tragic accident and are a leading cause of occupational deaths in different countries (Butler, 2013). This, unlike the Punjab tragedy, provoked much public outrage. The Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational and Environmental Victims (ANROEV) declared a sharp statement that denounced the current policies, specifically the corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs and blamed them for the ongoing tragedy in Bangladesh (Grossman, 2013). Furthermore, The Guardian explains that different groups that lobby for worker’s rights are calling on retailers to “use a legally binding deal to improve safety for clothes factory workers in Bangladesh as a blueprint for tackling similar problems elsewhere” (Butler, 2013). There are numerous media sources that covered the Rana Plaza tragedy and just as many still following up on the repercussions of the event even today 4 months after it occurred. Unlike the case of Punjab, the amount of information available on this topic to the public is varied and conclusive enough for them to be well informed and actively engaged. We believe that this could be the main propelling force behind the different movements and demands for the improvement of working conditions in factories in Bangladesh and other countries. And as a result of these public demands we can see the labor unions actively working on improving the situation for laborers in different areas around the world. Therefore, the global impact of the Rana Plaza collapse will not only affect local policies to improve the situation in Bangladeshi factories, but will spill over to other countries with similar problems.