On Increased Media Coverage of Sweatshop Labor

Talia Bank, ‘19

Of the topics one typically finds and usually expects to be addressed in mainstream and top-tier media, sweatshop labor is not a go-to. It is no doubt an under-reported issue on both local and global levels. After all, sweatshops do not make for sensational headlines. Nowadays, the media is primarily associated with politics, which is often deemed a vehicle through which societies achieve systemic change by law.

A newspaper or media company that claims its position as a check and an informant on political power by definition likewise claims that the content of that newspaper or media platform to a great extent covers the manifestations and effects of political power on policy and law. The illegality and simultaneous pervasiveness of the unacceptable working conditions and long hours, the low wages, and the socio-economic class and ages of workers of sweatshops pose a conflict to the idea that it is politics, and consequently law, that is solely and completely capable of sparking lasting change in the labor market. After all, if there are laws in place in so-called developed countries with strong cultures of consumerism, like the United States, meant to regulate labor both at home and in so-called developing countries where imported clothing is produced, how can newspapers and media companies report on sweatshop labor issues without exposing the failure of law and without calling for societal rumination on inequality and exploitation? In that sense, sweatshop labor has become like a crumb under the seemingly all-expansive carpet of global politics under which media companies tend not to peek.

This is not precisely the fault of journalists. As Richard Greenwald, a labor historian and author, writes, “it is the result of the restructuring of the newspaper industry. The constriction of print journalism, the over-reliance on wire stories and the growth of newspaper chains means there is little room for investigative journalism. These kinds of stories aren’t in the business plan.” As suggested by Greenwald and by the fact that media relies on readers and readers tend to read sensational, controversial, and political news, sweatshop labor has fallen off the journalistic map, if it ever even did hold a significant place there.

Where sweatshop labor does appear in the media however, it is presented in a particular way that makes it out to be sensational in order to make it a topic capable of competing with politics and pop culture. For example, take a Quartz article titled Nike is facing a new wave of anti-sweatshop protests. Immediately in the title, readers are given a blameworthy company to shake their figurative fingers at: Nike. As one reads the article, the evidence against Nike piles up. From allegedly denying independent monitoring to cutting jobs and allowing workers to suffer wage theft, overheated working conditions, and verbal abuse, in a factory in Hansae, Vietnam, there is plenty to demonize Nike for. However, the article does not delve deeper into the forces that pave the way for sweatshop labor itself. Though this is but one example, there is ample reporting from other news sources on sweatshop labor that focuses on boycotts of clothing companies or sensational outrage in anti-sweatshop protests. In other words, the sensation in sweatshop labor is produced primarily, not secondarily, from the painting of a common-enemy narrative. What ends up missing from this meager coverage are the experiences of the workers themselves and the societal issues, such as gender disparity, poverty, and inequality that drive exploitation and exist in direct relationship to it.

The issue with the lack of reporting on sweatshop labor and the kind of reporting when there is any is described eloquently in Sweatshop Labour in News Media: The Economics of a Social Issue, an article by Jennifer Slater, a student at the University of Guelph at the time of writing. Slater points out that public news media “dominantly place emphasis on the economics of sweatshops, thus placing the big businesses who utilize this form of labour at the heart of finding a solution to this issue” and by doing so “ignore the social conditions that make sweatshop labour possible.” Her conclusion calls for an approach to sweatshop labor that addresses the social and gender issues alongside corporate violations of labor rights. In this way, systemic change can only be brought about when the media comprehensively analyses the root causes of the sweatshop issue rather than just identifying a clothing company supported by sweatshop labor. In turn, increasingly consistent and comprehensive media coverage could lead to union opportunities for sweatshop workers as well as increased wages, economic leeway as financially secure persons, and regulation to stop abuse, discrimination, and illegal child labor.  

There are top-tier media outlets like the Guardian who have done a respectable job with expanding media coverage for sweatshop labor and laborers. There are also alternative newspapers and less mainstream media recommended by Richard Greenwald in his article that are also paving the way for a transparent journalistic future that relies not on sensational headlines but on comprehensive reporting that concretely tackles societal issues rather than simply stoking rage. However, as polarized governments stunt civil discourse, sweatshop labor may yet retreat back to the shadows.

Works Cited
Greenwald, Richard. “Why Are Sweatshops So Invisible? One Answer: The Media.” In These Times, October 19th, 2010. http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/6568/why_are_sweatshops_so_invisible_one_answer_the_media

Bain, Marc. “Nike is facing a new wave of anti-sweatshop protests.” Quartz, August 1st, 2017.https://qz.com/1042298/nike-is-facing-a-new-wave-of-anti-sweatshop-protests/

Slater, Jennifer. “Sweatshop Labour in News Media: The Economics of a Social Issue.” University of Guelph’s Undergraduate Feminist Journal, December 5th, 2016. https://journal.lib.uoguelph.ca/index.php/footnotes/article/view/3825