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Media and labour

August 13, 2017

NOAM Chomsky pins his propaganda model on “inequality of wealth and power and its multi-level effects on mass media interests and choices”. The media’s structure and its five basic filters, as pointed out by Chomsky, are the same the world over, although there are variations in cultural and political filters specific to each country. Hence, it came as no surprise when I saw the news of the death of five coal miners on page six of a national newspaper a few days ago. Generally speaking, the deaths of workers are deemed fit for page two or three and if the number of dead is higher, the news is taken on the front page. I wondered about the filters in this case: was it the location of the event (a village east of Muzaffarabad in Azad Kashmir — and not in the provinces) or lack of representation (no trade union mediation).

The media marginalises, or filters out, the already marginalised. And the more marginalised you are, the more you find yourself on the periphery. That’s what has happened with labour in Pakistan. With the frontline defence of workers — the trade unions — on the retreat, labour issues hardly find space in the media. The concerns of the over 60-million civilian workforce do not affect the ‘corporate’ world to which much of the media belongs. Hence, there are fewer news stories, scant analyses, and hardly any follow-up of even those tales of toil considered newsworthy.

The internet is a strategic tool for re-energising trade unions.

But in all fairness, being an extension of ourselves, the media cannot be viewed in black or white. It may not have been proactive in the case of labour, but it has supported, and still supports, grass-roots movements, be it of workers or other marginalised sections. The media is organic. A blend of technology and social systems, it keeps on evolving. The internet has widened its scope enormously through cyberspace. It is dynamic and interactive and a lot depends on how society uses it, changes its use over time and subverts corporate control. The media needs an interface to achieve such a change. In the case of labour, this interface — trade unions — has gone missing to a large extent. Yet, there still remain some trade unions and federations in the country, civil society groups, activists and concerned consumers. It depends on both labour and the media how to use this interface. Recently, swift mobilisation by consumers, under the hashtag ‘BoycottKhaadi’, forced the management of the textile brand to give its workers their due rights.

Though it is the age of social media and anyone with even moderate technical knowhow and some financial resources can have a voice and speak for oneself in cyberspace, we must contend with the fact that the majority of our workforce is deprived of even that. According to a 2016 survey, only 17.8 per cent of Pakistan’s population have access to the internet, though over 70pc have mobile phones. Hence the print and electronic media (radio and television) remain crucial for the coverage of labour issues. Though the burden of responsibility falls on workers to build and maintain linkages with correspondents and submit concise and timely press releases, journalists could play a proactive role and investigate labour as their beat as they do politics, economy and finance.

The use of the internet is emerging as one of the strategic tools for the re-energising of trade unions in the western hemisphere. Trade unions maintain interactive websites and make use of web-based communication platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. The internet links up the labour movement with other forms of social and political activism existing in their respective countries, and globally too if required. International trade unions and federations have increased their outreach through interactive websites and solidarity campaigns giving agency and voice to a larger number of workers.

Apart from websites run by trade unions, there are a number of web-based communication platforms operated by labour activists. LabourStart stands out as a news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement. Governed by an executive committee, news links from all over the world are collected by its 960 volunteer correspondents.

In Pakistan, there are over 15 trade union federations. Some of them have a Facebook presence and none have a website I could search. I believe our trade union federations do have the wherewithal to start a web page. Perhaps they do not have young and dynamic members with ambitions for wider outreach and an enthusiasm for technology.

Of late, two websites have emerged: labourwatchpakistan.com, a news portal, and Paycheck.pk that gives information on labour laws. None provides campaigning services. Perhaps someone from the labour resource groups, academic circles or young activists’ networks could take the initiative, facilitate workers and open an all-purpose, national labour portal.

The writer is a researcher in the development sector.(zeenathisam2004@gmail.com)

Published in Dawn, August 13th, 2017