Global media cover many stories about worldwide agony that is related to the working methods of multinational companies. For instance, printed and online media cover the horrific working conditions in Bangladesh H&M factories, explain how child labour was found in Chinese Apple factories or point out that human slavery is taking place at Ivory Coast cocoa farms of Nestlé. They also mention the specific violations of international rights in these ‘sweatshop’ cases, such as very low wages, extremely long working days, unsafe working environments and the absence of unions that could address these types of issues (Burke 2015) (Garside 2013) (Kelly 2016). Yet, while it is indeed important that these problems are exposed, the coverage often only focusses on (1) the details of the issues, (2) who was directly to blame for the existence of these sweatshops and (3) what the legal consequences are for the parties involved. Headlines such as “EU should make a stand towards the Bangladeshi government to improve labour conditions”, “U.S. appeals court revives Nestle child slavery lawsuit” and “Nestlé admits slavery in Thailand while fighting child labour lawsuit in Ivory Coast” only mention the parties that are involved in clear sight (Vanpeperstraete 2018) (Bellon 2018) (Kelly 2016). Concluding from this, it could be claimed that media tend to frame sweatshop issues as if they are solely caused by governments and/or multinational companies, which can then create the impression that these parties are also the only ones that can influence future discourse. However, in this paper, I want to argue that this type of reporting fails to mention another very important actor: the consumer of the products coming from these sweatshops. Following on this, I will claim that media do not only have a strong positive duty to show the malpractices in sweatshops, but also need to demonstrate the connection between consumption behaviour and the agony in these sweatshops. To do so, I will start with an analysis on both an ethical and practical level to demonstrate how exactly consumption behaviour relates so closely to the existence of sweatshops. Following on this, I will offer clear reasons that establish the media’s obligations to demonstrate this relation.
Well-known philosopher Thomas Pogge has argued that “the worse-off [in the world] are not merely poor and often starving, but are being impoverished” by the most well-off in the world. Although Pogge was not specifically talking about sweatshops, he showed how the broader term global poverty negatively relates to the wealth of a few and what follows from this. Pogge starts with explaining that because of contemporary radical inequality, one could claim that the most well-off have a positive duty to relieve the suffering of the least well-off. However, as Pogge explains, while many well-off people might indeed support a good cause, they rather choose for one close to home, instead of “putting themselves out for total strangers half a world away, with whom they share no bond of community or culture”. Therefore, according to Pogge, it is more important and useful to focus on a certain negative duty that the most well-off would have towards the least well-off. Pogge explains and justifies this negative duty by exposing “three grounds of injustice” that occur in contemporary global inequality.
Firstly, he claims that the most well-off and their governments are “imposing a global institutional order” that keeps global inequality in place and even expands it. This is illustrated by the fact that the most well-off influence the circumstances of the least well-off through loans, trade, bribes, sex tourism and many other factors, and such mechanisms are facilitated and controlled by the economic and military strength of the most well-off.
Secondly, and following from the first injustice, the most well-off enjoy significant advantages in how they can benefit from the world’s resources by misusing “their power to shape the world to their own interests”. On the one hand, the resources are taken from the least well-off without compensation or by giving the compensation to other affluent people. On the other hand, with their extremely high consumption patterns, the most well-off use much more resources than the least well-off. Furthermore, as the least well-off are born in a world where resources are already owned by others, combined with the lack of access to education and employment, the least well-off are excluded from a fair share of the world’s resources.
Lastly, the shared history between the most well-off and the least well-off also greatly impacts worldwide inequality. Pogge claims that “historical processes in which moral principles and legal rules were massively violated” have had huge influence on the social starting positions of many people around the world. These processes include conquests and colonization in which severe oppression, enslavement and even genocide occurred, leaving behind four “destroyed or severely traumatized” continents (Pogge 2010).
Thus, as the most well-off are contributing in various ways to the poverty of the least well-off, they are violating their negative duty of not participating in causing harm to others. Following on Pogge’s conclusion, I will now argue that the same reasoning can be used for how Western consumers are currently keeping sweatshops in place.
In general, multinationals will work towards profit by keeping their production costs as low as possible. This is one of the main reasons why from the 1960’s onwards many large corporations started moving their factories to cheap labour countries (Cox 1976). A very negative result from this shift of labour are the already mentioned ‘sweatshops’ – factories in which the employees work long hours for very little pay in unhealthy conditions.
Quite recently, many world-known fashion brands such as H&M, Nike, and Adidas have all been exposed using these sweatshops for their clothing production (Fair Labour Association 2006). However, as the examples in the introduction already showed, it is not only the fashion industry that is involved in these scandals. Many large tech companies – including Apple – are also involved in issues concerning human rights in their factories (Turner 2016). Yet, in 2017, the iPhone 7, Apple’s flagship model, was sold more than 375 million times worldwide, being the most sold smartphone that year (Romero 2017). Just as Apple would not have able to increase their profits without their customers massively purchasing iPhones, it would not have been possible for H&M to gain a 2018 €17.23 billion sales profit (Montgomery 2018) without consumers buying their cheap clothes. Following from this, it can be established that the existence of big multinationals that use sweatshops would not be possible without the consumption patterns of their consumers. Consequently, the fact that consumers – the most-well off – keep these companies viable by buying their products, contributes to and allows the continuation of agony in the sweatshops.
This analysis is very much related to Pogge’s grounds of injustice. Firstly, the “institutional order” that he mentions includes global trade agreements, and these agreements open the possibilities for multinationals to have their factories in cheap countries with low regulations, while making huge profits in the affluent parts of the world (Prasad, et al. 2004). The trade agreements are therefore part of the harm done to the sweatshop workers. Secondly, the used resources in the case of sweatshops is labour itself, and the benefits are severely limited for the least well-off themselves, whereas the most well-off benefit greatly. Taking Mexico’s sweatshops as example, where the wages are extremely low with a national minimum wage of four dollars and where half of the country lives in poverty. On the other side of this market chain are the under-pricing competitors such as Walmart in the US, which benefits the already well-off people with even cheaper prices every day (Averill 2005). Thirdly, the sweatshops are often located in countries with the exact same ‘shared history’ that Pogge talked about, as most of the countries mentioned so far are those with a colonial past (Lawler and Mundt 2018) (Husain and Tinker 2018). A good example of this influence is provided by a quote from a factory/sweatshop owner in Bangladesh:
”We still suffer from the legacy of the colonial days,” said one factory owner, Muhammad Saidur Rehman. ”We consider the workers to be our slaves, and this belief is made all the easier by a supply of labour that is endlessly abundant.” (Bearak 2001)
Now, while Pogge argues for a political model that can change such a discourse, I myself have earlier argued that (partly) because of the reasons given above, consumers are just as well accountable for the agony in sweatshops and should therefore follow a negative duty by not buying these products (van Grondelle 2018). This is in line with Pogge’s reasoning, as he specifically stated that the survival of the least well-off “often crucially depends on our [the most well-off] consumption choices” (Pogge 2010). However, to set such a process in motion, consumers need to be aware of the relation between their consumption behaviour and the existence of sweatshops, and I believe that media can play an important role in developing this awareness. Ultimately, they are the intermediary between information and citizens (Parliamentary Assembly 1993), they can influence human behaviour by effecting individual views and beliefs (Valkenburg, Peter and Walther 2016) and they can thus influence consumption behaviour. Because of this, I argue that media have a positive duty to show how consumption behaviour keeps sweatshops in place.
To justify my claim, I will consider some well-known ethics codes that are followed by many newspapers, broadcasting companies and other media channels throughout the world. For instance, the UNESCO International Principles of Professional Ethics in Journalism, representing 400.000 working journalists in all parts of the world, states that journalists should abstain from any justification for forms of violence and other evils that might harm humanity, such as oppression and poverty. This principle aims to “eliminate ignorance and misunderstanding among peoples […] and ensure the respect for the rights and dignity of all nations, all peoples and all individuals” (UNESCO 1983). A similar principle can be found in the journalism ethics code formulated by the European Council, which states that in certain circumstances such as conflict or tension, the media have “a moral obligation” to “defend respect for human dignity, solving problems by peaceful, tolerant means, and consequently to oppose violence” (Parliamentary Assembly 1993). Furthermore, in the specific context of child labour, there are several media codes that urge journalists to reduce harm to children. For example, the African Editorial Guidelines for Reporting on Children claims that journalists should “guard against any practice that may exploit or violate the rights of any child under the age of 18” (Media Monitoring Africa 2016).
The above mentioned examples all strive towards equality, the improvement of peoples’ lives and the prevention of harm. Or, to put it differently, they show that media have an overarching obligation to help preventing human suffering. This can already give adequate moral reasons to claim that journalists should cover the malpractices in sweatshops all over the world, as doing so might invoke governments and multinationals to take action, which then might prevent human suffering. However, why shouldn’t media go one step further by showing the relation between the agony in sweatshops and Western consumption behaviour? The answer to this question can also be found in in the same range of ethics codes, as it is often claimed that “journalists’ first obligation is the truth”, which includes finding the facts and the context of issues (Kovach and Rosenstiel 2007). In the case of sweatshops, it would mean that they should cover the underlying reasons and the background of the agony in these factories, and thus show how consumption behaviour is an important aspect within this chain of related factors. Concluding from this, by making this additional effort in covering the stories of sweatshops, it might lead to a change in consumption behaviour and can therefore help in taking away the underlying cause of the agony in sweatshops. Hence, in this way, instead of ‘just bringing the news’ about the sweatshops, the media’s obligation to help preventing human suffering can be fulfilled much stronger.
By following existing media ethics, which offer clear obligations for media to avoid human suffering and to expose the truth, I have claimed that media have a positive duty to show how consumption behaviour relates to the agony in sweatshops. Media need to clearly address the relation between the two, and by doing so, they can demonstrate how a change in consumption behaviour could prevent the agony in sweatshops. Just as Pogge stated that “modesty is important […] to gain the support necessary to implement” his political model to reduce global poverty, media can make a modest but very important step to change consumption patterns and thereby avoid human suffering.
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