Imagine if the workers of a government agency went on strike to protest unfair conditions and in return, they were greeted by a contingent of thuggish policemen. The news may be downplayed in the media but would surely merit a mention. However, if the culprit is a private corporation, then it may as well not have happened. If a union strike takes place against a wealthy business and the media is not around to hear it, it does not make a sound.
Workers at a five-star hotel in Karachi are on strike demanding that 500 employees be given permanent status. The strike is perfectly legal but the management’s response has been to suspend most of the temporary workers. The police have been called in to attack the strikers outside the hotel and those who have occupied the hotel’s basement are being harassed by hotel security. A similar thing happened at the same hotel in 2010, accompanied by the same sounds of silence.
All of this comes as news to most people because the media doesn’t consider anything to be news if it hurts the bottom line. This is why the greatest threat to the freedom of media today comes not from the government but from private corporations. Business news in the country is concerned only with profits, shifts in the stock market and profiles of executives who will be so flattered they may throw an advertisement or two in the direction of the media organisation.
Labour unions in Pakistan have seen a diminishing of their power ever since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto turned on his supporters in the working class. Ziaul Haq then gleefully feasted on the remaining scraps. Throughout this period, the media saw, heard and reported no evil. Now, close to half of urban labour is working on informal contracts, beyond the reaches of state labour laws. Expecting corporate management to develop a conscience is laughable and the government is more interested in stuffing unions with its supporters.
If it is true that the job of the media is to hold the powerful accountable, then it should be the only ally labour unions have. Perusing the pages of a newspaper, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the only protests being held are by NGOs, society aunties and other mainly apolitical groups. Certainly, they deserve all the coverage they get but those protesting for a living wage, safe working conditions and humane working hours should have their voices heard, too.
After the Baldia Town factory fire, we saw moving photos of vigils by those who lost loved ones and angry protests by outraged citizens. Here’s a novel idea: along with this ex post facto coverage, why don’t we also make space for those who are taking to the streets and holding strikes at work to ensure that they aren’t the next victims of such avoidable tragedies?
Part of the problem is that some media organisations themselves take the same shortcuts and engage in the same labour practices as everyone else. A state broadcaster could avoid those pitfalls but right now, PTV is both susceptible to pressure from politicians who are allied with corporate owners while still reliant on private advertising for a share of revenue, what is essentially the worst of both worlds. Realistically, social media and the like can reach only a limited number of people and independent non-corporate media is non-existent.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 15th, 2013.