worker outside KYE factory

KYE worker in Houjie, Guangdong. His working conditions have not improved since media publicity about the factory's conditions over a year ago.

In a perfect world, company executives would not need to be pressured into paying living wages, they would just do it.

In a next-to perfect scenario, producer-nation labour activists and destination-nation consumers would act in concert to bring about positive change in wages and pay conditions.

There are plenty of success stories around: Last year the tantalum mining industry got a shake up with the passage of US Government regulation. Individual companies continue to sign on to the No Dirty Gold pledge. Recent campaigns directed at single companies have seen improvements at Ocean Sky, a footwear maker, Bridgestone, Nestlé and 1800FLOWERS.

However it’s a bit hit-and-miss and I have to wonder whether part of this is because the developed-world NGOs have built-in obstacles to following up.

Why it’s better to say ‘Mission Not Accomplished’

Running a successful corporate embarrassment campaign involves media attention and increased brand awareness and it is at that point that donors become interested. Could it be that the interest level is less when people hear about successful calls to action? There is no dramatic tension in need of resolution. There is no villain. It certainly doesn’t make good media. Unions have for a long time used the ‘Anger-Hope-Action’ model to obtain buy-in; that does not apply when a problem is actually fixed.

I hope this doesn’t sound too cynical. People are attracted to stories and drama, and “this problem has been fixed” just isn’t as interesting as “this is an injustice”.

Moreover, media won’t run a story that amounts to “no change from what we told you before”.

An example: Xbox 360 hardware

Microsoft’s Xbox 360 handheld controllers are manufactured in a locality known as Houjie in China’s Pearl River Delta. The company, KYE Systems, is Taiwanese.

XBox 360 wired controller.

An Xbox 360 controller, manufactured by KYE Systems in Guangdong. Image via Wikipedia

In April 2010, the Institute for Global Labour & Human Rights published a report on conditions in the factory finding that the young workers from inland China were overworked.

There was a fair amount of media coverage at the time and Microsoft undertook to investigate the conditions for itself.

So what has happened? Basically nothing! Four months later a lone journalist at eWeek followed up to see if anything had been done and got a euphemistic response from Microsoft’s PR department, lacking any details (read it here).

So just one news channel has followed up the story. There’s a good chance others have made enquiries but simply decided it was no longer newsworthy.

So, no criticism of the Institute intended but, really, What next? Awareness is all well and good but surely the goal is to actually bring about improvements. I don’t have a solution. My only observation is that a big difference between this situation and the Institute’s successful campaign with Ocean Sky is that, in the latter case, they worked with a local partner.

The locals are always going to be more tenacious because when they wake up tomorrow, they have to deal with the situation, whereas end-users in the developed world don’t have to and need reminding.

  1. Tash says:

    A very concise opinion about the role the media plays in telling stories about injustice. I really liked: “Moreover, media won’t run a story that amounts to “no change from what we told you before”.”

    I like the fact that you say NGOs should get involved in the follow up, instead of just blaming the media and giving no option for improvement.

  2. […] Do labour rights activists need a follow-up strategy? 27 June 2011 Share this:EmailPrintFacebookTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

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