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Media coverage of forced labor: exposing Britain’s hidden crime

July 25, 2013

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The media’s emphasis on forced labour is still heavily weighted towards female victims. Photograph: Thomas Cristofoletti/Getty Images/Flickr RM

The media’s emphasis on forced labour is still heavily weighted towards female victims. Photograph: Thomas Cristofoletti/Getty Images/Flickr RM

For most people in the UK, their only experience of many global challenges will be through the headlines. The British media’s reporting of forced labour is vitally important to end slavery and boost political will to take tougher measures against what is a growing criminal industry in the UK today.

Over the past few years, media coverage of forced labour and slavery has increased, yet there has been no systematic study of what kinds of cases are being reported or how journalists are approaching this complex subject.

Last month the Joseph Rowntree Foundation launched a new piece of work that aimed to plug this gap. A new report – Forced Labour and Human Trafficking: Media Coverage in 2012 – used the LexisNexis database to analyse 2,770 articles reporting forced labour captured in 2012.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the Foundation’s topline findings found that the media focused disproportionately on crimes involving women, sex trafficking and UK nationals.

Government data from 2012 shows that 942 victims of trafficking were identified by state authorities. The LexisNexis data revealed that last year the media reported 263 incidents of forced labour and trafficking and that out of this, 172 stories involved trafficking. There were just five cases reported of domestic servitude.

In cases of human trafficking – including sex trafficking – and forced labour, there were 182 women victims identified by the media and 72 men. This may be because according to the National Referral Mechanism, the government’s framework for identifying victims of trafficking, more women victims are identified by the statutory services than men. However, the JRF report points out that, according to UK crimedata, the media’s emphasis is still heavily weighted towards female victims. And in the case of men being trafficked for labour exploitation – one of the fastest growing forms of modern slavery in the UK – there is even more stark under-reporting by media outlets.

According to NRM data, most trafficking victims come from overseas – yet the majority of the articles in the LexisNexis database focus on victims from the UK.

The issue of under-reporting also came through in the data analysis, especially in the case of forced labour. The International Labour Organisation suggests that for every reported case, about 27 cases go unreported. Using this calculation, the JRF report estimates there were at least 7,101 victims of forced labour (including all forms of human trafficking) in the UK 2012 – yet only 263 were reported.

Why is there such a gap? There are two key factors. First, stories aren’t getting to media outlets. It’s notable that there was more reporting of victims of forced labour in the agricultural sector, which has a dedicated exploitation watchdog, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority.

Shrinking resources in the media mean newspapers have less time and money to devote to their own investigations. If no organisation like the GLA exists to pass on information about cases of exploitation, newspapers won’t be aware of their existence. Read more at The Guardian.

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