Quick-hit news can create distorted image

May 01, 2009

In order to better understand situations and people in other parts of the world, consumers of the 24-hour news cycle need to be especially critical of the information they absorb, says one university professor.

“We need to become more aware of how the language itself is being appropriated and utilized within those discourses,” says Anna Agathangelou, a Global Politics Professor at York University.

When information is presented in such concise, instantaneous reports, important details are often overlooked. A prime example can be found in the portrayal of Muslims as radical, anti-democratic, and fundamentalist.

Many times the word “terrorist” is thrown about and on occasions it is used interchangeably with terms like “islamist” or “jihadist,” says Agathangelou — terms that have been misconstrued.

Criticism of non-secular states in the Middle East has been a hot topic in the media for some time now, mainly in the post 9/11 era.

But, when certain terms from Islam are associated with conflicts overseas, it can contribute to misconceptions of Muslims, says Agathangelou.

It is so easy to be misinformed about a situation, especially one that appears so far away and detached from us. However, when the media shapes how people understand cultures and religions that are different from their own, problems can arise.

Generalizations are made, fear is created, and innocent people in turn can be affected.

“We have to be more savvy in the way we read, the way we understand and the way we ask questions,” she says.

Originally published on thestar.com as part of the Global Voices program

Drop in spending will hit Third World producers

March 19, 2009

The economic recession, characterized by billion-dollar corporate bailouts and a suffering housing market, is spreading from North America and spilling into the economies of other countries.

Developing nations are not always associated with North American companies on the edge of bankruptcy, but they are not unaffected by them either.

Far from being detached, the marginalized Third World suffers a little more for every penny lost in the economy of developed nations.

What we are seeing now is only the first phase of the crisis, says York University International Development Studies Professor Eduardo Canel.

Most media reports explain how the economy is affecting workers and citizens in Canada, but it is the long-lasting effects that will be felt in the Third World.

These nations depend greatly on the demand for goods that they export to the First World. If demand goes down, or disappears, their economies could collapse.

Canel gives a good example: for every Starbucks macchiato you skip due to the financial crisis, someone does not get paid for the products that would have gone into it.

In 2001, coffee prices dropped, hitting their lowest in 30 years, according to the Oxfam Policy Papers.

“Now we are taking our children out of school because we cannot afford the fees,” said a Tanzanian coffee farmer quoted in the 2001 report. “How can we send our children to school when we cannot afford to feed them as well?”

According to International Coffee Organization data, prices are again declining after a peak earlier last year.

According to the World Bank, the value of exports from Third World nations will drop as much as $95 billion (U.S.) this year. This amount exceeds what the developing world receives in aid annually.

Financial aid promised by developed nations is also expected to decrease as the growing economic crisis continues and governments are forced to cut back on financial initiatives.

“They are in a straitjacket,” says Canel, “it is the best illustration of their dependency. It is a crisis they did not create, but they are likely to suffer the most.”

Originally published on thestar.com as part of the Global Voices program

Centre helps immigrant workers overcome barriers

March 09, 2009

When many people think of worker exploitation, the first thing that comes to mind is a sweatshop in a foreign country, something far away and detached from most. But worker exploitation is not as foreign as some might think.

With Canada being seen as a welcoming and accepting nation for newcomers, it may be a surprise that many immigrants here are exploited.

Certain barriers including language, culture, and documentation put immigrants in a vulnerable position. Consequently, many newcomers are reduced to manual labour and will accept whatever work is available to them in order to provide for their families.

In the past five years, accusations have been made in the news about underpaid Chinese workers in the oil sands of Alberta, Mexican migrant farm workers in British Columbia and overqualified nurses from the Philippines.

Workers without sufficient language ability are easily taken advantage of, and completely undocumented workers are at the mercy of their employers.

In spite of the difficulties immigrant workers face, they do have a few options at the local level. The Workersʼ Action Centre (WAC) in Toronto is “a worker-based organization committed to improving the lives and working conditions of people in low-wage and unstable employment,” according to the organizationʼs website. The majority of these employees are recent immigrants.

Chris Ramsaroop is a legal aid worker who works with and advocates for WAC.
“Itʼs an extremely important organization in the city,” he says, “and a leading organization in fighting for workers’ rights in the province.”

There are two main aspects to his work with WAC. First, he educates newcomers about Canadian labour laws and their limitations, and second, he works towards changing these laws, so that they are more worker-friendly.

He recommends that any workers, especially immigrants, who feel mistreated or taken advantage of at work should make a visit to WAC and explore their personal and legal options.

“We individualize problems,” Ramsaroop says, “but itʼs not the worker’s fault when an employer is exploiting them. We need to come together to push for change.”

Organizations like the Workersʼ Action Centre show that in the end, it is not the idealized, internationalized Canadian community that recent immigrants will depend on, but their local community, full of people all facing the same issues and inequalities.

Originally published on thestar.com as part of the Global Voices program

When values conflict with paycheques

December 11, 2008

Many of todayʼs youth who are employed work in the fast food industry, the grocery business or in retail sales. These jobs are often taken to pay for food, school and other daily expenses, and rarely, it seems, with any kind of genuine enthusiasm.

Not only are youth willing to take jobs that they hate, but they might also find themselves working in an industry they otherwise speak out against – a vegan flipping burgers, for example, or an anti-sweatshop advocate working in a clothing store.

Cathy Zhao, a first-year University of Toronto student, served fast food in a mall for more than a year. “It sucked,” she says, as she confesses she would take a job that violated her personal views if she needed the money.

For some youth, the minute they put on their nametags, they are swept up into the consumerism that outside of work they might just as easily condemn.

Sue, who asked to not have her last name printed, has been working for a well-known corporate company for nine years, despite her anti-corporate views.

“I believe corporations are the root of all evil,” she says, “but I canʼt afford to look for another job.”

She says that corporations have played a role in war, poverty, even the financial crisis. But she, like most Canadians struggling to find a foothold in the growing void between rich and poor, has had no choice but to protect herself from a personal financial crisis before worrying about an international one.

Both of these people show that in todayʼs consumerist, capitalist society, personal views can sometimes be put on the backburner as youth get caught up in the vicious cycle of “adulthood.”

“It’s about survival,” Zhao says, and in Canada, surviving doesnʼt mean dodging bullets, avoiding religious persecution or having just enough food to live another day, it means having money.

Originally published on thestar.com as part of the Global Voices program

Dowries a ‘symbolic’ gesture in the West

April 14, 2008

Throughout the centuries, different countries and cultures have celebrated their special occasions through a myriad of ceremonies. Many of these ceremonies have been carried on by future generations and are still practiced traditionally.

The dowry, for example, a presentation of cash, gifts or property in exchange for a bride as a part of the marriage ceremony, is still practiced widely in India. Despite the fact that dowries are now illegal there. Women are still subject to the objectification that comes with the presentation of their “bride price.”

In the West, some in the Indian culture and countries surrounding still present dowries symbolically for the sake of tradition, their sexist history unacknowledged. Gifts from the groom’s side, for example, are not technically “in exchange” for the bride, but are presented in the same manner as if they were a brideprice.

Considering that here in North America our history books are filled with tales of the Suffragettes, the Commission on the Status of Women, the Temperance Movement, it is unsettling that dowries are still given.

Rehaana Manek, a fifth-year anthropology student at University of Toronto, calls the practice “patriarchal and archaic.”

“Dowries in the West are (now) more symbolic, whereas in many places in the East the practice continues with its original purpose.”

A 2007 article by Bedi Srinivasan from the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands says dowry payments in south India have recently risen.

“In recent years the practice of dowry has witnessed sharp changes in south India. Dowry has become an all caste/class phenomenon and average dowry payments have risen,” Srinivasan writes.

“While women with generous dowries may benefit, a continued upward spiral in dowry expectations will exacerbate daughter aversion and may fuel sex selective abortion and female infanticide.”

Originally published on thestar.com as part of the Global Voices program