Maximum City, Suketa Mehta’s non-fiction, seemingly-impossible book on corruption, dreams, and possibilities in Mumbai’s underworld, ends with a farewell. A wealthy diamond merchant and his family renounce their material possessions to take up lives as wandering Jain ascetics. This is a more-than-modern decision, made in the late 1990s, by a diamond dealer who, in the life he has renounced, had a reputation for some fraud. He sets that all behind him. The merchant and his sons head off in one direction, his wife and daughter in another, the family never to rejoin. In this new life of asceticism,
They will be walking constantly, observing the five vows: no violence, no untruth, no stealing, no sex, no attachments. They will be wearing two white unstitched pieces of cloth, nothing else; every six months, their hair will be pulled; and they will have no shoes, no vehicles, no telephone, no electricity. On the day they take diksha, they will bathe; it will be the last bath they take in their lives. They will not put their foot into a puddle; they will stay in the same place during the months of the rainy season; they will not bathe in ponds or rivers or seas; and they will stay indoors while it’s raining.
And their clothes will be of silk, because they “believe that silk is less sinful than mill cloth, since the production of silk destroys only two-sensed beings, whereas the occupational hazards of making fabric in a mill destroy five-sensed beings, in addition to incurring the sin of using electricity.”
I have been thinking of this passage since coming here to work on bonded labor. I have not become a renunciate. I do not live an ascetic life. But those are the drastic steps I would need to take to avoid contaminating myself with the fruits of unfree labour. And I would not avoid contamination; I’d merely reduce the rate. I do believe that there is no option to avoid tainted purchases, other than clearing out the supply chains entirely.
Out of curiosity, I took Slavery Footprint’s online survey to find out how many slaves they estimate work for me. My answer was 32. That seems low, and the methodology somewhat fast and loose (as a minor example, it cannot distinguish between consumption of Riceland Rice, from an Arkansas farmers’ cooperative, which is presumably free of bonded labour, and consumption of imported basmati rice, where problems are more prevalent). The conclusion is nonetheless clear: avoiding products that incorporate commodities from suspect supply chains would require avoiding electronics, half the foods I eat, and clothing made abroad, made using thread woven abroad, or made using cotton grown in Central Asia. Electronics aside, such careful consumption patterns, with highly-vetted, probably local supply chains might be possible for middle or high-income consumers in the U.S., but that’s an insufficient solution.
Q: Are there any sectors that seem particularly prone to use the products of bonded labour?
A: Well, yeah. Often times the supply chains for these products can be very complex, so sometimes a company that’s importing goods may not realise exactly what’s going on on the far side of their supply chain. The industries that have the highest prevalence included products like rice, tea, coffee, but also things like frozen shrimp and fish, granite for your counter tops, cubic zirconia, hand woven carpets, sporting goods, apparel, the list goes on and on. Construction is another one, including office buildings for international companies, or major road construction and infrastructure projects.
(Source: 2012 Economist Q&A with Siddharth Kara)
The last part rings particularly true, in this city where the population more than doubled between 1991 and 2011. Roughly speaking, half the billboards in town are for construction projects, often for high-rise, gated apartment communities on the outskirts of town for the “1%” or “those who have arrived.” Construction is everywhere, and a walk or an auto ride through town is a journey past construction sites, billboards about construction, and the headquarters of construction companies. BBC runs a radio program, Majboor Kisko Bola! (Who Are You Calling Helpless!) in five northern states. The show broadcasts stories about labour rights, including bonded labour, in order to educate vulnerable workers about their rights. The show also includes a call-in number so listeners can report stories of abuse. Recently, a labourer—Manki, from the state of Jharkhand—called to say he and ten others had been recruited for jobs in Bengalaru (Bangalore), working twelve-hour days on a construction site, paid less than the minimum wage, and forbidden to leave the closely-guarded compound. (While the BBC story does not indicate Manki received an advance of money, this nonetheless presents the elements of bonded labour). Such abusive employment practices are the flipside here of such impressive growth. The story ends well: BBC worked with local NGOs to rescue the labourers, and to force the full payment of wages.
This story is utterly unsurprising. When I walk by a construction site, I usually see laundry hung out to dry. If I walk by in the morning, or late evening, I often see the workers cooking meals, on site or in the street next to the construction side. Yesterday evening, I passed by another construction site that was surrounded by high walls of corrugated metal, and clearly home to people living on site as well as working there. Everything now feels suspicious to me.
The BBC story should also be unsurprising to readers of the NYT’s recent piece on construction workers building NYU’s new campus in Abu Dhabi. The article detailed many abuses: Recruitment fees of a year’s wage not reimbursed. Passports confiscated. Overtime made mandatory. Sixteen people living in a room meant for four. Pay at half the promised rate. Back pay not paid. (The article was sufficiently provocative that the daily edition of NYT in the U.A.E. was not printed on that day).
So where does that leave me, fighting bonded labour professionally, and enjoying its fruits personally? I can’t in practice avoid buildings that are constructed, or constructed with bricks, or with quarried stone. Rice is nearly as ubiquitous. It says little to avoid the handwoven carpets or cut gems that I cannot afford, or the bidis (handrolled cigarettes) that have no appeal for me.
But I also think withdrawing entirely is not a useful decision. LUSH, the British cosmetics and soap company, recently announced it would no longer use mica in its cosmetics. Mica provides sparkle; mica mining is fraught with labour abuse. Ensuring an uncontaminated supply chain, for a commodity input, is quite difficult. LUSH took the easier path, announcing it would simply avoid mica altogether. That’s all well and fine for one particular input in a luxury product, but boycotting products made in countries with labour problems does nothing to boost the economies of those countries. Therefore, we fight in courts for prosecutions, and in the media to sway public opinion, and hope and pray it works to clean up the supply chains.
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On a side note on sugar boycotts: Sugar was famously boycotted in England in the early 1800s in an attempt to pressure Parliament to pass a bill abolishing the slave trade. Certain abolitionists would only purchase sugar labeled as sugar from the East Indies, in order to avoid the transatlantic slave trade. The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 ultimately applied to all of the British Empire, with the exception of the possessions of the East India Tea Company, the island of Ceylon, and the island of Saint Helena. It has been suggested that the current opponents of bonded labour would have less work to do today if the British act had not excepted this portion of the world.