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Life in the Sweatshops

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This is a good look at the utter brutality of Indian sweatshops.

“We have no expectations from the city. Not even sunshine. Breathe, sleep, f*ck, work, shit, whatever you do, do it here with no light. Absence of sun makes you depressed.”

A migrant worker told me this in 2015 when I had gone to look for sunshine in a cramped world of such men. I am a migrant here, too. A privileged one. But I know that the absence of sun can make you depressed. It would be an act of underestimation if I said that the absence of love can make you depressed. Such imagination is the luxury of our class. Perhaps we haven’t lived in no sunshine places ever to even imagine an extreme place like this. Could hell be this?

Absence of sun can also make your bones weak. They say it leads to Vitamin D deficiency. You could die from that.

On some nights, when I am by myself in my apartment, I pick up random notebooks and return to stories. Out of habit and by choice. I had gone looking for S Anand, a publisher, who had written a note about the workers living here and how being neighbors with them felt. Both of us walked around the neighbourhood on a winter afternoon. Afterwards, the sun had felt nice as we sat drinking tea on his terrace. Absence is a powerful trigger. Here goes the story.

This is a no sunshine place. The buildings stand in a tight embrace as if they were clinging to one another out of desperation. Electric wires crisscross in a strange kind of entanglement looking like a complicated map to nowhere. I have come looking for a way to get to the netherworld of workers living in its hidden basements with no sunlight.

There are no regulations in this “Lal Dora”. Nothing is planned, and nothing monitored. The alleys are so narrow that if I stretched my hands, I’d hit the walls and yet when you emerge out of its lanes, the glitter and glitz in the shop windows of designers make you feel embarrassed for your own ingratitude for looking for stories everywhere.

In the haphazard and squeezed buildings constructed to extract rent from the poor, workers live by the dozen in one-room tenements, and behind closed doors, they are bent on their machines embroidering pieces in gold and silver and colours. They are seldom distracted and are racing against time to finish the quota of work assigned to claim their meager daily wages. Maybe they will turn blind. Maybe they will not. Maybe it will just be a poor hazy vision with no money to fix it.

Nazarul Islam, who has been in Delhi for 28 years, and at first worked in Karol Bagh but came to Shahpur Jat around five years ago, says they can’t negotiate. He wears thick glasses, and goes about the work in a mechanical fashion.

“We got to do what we got to do,” he says.

Forget the luxuries of insurance and subsidised meals. They are on their own.

“We don’t want to complain. We have no reference points for complaining. We would have starved in the village. We earn and send home,” he says. “We have come here to work.”

“Are you depressed?”

“What does that mean,” Aashiq Ali asks.

“What you make sells for thousands in the boutiques.”

“We don’t enter such shops. We have no idea,” he says.

“What about the sun?” I ask.

“Maybe it doesn’t enter such sweatshops,” he says and looks me straight into the eyes.

Obviously these issues are complicated. When I talk about sweatshops and global apparel production, a lot of people say things such as, “Well, it’s better than it was on the farms!” or “This is an inevitable part of industrialization.” To me, these are unacceptable answers. Yes, people in rural India are also extremely poor and maybe this living hell is a better choice for them, but it’s not as if such as situation is inevitable. We don’t have to tolerate horrific working conditions just because people are poor. This is a complete cop-out that even a lot of liberals will cling to so they don’t have to do anything about it. And that’s just unacceptable in a moral or just world. This is why I support international labor standards, access to trade courts by everyday citizens, and the use of standards for products being imported by American companies. This wouldn’t cover everyone. In fact, I don’t think it would cover these workers in this article because they are producing for the wealthy in India. But even here, it would lead to an overall increase in standards that other manufacturers would have to match to compete for workers. And don’t think it’s impossible for us in the United States to do something about it. To excerpt a paragraph from Out of Sight:

In 1992, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin introduced the Child Labor Deterrence Act that would have prohibited importing goods made with child labor to the U.S. that called for both civil and criminal penalties for violators. Indian carpet makers, reliant upon child labor, began moving toward an independent monitoring system working with German unions, although when it became clear that Harkin’s bill would not pass, the Indian carpet industry resisted meaningful monitoring and therefore the system was weakened and easily avoided by the carpet makers. Unfortunately, Congress has never passed the Child Labor Deterrence Act, but the case of the Indian carpet makers suggest suppliers and importers are watching American labor law and will react positively to mandates

Even the hint of Harkin’s standards made a difference. If Congress took these issues seriously, you would absolutely see improvements overseas. Unfortunately, there are only one or two members of the Senate that care much about these issues. Harkin is gone, unfortunately. Sherrod Brown has taken up much of this mantle. Bernie Sanders made vague connections around these issues in his foreign policy speech. But it’s just not enough of a priority. We can make a difference and we should make a difference. Wearing some thrift store clothes so you can tell your hip friends you aren’t part of the global sweatshop system is worthless. Make demands of your politicians and organize in your communities for enforceable international standards.

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