Letter 4

A cloth mask being sewn on a sewing machine
Source: Tadeáš Bednarz/Wikimedia Commons

As the population adapts itself to living with Covid-19, and the government gets ready to reopen the economy, the final piece of the puzzle looms in uncertainty— migrant workers. With the number of new cases declining every day, businesses across Delhi were given the green light to open up, but they couldn’t do so. In what I consider to be one of the finest moments of poetic justice, the migrants they neglected and booted from the city now refuse to come back and work. Fears over the virus and another lockdown, coupled with government welfare programs is making these migrants hold off from going back to the city. Businesses are expected to face massive labor shortages till the end of the year, leading to declining profits, rising costs, and eventually a rise in prices. Among all this, the first thought that came to my mind was, “good, we all deserve it.”

In my conversation with a local business owner, a man who did his MBA from Wharton, I was told that the government must stop giving ‘handouts’ to these workers so that they come back to work and ‘boost the nation’s economy’. While he was right in his own, twisted way, what this man failed to realize was that if a person chooses government welfare over a job, it doesn’t mean that the welfare is too generous, it means that the wage paid to the worker is exploitative. It shows that given a proper choice, no one would voluntarily choose to work in these conditions. And it shows the unethicality in this entire system. What I realized at that point was that the capital class cannot be trusted to institute any changes that take power away from them. So, as consumers, as the focal point of this system, we must better ourselves and stop supporting these practices unconditionally. The longer we wait, the more we risk entrenching this system even further. As the ones who hold the most power, we need to be the ones to rip off the bandaid.

A task like this requires quite the effort, and it all starts with education. We must educate ourselves and realize that despite severe alienation, our autonomy is not lost. No matter how mechanical our daily life has become, and no matter how dependent we are on this system, we are the only ones who have the ultimate control over our lives. As I have detailed in my second reflection, the conditions of consent matter as much as the actual consent. And therefore when we complain about the conditions, about how this exploitative labor is better than starvation, and support these businesses thinking that we are picking lesser of the two evils– we unknowingly keep those evils in place. For if you continue choosing a bad option, it remains there and leaves little scope for other, better options to come up. For example, if the Bangladeshi economy adapts itself to selling its labor at exploitative costs to the Western world, it won’t find other better options to develop itself. And you, the Western consumer, are the obstacle in its way. So even though boycotting these products might lead to short-term pain for the workers and their local economies, the consumer must concentrate on absolving himself from any unethical practices. This dilemma is quite like the trolley problem, except you’re not sure whether the trolley will hit the five people in its original track, but you do know that it will kill one person in the other. So, will you choose to take the life of one person over some unknown possibility? Will you actively participate in affairs that should ideally not concern you, or will you leave things up to fate. Because you didn’t really care about the Bangladeshi economy before your favorite brand started producing there, so why involve yourself now?

And this is not a call for bringing an end to capitalist systems per se, it is a call to at least improve it with actual, meaningful changes. As the consumer, you can voice your concerns with your wallet. Look through the smoke and mirrors and demand strong action. I am certain no company likes to see a decline in sales, and pinching the capitalist’s pockets is the only way we can expect them to change.

However, this requires one to have a strong moral and ethical motivation that won’t be deterred by anything. If one lacks the motivation, they would be happy to see the ‘Sustainable Fashion’ posters in H&M and accept it without questions. Only those who realize what’s at stake will find the time to educate themselves and not rest until they have the answers. Only those who see the grave moral repercussions of their actions will hold their governments accountable for fulfilling its moral duties to end exploitation. Only those who seek to live an ethical life will go on to break free and establish their autonomy in a system that was made to control them.

Arihant Drabu is a rising third-year from New Delhi, pursuing a double major in Economics and Political Science. He’s passionate about areas of Governance and Developmental Economics, and plan on working in government in India after college. In his free time, he likes to debate with people, read, and watch movies. For his 2020 Kenan Summer Fellows project, he wishes to answer the question of whether it is ethical for someone to live in ignorance and use services that exploit migrant labor, thereby perpetuating the existing systems of injustice.

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