Abraham Lincoln was successful in abolishing slavery in the US due to the resolute decisions taken by people within and outside the country. In 1862, the textile mills of Lancashire in Manchester took a decision not to buy raw cotton picked by slaves in the US. Lincoln thanked the owners and workers. The impact was huge, not only on the US but also on Manchester.
As the Confederacy was one of the largest cotton growers in the world, Manchester lost a big chunk of raw materials. Many mills shut down. Many lost their livelihood. But hundreds of families in Manchester did play a crucial role in abolishing slavery.
A century and a half later, the heroism that Lincoln extolled seems to have vanished. Major technology and luxury American brands source their products from suppliers in the third world, where the conditions of contractual labourers are no better from what had happened in the Confederacy. Yet, hardly any questions are asked until the issue blows out of proportion, as was the case with the labour unrest at Wistron Corp, which manufactures iPhones for Apple in India.
Media and NGO reports have pointed out that this may not be an isolated case, with many companies not paying their workers on time while forcing them to work longer hours. Workers across the manufacturing sector, especially in the garment and automobile businesses, are very unhappy with the working conditions in the post-Covid era. Making matters worse were the labour law “reforms” introduced by the Centre, which allowed the increase of working hours from eight to 12.
A study conducted by Penn State University’s Center for Global Workers’ Rights shows that labourers in garment units are under great stress. International brands are forcing their suppliers, located in nations like India and Bangladesh, to make prices 12% cheaper than last year.
The average waiting period for payments from buyers has also risen to 77 days compared to 43 days before Covid. Big brands and governments are doing little to protect workers’ rights. So the onus is upon us, the consumers, to make ethical choices that safeguard the rights of the working class.