It can seem pretty straightforward. If a business is using exploitative or forced labor, then consumers should stop supporting that business through purchases. If the company’s bottom line is impacted enough, then it will be forced to change its practices. Working conditions will improve.
Well, it’s not always so simple.
Letting workers lead
“Oftentimes we do not suggest boycotting, but we encourage consumers to advise companies to do better and we provide services to companies to basically teach them how they can still profit without risking anyone’s lives,” explains Jewher Ilham, a forced labor coordinator for the Worker Rights Consortium as well as a Uyghur activist, speaking in a recent discussion hosted by the nonprofit Freedom United.
Ilham continues, “We often encourage companies to stay, so instead of completely exiting the region or exiting…the factory completely because it could risk workers from losing jobs.” For as harsh and hazardous as those jobs may be, the alternative of absolutely no employment may be even worse for the very poor.
Key here is what workers themselves want, provided that they have enough scope to organize (which is often far from the case in restrictive working environments). In workplaces where employees are trying to institute changes, a foreign-initiated boycott risks undermining those worker efforts. And a sudden withdrawal of business can scupper efforts to secure remedies and compensation for affected workers.
In general, “boycotts are not a favored tool among campaigners for workers’ rights,” according to Rob Harrison, the director of the nonprofit Ethical Consumer. For instance, in its work with migrant laborers in southern Spain, Ethical Consumer isn’t calling for a boycott. Instead the aim is to support worker-led organizations to highlight unfair working practices, as well as to put pressure on UK supermarkets to protect workers’ rights.
The global supply chain is full of the greedy and ruthless, to be sure. But it also contains many people contributing to harm through ignorance or a feeling of helplessness. Building relationships of trust between suppliers and purchasers, including establishing standards for acceptable working practices and training where needed, can sometimes do more good than immediately blocklisting a particular company (especially if it doesn’t have a recurrent pattern of abuses).
Ultimately there’s no clearcut guidance on when to boycott or not. Boycotts have led to change in a number of cases, from the British Quaker boycott of slave-grown sugar in the 18th century to the anti-apartheid boycott of South Africa in the 20th (which took 30 years and, crucially, was supported by many South Africans).
For a more recent example, Joanna Ewart-James, the executive director of Freedom United, points to the campaign to boycott goods from Uzbekistan’s government-run system of forced labor in the cotton industry. Ewart-James explains, “Uzbekistan had a state-sponsored system that mobilized well over a million adults and children into the fields every year in preparation for the growing system and the harvest. And this was something that was so endemic and so widespread that it really felt like something that wasn’t going to be ended easily.”
Organizations like Freedom United and the Responsible Sourcing Network asked retailers to commit to not buying cotton directly from Uzbekistan. “I think the pledge was a really important way of galvanizing attention and creating an interest in the authorities to actually address this problem,” says Ewart-James. When the government’s leadership changed, “the new government made a commitment to end the forced labor system in Uzbekistan and today we see much less use of forced labor.”
Ongoing boycott campaigns
Ilham takes heart from this case when speaking of the well-documented forced labor used in the Xinjiang region of China. There Uyghur people are being detained in large numbers under the premise of “reeducation,” as well as forced to move from their agricultural jobs to other sectors, such as manufacturing. But Ilham warns that taking on the Chinese government over this won’t be easy.
“We need to recognize that this is going to be a long-term strategy. And in order to really make a tangible change in the Uyghur region, we cannot only look at the next three years or next few months. Pressuring China, ending state-sponsored forms of forced labor is hugely, extremely difficult, and obviously China is a very powerful country and it has its own huge domestic market, so the economic pressure is not going to be as influential as it was with Uzbekistan or other countries,” says Ilham.
“However, the short-term strategy we know now is to create a significant global condemnation of such practices, and also keep encouraging global corporations to end all links to forced labor. That is the only way.”
This distinction between state-imposed and company-specific forced labor also guides the approach of Anti-Slavery International, which has called for a boycott of cotton from Turkmenistan, for instance. “This approach both pushes companies to end their profiteering from state-imposed forced labour, and puts pressure on the perpetrating government to end the system of abuse,” explains Chloe Cranston, head of thematic advocacy programs at Anti-Slavery International.
On the other hand, “It is not generally our way of working to call for boycotts of specific companies,” Cranston continues. “Focusing on one company alone is not enough to achieve broad change and build a global economy which puts people before profit – to achieve this we need binding laws which compel all companies to take meaningful action to prevent forced labor.”
Ethical Consumer does call out particular companies, as part of a strategy to bring attention to broader issues. With a boycott, “you can make a conversation that might be a bit abstract and inaccessible…something much more easy for people to understand,” believes Ethical Consumer’s Harrison. “It allows you to tell a story.”
Yet “having a long-term coordinated boycott campaign takes a lot of resources,” Harrison says. So Ethical Consumer only maintains one boycott, against Amazon. This campaign started a decade ago, in response to Amazon’s tax avoidance. It has been popular with Ethical Consumer’s supporters, related not only to tax justice but also to other problems – including labor rights and the environmental impacts of overconsumption – that have come to light with Amazon’s business practices.
Ethical Consumer takes a practical approach to this boycott, suggesting alternatives to Amazon and acknowledging that Amazon Web Services may be challenging to replace. Ethical Consumer is a tiny organization, Harrison says. They don’t expect to be able to substantially reduce the income of a behemoth like Amazon.
Indeed, boycotts generally don’t make much of a dent in corporate bottom lines. A more likely route to reform is through political change, Harrison believes. Sustained consumer pressure can contribute through reputational damage, especially where a campaign elicits a great deal of media attention. Yet there remain varying definitions of a boycott’s success.
Overall, boycotts remain fairly rare. One lesson from past and current experiences is that boycotts are generally part of broader struggles for workers’ rights, and can’t be used as a sole strategy for change. Also, boycotts can take decades to bear fruit (12 years in Uzbekistan’s case) – long past many individuals’ patience.
But if many individual and collective preferences lead to institutional change, affecting corporate and governmental practices on sourcing from particular regions for instance, a boycott can be a valuable tool. The key here is the institutional and legal responsibility, because most individuals don’t have the time or the specialist knowledge to doggedly research every single product they purchase. When these conditions are met, Uzbekistan, South Africa, and the UK offer a few examples of just what can be achieved.