If in doubt, boycott – or not?

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What if you were sitting around a dinner table and a friend said: “None of us should buy anything made in China because there is modern slavery in China”. What would you say?

Well, we would encourage you to look doubtful. And we intend to use this blog entry to explain why.

But first we want to share a little back-story.

There was recently a blink-and-you-miss-it development in the Dutch political landscape that few would have regarded as significant.

The Dutch constitution allows groups within civil society to lobby for a nationwide referendum on a topic of their choosing – a clear demonstration that if it is of import to some, it should be considered by all.

The first test case of this bill was a referendum over whether the Dutch should oppose the current EU agreement to support the existing Ukrainean government.

After all, trading with countries in which labour rights violations are prevalent only worsens the situation. Right?

Predictably the Dutch contingent who associate with the wave of anti-EU sentiment across Europe (not confined to the Brexit campaign) went to the polls in their droves to oppose the agreement.

But they were not alone.

Although less than a third of the electorate turned up to vote, there was a left wing lobby which supported the No vote for ‘ethical trade reasons’.

And this small Dutch minority is relevant here.

Why? According to this group, the occurrence of labour rights violations, such as child labour, in the Ukraine was reason enough to avoid associating and trading with the country altogether.
The argument went as follows: until Ukraine has sorted out its labour rights situation, Western countries should ban trade agreements – after all, trading with countries in which labour rights violations are prevalent only worsens the situation. Right?

This philosophy (if a setting is tainted by labour rights violations, we should withdraw support) is not limited to the Dutch-Ukraine association agreement debate.

But does a swift withdrawal (whether by brand or consumer) enable rapid change?

In the world of ethical trade, the notion that boycotting brands or geographies in which labour exploitation exists somehow helps to resolve the problem is a popular position for consumer groups, certain unions (not all) and certain international NGOs. A Google search for unethical brands to boycott, generates hundreds of websites listing brands consumers shouldn’t buy.

It seems unwise to debate here whether such withdrawals or consumer boycotts are effective in increasing pressure on a given brand or even a given government to tighten labour rights legislation and enforcement. The contribution seems obvious.

But does a swift withdrawal (whether by brand or consumer) enable rapid change?

“The mother of modern slavery is poverty, and the father is impunity” – Leonardo Sakamoto

There are few contexts in which a swift withdrawal or boycott targeted at an entire country could be effective, because few governments are themselves directly implicated in modern slavery.

However Uzbekistan is one of the few exceptions. In this setting protest action that affects the state would be targeting the agency driving modern slavery in this setting. For a clearer article on Uzbek cotton, see gl/T6XvA1.

So perhaps the most astute response to that friend over the dinner table is this: “the mother of modern slavery is poverty, and the father is impunity” (Leonardo Sakamoto, ETI conference presentation, Oct 2015).

So any effective strategy should ideally address both these key drivers, if the intention is to reach and empower these modern slaves rather than rendering them more invisible and more impoverished.

Tell your friend to boycott Uzbek cotton and call for other institutions (World Bank included) to do the same, but be careful of country-level boycotts elsewhere – they may render those you wish to protect more vulnerable and more disempowered.

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