Your Boycotts Won’t Stop Unfair Labour


From fashion brands to tech companies, large corporations have made a habit of taking advantage of lax workers’ rights overseas in order to profit, often at the expense of the workers themselves. Boycotting, or refusing to buy from, a brand, has become an increasingly popular way for buyers to pressure companies into abandoning these exploitative labour practices; and it’s easy to understand why. It’s a relatively easy thing to simply refrain from buying from certain companies or brands. But unfortunately, the simplicity and ease of this form of activism means that it’s honestly not that effective, and fails to understand the real causes of exploitation in these systems: poverty and politics.


Let’s form a hypothetical to better understand the role that poverty plays in the grand scheme of boycotts. Imagine Aisha, a ten-year-old child in Bangladesh who comes from a family suffering from crippling poverty. She works in a garment factory under dangerous conditions and for terrible wages in order to support her family; the factory is taking advantage of her age and poverty in order to make a profit and supply clothing brands. Now people in foreign countries have begun to boycott these clothing brands, pressuring them to address the exploitation of people like Aisha.

However, this results in significantly less money trickling down to Aisha, and clothing brands will simply move on to different factories or even countries – leaving Aisha in her original hole of poverty. 

In fact, this has been the situation across multiple developing countries like Bangladesh where export manufacturing factories make up a large part of their industrial sector. As one paper discussing child labour puts it, “When destitution drives children to work, preventing the employment of children may do nothing other than further drive children and their families into the despair of poverty.” This refers specifically to exploiting children, but the idea can be applied to anyone in poverty who is forced to work under unfair conditions.

Boycotts inherently reduce the money being sent into factories and into the wages of the workers, which only serves to maintain, or often worsen their condition of poverty or drive them into more dangerous work.

In many South and Southeast Asian countries, children or female factory workers have been facing diminishing wages as factories in their region become less desirable to global brands looking to appease their customers’ concerns of unfair labour. This has consequently caused an unprecedented rise in prostitution, sex work, and other unregulated jobs in the region; Ultimately despite the boycotts’ aims to help these workers, they do not alleviate the crippling symptoms of poverty and instead only effectively ease the conscience of the first world consumer. 

At the end of the day, unfair labour will continue to exist as a product of poverty because people will be willing to do whatever work it takes in order to make money to survive and support their families.

Politics of Boycotts

The other condition that greatly overshadows any sort of success a boycott aims for is the politics of both the country of the corporation and the country of the worker. With this, it is important to know that clothing brands usually do not own or operate the factories in developing countries where their products come from, something that is incredibly important to emphasise. Thus, whether or not a company wants to change the conditions of the factories from where their products come from is ultimately irrelevant compared to the policies of the country itself. 

Take for instance India, a behemoth in the manufacturing market. Owners of factories there are, much like the corporations they partner with, trying to make a profit in an incredibly competitive market. The Indian government has set wages to unfair standards for workers, but corporations demand a higher wage paid to the workers, which puts Indian factory owners in a tricky position; one in which they will ultimately prioritise profit at the expense of the workers. Consequently, consumer boycotts don’t have a strong effect on the country and other developing countries like it on improving worker conditions unless they simultaneously pressure or mobilise against government policies that enable unfair labour practices. 

So what can be done?

Boycotts can and have been an effective tool to enact change, but a personal boycott alone against a company like Shein or Forever 21 is not enough to actually help the workers who are being exploited. In reality, it only serves to make us as first-world consumers feel better about our status and condition in an easy, low-effort way. Boycotts should instead be seen as something to be paired with other initiatives, such as donating to poverty relief organisations, contributing to worker’s unions, or campaigning for stronger government regulations.

You have power as a consumer, but only when you use all your resources. It’s important to think about who feels better from your personal boycott: the child you aim to help, or yourself?

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