The view from 21st Street. . .

Why boycotting merchandise made by

exploited workers does not hurt the poor.

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Many defenders of sweat shop practices by major transnational corporations -- some of whom are Catholic -- claim that by refusing to buy such merchandise, we harm the poor. If we don't buy the merchandise, the corporations will close the factories because they will have no market for their goods and the poor will lose their jobs. "Any job is better than no job," they say.

This answer shows such a poor understanding of the today's markets that it is hard to believe somebody is paying money to get that message out. You'd think its authors would be embarrassed to demonstrate such economic illiteracy.

Today's corporation pays a lot of attention to movements in its sales reports. When they see their sales and market share increasing (or at least not losing ground), they are rewarded and reinforced in their economic policies. But when they see their sales and market share declining, it sets off alarm bells. For a company to remain in business, it will have to examine what it is doing and changing its economic behavior.

When people refuse to buy products made in sweat shops, they send a market signal to the management and stockholders of those corporations. The more people who boycott such products, the louder and more compelling the signal. Long before sales dip so low that factories will be closed, if the management is at all competent they will be doing market research to find out why their sales are declining. There will be surveys and focus groups -- and the more people who send the boycott message, the quicker the news will be delivered. Corporations always attempt to defend the status quo via public relations and advertising campaigns, but such efforts can be met with principled resistence as well as PR and advertising campaigns "for the good guys."

The only reason that corporations are able to exploit workers is because we the consumers of the wealthy developed countries are willing to buy their merchandise.

Thus we close our eyes, ears, hearts, and minds, refusing to hear the cry of the poor. This is an irrefutable economic fact. If consumers refuse on principle to buy such goods, the corporations will change their behavior.

Corporations are sounding rather defensive these days, and increasingly falling back on the lame "it's not us, it's our contractors" and "we don't even know where the factories are" arguments. This suggests that the efforts to date are having an effect. Let us all continue to open our ears, hearts, minds, and eyes to the cry of the poor, understanding that it is Jesus Himself who calls to us.

One way we can do this is by refusing on principle, whenever possible, to buy goods made by exploited workers. Yes, there are economic circumstances that can cause people to have to buy the least expensive products, even if they are made by exploited labor. But anybody who isn't poor shouldn't be taking advantage of the sufferings of others and should spend their money in ways that support economic opportunity for all people everywhere. RMW.

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