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A Life I Can't Imagine For My Son: Sugar Plantation Labourer

05/31/2017 12:04 EDT | Updated 05/31/2017 12:05 EDT

When my two boys were little, Starbucks was the sweetener in the long Saturday walks that we took as a family. We did anything to eventually tire them out!

Money was tight, so we could afford just one chocolate chunk cookie each visit. I tried to split it right down the middle -- but cookies don't always crumble that way. I inevitably had to choose which child to disappoint.

sugar starbucks

(Photo: Catherine Benson/Reuters)

In Canada, my "tough" decisions are so often related to sweet treats and privileges. But in countries around the world, poverty forces parents to make heart-breaking choices. Often, they must select which of their children will leave school forever for a life of hard labour.

No parent dreams of their child working at a young age, missing out on school. But for Mark and his family of seven children in the Philippines, one income wasn't enough to provide for their basic needs. At seven years old, his son Paul carried the burden of work to give his other siblings a better chance in life.

"I wish things could be different. But if I work alone, I bring 600 pesos a week to my family. Rice alone costs 700 pesos a week," Mark says, his head hung low.

The choices that break children

I wonder where Paul was standing when his father broke the news. Perhaps Paul was just starting homework, when his dad sat down to talk. Or perhaps they took a walk together. Either way, I can imagine the news would have been devastating.

"Every time I worked, it was hard for my body."
- Paul

There would be no more school. No time for play. Paul would now join his father as a labourer, working long hours in the sugar cane fields, harvesting the raw material needed for sweet treats like the ones my sons enjoy.

At seven years of age, Paul was about to begin the work of a man.

The work begins

"Every time I worked, it was hard for my body," says Paul. This is likely an understatement. Children in the cane fields often work seven-hour days in the baking sun, bending or crawling to pull up weeds. Their feet are bare. Dirt and sweat cover their bodies and faces. As they get older, children learn the hazardous work of cutting sugar cane.

2017-05-30-1496167445-8946701-Paul_Philippines.jpg

Paul stands in the sugarcane field he worked in for seven years. (Photo: World Vision)

There would have been emotional pain, too, as Paul watched other children head off to school and play. How did he cope with this sadness?

"I just thought maybe it would mean my brothers and sisters might go to school," he said, of the money he earned. "Even though that didn't happen for me."

As the parent of two boys who still argue over dessert portions, I don't know what to make of this almost unthinkable sense of honour. It belongs to a person much older than Paul.

Seven years into his work, Paul has gallantly made the best of a brutal situation. But that doesn't make it right.

His father, Mark, must have felt his boy's pain. No parent dreams of their child working at a young age and giving up school. Yet for so many families around the world, this is the reality.

They deemed Paul and his family among the neediest.

Hope amidst the loss

Paul may have carried the hope of returning to school someday.

But in 2013, Typhoon Haiyan put a violent end to that possibility. The devastating storm tore through the Philippines, leaving a million people without homes. It swept away Paul's humble house, along with the family's few possessions.

World Vision did an assessment of the family's community as part of the Haiyan recovery effort. They deemed Paul and his family among the neediest.

It led to a job change for Paul, who was by now 14 years old. And a chance at a different, less painful life.

typhoon haiyan 2013

A wooden building is reduced to nothing more than a pile of rubble by Super Typhoon Haiyan. (Photo: Whitcomberd via Getty Images)

Paul's new job

World Vision provided Paul's family with two piglets, food to feed the animals, and training to care for them.

"Now we have the piglets, and I am their caretaker," says Paul. "We can breed more piglets, and keep selling them so we have enough money."

Paul now works from home, meaning he can spend more time with his neighbours, brothers and sisters. He can finally explore what it means to be a child.

"I am not so tired -- and my body doesn't hurt like before," he says. "I am very happy to have stopped working in the fields." And Paul smiles.

Let's hold Canadian companies with global supply chains accountable for the way their products are are sourced and made.

Speaking up for Paul

For many poor families, child labour is inevitable. It's not their preferred option, and they're not comfortable with it.

That's why we need to keep telling stories like Paul's. Tell his story so that companies can't ignore the fact that children like Paul make, grow or harvest many of the products we use every day. You can learn more about how the items in our houses could be made by child labour by taking this virtual tour.

Let's hold Canadian companies with global supply chains accountable for the way their products are are sourced and made. If Paul's father could have earned a better wage in the sugar cane fields, his son may not have had to work. That's a solution worth exploring.

Sign this petition asking Canada's leaders to require that companies report publicly on how they are addressing child labour in their global supply chains.

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