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Is the Product of Child Slavery on Your Dinner Plate?

05/29/2013 07:47 EDT | Updated 07/29/2013 05:12 EDT
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I think of Bounmy whenever I cook frozen fish.

At an age when Canadian teenage boys are downloading songs on iTunes, Bounmy left his village in Laos to find work next door in Thailand. Like many of the boys who'd gone before him, Bounmy (not his real name) hoped to earn money to send home to his family.

A friend led him to a "broker" whom he paid to get him to Thailand. Once there, Bounmy found work on a fishing vessel. Little did he know he would be kept on that boat for nine years with no pay. He wasn't permitted to return to land, not even once. The daily catch was removed on a smaller boat, so larger craft could remain out at sea. This left the boys no chance of escape.

Bounmy's life on the boat was almost too painful to imagine. He and the other boys often worked 24-hour shifts, with only three or four hours' rest in between. When they slowed, they were beaten. They ate nothing but fish or canned fish. When they got sick, they got over it or died.

It's a brutal story to read. But what makes it even worse is this: for all the years Bounmy was captive, the fish he hauled out of the water may well have been appearing on Canadian dinner tables. Another child's catch could be appearing on your table tonight.

And as matters stand, you have no way of finding out.

A more insidious kind of slavery

The idea that slavery still exists in our modern world is mind-boggling. British politician William Wilberforce, who campaigned for decades to abolish slave trade in the British colonies, lived centuries ago. Surely slavery is now dead, and the need for abolitionists such as Wilberforce a thing of the past?

How I wish it were so. If Bounmy's story surprises you, perhaps it's because slavery in 2013 is more insidious than ever before. Some 115-million children around the world are forced into work that is dirty, dangerous and degrading. But because the global economy has become so complex -- the supply chains so long and intricate -- someone wanting to identify the specific products tainted by slavery stands very little chance.

Comparing the supply chains

In Wilberforce's time, supply chains were simple. There was no question about where the sugar originated. While the average Briton might have known little about the abhorrent conditions under which slaves were transported, sold and forced to labour, the question of whether slaves were in fact involved in sugar production was not in dispute. No one sweetened their tea believing that free, fairly paid labourers had willingly signed on for the job of making it possible.

In Bounmy's time, we want to believe that Canadian laws would never play a role in perpetuating slavery around the world. Yet find a company whose products read "Produced in Canada" and check out their web site. I was particularly chilled by this statement on the home page of a frozen fish firm whose products my children adore:

"Canadian law requires...all seafood companies to indicate Product of Canada based on how our seafood is processed," it reads. "The country of origin is defined as the country where the product has had value added, such as breading, battered, or saucing fish and shellfish, and where it is packaged."

So who caught the fish in the box? Were they adult workers who were paid fairly, or were they slaves, perhaps even child slaves? Given the information on the packaging, I have no way of knowing. All it says is "Product of Canada," a label shared by thousands of other items lining our shelves.

Abolitionists needed

As we approach Abolition Sunday on June 9, World Vision is asking Canadians to sign a petition. We want the Canadian government to work with businesses and organizations to encourage and support transparency in supply chains for products sold in Canada. Transparent supply chains would be a key step to helping end the worst forms of child labour, something that the International Labour Organization's is trying to do by 2016.

It was too late for Bounmy. By the time he finally escaped from the fishing boat, his childhood was long gone. But for the millions of children who make your clothes and cellphones, and catch, gather and process the food that you eat, it could make all the difference.

In a world of continued slavery, abolitionists are officially needed again. Will you sign?

Abolition Sunday resources for churches

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