12/11/2013 09:07 EST | Updated 02/10/2014 05:59 EST

Why the Holidays Aren't So Happy For the People Making Your Gifts

There's actually a Facebook page for the North Pole Elf Union. "It's Friday!" exclaimed a post on Nov. 22. "You know what that means? Tomorrow's Saturday and we will still be making lots of toys."

If they think Santa's a slave-driver, try being the actual people whose labour goes into the mountains of products and food we consume this time of year.

December began with Black Friday weekend and ends in Boxing Week sales. In the middle of this shopping frenzy is the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on December 2. This day recognizes a labour practice seemingly from a distant past, but sadly still deeply ingrained in the present. And in our presents.

From the minerals in our electronics and the cotton in our new jeans and shoes, to the palm oil in our cosmetics and the cocoa in our holiday treats, there's a chance that our "great deal" at the mall came at a larger human cost. Despite countless conventions and laws against it, more than 20 million human beings are presently enslaved in forced labour around the world.

It's almost impossible for the average shopper to trace the complex path that our purchases follow from raw material, to factory, to store shelf. Even the companies whose brand is on the product often don't understand their own obscure supply chains with various levels of sub-contracting. But consumers can still pressure our favourite brands to pay closer attention and guarantee that the products we buy are made in good working conditions. We just have to care enough.

Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude." But a recent study by Anti-Slavery International found "prison-like forced labour" in India's garment industry. The group's researchers met girls aged 13 to 18 who were forcibly confined within a compound of dormitories and factories, working 16 hours a day without breaks, for less than half the minimum wage. Scouring through export data from nearby ports, the group linked the factories to major international retailers.

Knowing which products to avoid is half the battle. The U.S. Department of Labor keeps a list of global goods they "have reason to believe" are "tainted" by child labour or forced labour. The latest report cited 120 goods from 70 countries, with agricultural crops like sugar, bananas, tobacco, coffee and cattle most frequent, along with clothing, carpets, footwear, gold and diamonds.

The Slavery Footprint tool helps us virtually rifle through our closets, cupboards and cabinets to root out the slave-made products in our lives. The project targets companies' supply chains with letter campaigns--hoping that opening this complex world to consumer scrutiny leads to more informed, conscious shopping.

Another app, Free2Work, analyzes companies' self-reported information to grade popular brands' efforts to ensure their supply chains are free of child and forced labour, and GoodGuide grades 145,000 food, toy, personal care and household products in health, environment and social ethics.

Of course, finding brands with a mission to make ethical products is another great strategy. It's why we were inspired to start Me to We Style, a social enterprise committed to green, socially conscious apparel. You can find others on the Sweat-Free Communities shopping guide or the online ethical warehouse Modavanti.

But knowledge is only power if we use it. Are we willing to pay more for ethical purchases? A 2006 study in sociology journal Contexts, found only half of participants bought socks labelled "good working conditions" at the same price as regular socks, and just a quarter bought ethical socks that were 50 per cent more expensive. A 2013 global survey put Canadians and Britons toward the bottom of the global pack of those willing to pay more for ethical products, at 38 per cent and 32 per cent, respectively. Compare us to Americans at 44 per cent, or more interestingly, consumers in India (75 per cent), the Philippines (71 per cent), or China (59 per cent).

If we do care, we can make a difference by being loud, proud, conscious consumers. Get informed about the products to avoid, and the products to embrace. Flaunt our best finds to our friends, in person and online. Share the knowledge and the excitement of shopping with a conscience, especially during this month of frenzied consumption and "great deals."

We can make the International Day to Abolish Slavery as important as that other day in December when we celebrate the act of giving to others, so Santa's real-life workers can be treated and compensated as fairly as they deserve to be.

Craig and Marc Kielburger founded the international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 13 cities across North America and the United Kingdom, inspiring more than 180,000 attendees and millions more online. For more information, visit

International Day for the Abolition of Slavery