When I was a kid, I used to love flopping down on the living room floor after trick-or-treating, to sort my candy into piles. There was one pile for chocolate, one for licorice and one for lollipops. And one for those chewy molasses things with orange and black wrappers -- do you remember them?
There was always a fifth pile, one which both my brother and I knew never to sample. This was the pile for the 'unsafe' candies. In it, we put the candies not wrapped to within an inch of their lives in factory packaging. Apples (probably the safest things in the entire goody bag) were relegated to this shameful mound. So were the home-baked cookies in Ziploc bags. And so were the candies with torn factory packaging, with openings just big enough to slip in a razor blade.
Halloween's darker side
There were people in the world -- we were reminded each year -- who wanted to hurt children. They liked the idea of a child swallowing a razor blade and being cut, maimed or worse.
As a mother, I still check my kids' candy each year, just like my parents did. But nowadays, I'm thinking beyond the safety of the children sitting right in front of me. I'm considering the millions of children who helped produce ingredients for the chocolate bars and colourful candy. My heart feels desperately guilty as I remember how they may have been harmed.
Children in danger
It's particularly troubling as a parent to know that there are now more than 2 million children harvesting cocoa in West Africa alone, according to a recent report by Tulane University -- and most of those kids are doing hazardous work. And sugar isn't any sweeter. According to the US Department of Labor, either child labour or forced labour is used to produce sugar and farm sugar cane in 17 of the world's countries. A lot of the Halloween candy Canadian kids are consuming may contain child labour, we just don't know for sure.
As a World Vision employee, I've seen the pictures and read the accounts of child labourers working on cocoa and sugar plantations in some of the world's poorest countries. I'm familiar with the toxic pesticides to which many of these kids are exposed each day, without any safety equipment. I'm acutely aware of the machetes they swing for eight or ten hours a day to harvest cocoa pods, often on an empty stomach.
Talk about a razor blade in an apple. Imagine a machete on a bare hand or foot.
The mathematics of child labour
It comes down to simple math. Kids are much cheaper to hire than adults. They are smaller and more emotionally vulnerable -- easier to bully and dominate.
Many child labourers have given up their dreams for the future by leaving school for full-time work, so as to help keep their family members fed, clothed and alive. There are few things left to lose, except perhaps their lives or the lives of their loved ones. So they keep working, often on empty stomachs, often past the point of exhaustion.
The other part of the equation is that consumers here in Canada and elsewhere have become accustomed to certain price points for the chocolate and candy we love. Companies are naturally concerned that if you increase the price to ensure children don't have to work on plantations, then many Canadian consumers will look elsewhere for a better deal. It's been all too easy, for far too long, to look the other way. As a result, child labour remains hidden from view in Canadian supply chains.
How you can help this Halloween
I'm not advocating that we stop buying candy and candy altogether, taking away jobs and pushing families even further into poverty. But I do advocate that Canadian consumers learn about the role we play in keeping these child labourers in dangerous situations -- and take every opportunity to help.
No one means to be the proverbial 'guy with the razor blade'. But in doing nothing, we are complicit in continuing to hurt children on Halloween. They may not be in our immediate neighborhood -- but they're still in our global community.
Five ways you can help protect children this Halloween:
- Consider buying fair trade treats -- especially if only a few kids come to your door. The price point is higher, and they're a bit harder to find. But that will change if we support companies producing fair trade products. World Vision's Good Chocolate Guide can point to solutions as close as your local drug store.
- Get creative while caring for all children. What about a party in your home, office, school or church with kids trick-or-treating from room to room? In the safety of a known space, home-baked goodies or alternative treats like stickers, Pokémon cards or gift certificates become an option, with fair-trade candy and baked treats in the kitchen after.
- Teach kids the issues, in age-appropriate ways. My Grades 5 and 9 boys both are familiar with World Vision's chocolate infographic, illustrating the issues at a glance. For younger children, ask your librarian about books talking about child labour.
- Support change for children by joining World Vision's family friendly online network "Voice". You'll be advised of ways to press Canadian government and business to make supply chains more transparent, so Canadians have a better sense for just who is helping farm and produce the goods in our stores.
- Pop pencils into the trick-or-treat bags along with little notes encouraging young recipients to write a note about child labourers to your local MP. It can be as simple as this; "I hear that children probably worked in dangerous jobs to help make my candy and chocolate bars. I don't like it. Please do something to help."
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