THE BLOG
06/12/2014 05:42 EDT | Updated 08/12/2014 05:59 EDT

Child Labour: What's Your Part In The Story?

As Canadian consumers, we have the power to help change the plot for the world's children. It lies in the decisions we make about our purchases. Do we contribute to keeping children trapped and enslaved, or do we make the decisions that help set them free? On the World Day Against Child Labour, we must all consider our roles in the story.

At least 1,100 workers died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh last April.

I remember visiting the Eiffel Tower for the first time and feeling like I'd entered a story. I'd seen this iconic structure in picture books, movies and television programs. Objectively speaking, it was nothing more than an attractive steel building, yet it told a story of love, beauty and romance. Standing there gazing up, I was a part of all that.

I had an equally powerful feeling in Bangladesh recently, when visiting the place where the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed last April. Looking down at the bricks and concrete rubble around my feet, I felt a real heaviness, a sense of deep sorrow. At least 1,100 workers had been crushed beneath the huge weight of the structure. Although problems had been spotted with Rana Plaza's foundation the day prior, thousands of people reported to their sewing machines anyway.

Once again, I was part of a story. As the investigation into the collapse unfolded, Canadians learned that many of the garments made at Rana Plaza had been destined for our shops and malls. Had something I'd purchased been made by a worker in this building, or another place equally dangerous?

I love a vast selection and low prices as much as the next person. But I don't love the painful issue raised by Rana Plaza: the idea that I'm helping keep workers around the world -- including children -- in such desperate poverty that they'd rather risk death than miss work.

It's hard to determine whether children actually worked at Rana Plaza. Young labourers are often omitted from a company's ledgers. At World Vision, we do know that at an estimated 85 million girls and boys around the world are engaged in hazardous forms of labour. Many are forced to take up these dirty, dangerous and degrading jobs, quitting school in the process, to help keep their families alive. Sometimes it's because their parents were maimed or killed in unsafe work environments, and the child must pick up the slack. Sometimes it's because the pay their parents receive isn't enough to support their families without the child's help.

A few years ago, I would not have seen the connection between myself and a child labourer in a garment factory, mine or plantation. For a long time, I've looked for companies with social responsibility policies posted right on their websites. Many of these include a code of conduct for any suppliers with which the company deals stating that "suppliers will not knowingly use child labour."

The devil is in the "not knowingly" part. Because global supply chains are so complex, many companies have no idea whether they're contributing to the exploitation of children. My new spring blouse may well have been assembled by fairly paid adult workers, in factories that are frequently inspected. The supplier that died the fabric to match this spring's colour palette may also have an excellent record. But what happens further down the supply chain, when some of the work is subcontracted to smaller firms to make a big deadline?

Who ensures children weren't exploited there? Who farmed and harvested the cotton for the blouse, spun it into thread, then wove it into cotton? How old were those workers? How many hours did they labour between breaks? How much did they earn, if anything? Did they spray deadly pesticides, swing sharp machetes, or haul back-breaking loads?

It's the kind of information that many of us would love to have before making our shopping decisions. Yet a recent Ipsos Reid survey indicates that eight in 10 Canadians feel they have no idea if what they're buying is contributing to the exploitation of children overseas. Although our shopping dollars hold tremendous power to change the world, we're privy to so little of the information that would allow us to make caring choices. And it's doubly unsettling that many Canadian retailers don't even have these details themselves. Somewhere along nearly any supply chain are children: exhausted, exploited, and robbed of their dreams for the future.

It doesn't have to be this way. As I've travelled with World Vision, I've met children whose employers were willing to pay them more, and shorten their hours so they could attend school part-time. I've talked with children who didn't have to work at all, because their parents' working conditions were both safe and fair.

As Canadian consumers, we have the power to help change the plot for the world's children. It lies in the decisions we make about our purchases, and our questions to the companies we support, via e-mail or on Facebook. Do we contribute to keeping children trapped and enslaved, or do we make the decisions that help set them free? On the World Day Against Child Labour, we must all consider our roles in the story.

Deborah Wolfe, a writer with World Vision, travelled to Bangladesh this spring as part of the agency's No Child For Sale Campaign to end child labour. While in Bangladesh she met with children who do various types of hazardous labour.

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