I had come to Cambodia to meet child slaves. There was no shortage of places to stop.
For five days, I drove with World Vision from garbage heaps to brick factories to seafood processing plants. I met kids whose childhoods have been placed on a kind of cruel auction block. Going once, going twice, for prices so low you want to wretch. While children aren't literally being trotted out for a group of buyers, the effect is the same. Girls and boys are forced into the worst kinds of labour, in exchange for a little money to keep their families alive.
For the first day or two, it didn't seem real. I grew up in Canada the good. My brain kept telling me I was visiting a film set, or watching a stage play. At the end of the day, these children would be OK, right?
But one by one, the visits wore me down. On day five, I met three children -- still going to school instead of working -- who were just inches from slavery.
No way out
Their parents had died of AIDS. Their grandfather was blind. The only person to support them was their grandmother, who hiked through the jungle each morning, illegally crossing the border into neighboring Thailand to find work. She herself was sick, and clearly staggering under the weight of life.
Soon, there would be no one to earn money but the children. They were moving toward a kind of precipice. When they walked away from school for the last time -- and into the streets, fields or factories -- their fates could be sealed for good.
I remember grasping around all over my body to find something I could give the family to sell -- anything to keep these children from lives like others I'd already met. I reached for my Medic Alert bracelet, and nearly pulled off my wedding ring.
The "heart" of Canadians
Given what I've witnessed, it's no surprise that child slavery keeps me awake at night. That I abandon the grocery budget to purchase fair trade sugar and cocoa. Or buy our clothes at Value Village, to avoid directly supporting the problem of children in sweatshops.
But I was encouraged -- and truly humbled -- to read the results of a new Ipsos Reid poll, commissioned by World Vision a few weeks after the Bangladesh factory disaster. Most Canadians have never personally met a child slave. Yet 89 per cent of Canadians are willing to pay more for products guaranteed to be free of child labour.
What's more, Canadians are looking for more information to make informed decisions about the products they purchase. Again, 89 per cent of people think that companies should be legally obligated to provide Canadians with information about the working conditions in their factories, wages and commit to not using child labour. If more parents are fairly paid, then more children can stay in school.
Filling the gaps
It's an incredible start, and it shows the "heart" that Canadians are known for all around the world. But there are a few information gaps to fill concerning:
- The scale of child slavery worldwide: On average, Canadians estimated that 12.5-million children are doing hazardous work. The correct answer, according to the International Labour Organization, is a much more unsettling 115 million.
- The variety of fair trade products on the market: Only half of Canadians recognized that chocolate is available as a fair trade product, while 68 per cent knew about fair trade coffee. Many didn't know about fair trade wine, soccer balls, jewelry, and produce such as peppers and bananas.
That said, organizations like World Vision would rather take the heart -- and fill in the gaps -- than begin with no heart at all. We're looking forward to partnering with Canadians to end child slavery once and for all.
To learn how you can help, visit endchildslavery.ca