10/23/2012 17:20 EDT | Updated 12/23/2012 05:12 EST

The Kids Who Really Pay for Your Cheap Beach Vacation

An Ipsos Reid poll shows that half of all Canadians would be willing to spend more on their winter vacations, to reduce the chances of supporting child labour while travelling. Debbie Wolfe of World Vision Canada shares three reasons to consider this.

As the outdoor temperature starts to fall, many Canadians plan their winter escapes. Most look for someplace warm. Last week, I overheard a few Starbucks customers chatting about their plans. "If you love beaches, go to Thailand," suggested one of the women."It's beautiful -- and so cheap!"

I've made similar, perfectly innocent comments myself. Things are much cheaper in Thailand, and many other exotic locales. But until this spring, I didn't understand some of the reasons why. I came to know three of them, on a trip to Asia with international aid agency World Vision.

The bird seller

I'd come to Thailand to learn about the worst kinds of child labour. Near a beautiful Buddhist temple, I met a young girl named Noon who sits on a bench and sells birds in cages. For a few coins, a tourist can buy a bird, then release it into the sky along with their sins. It makes a great picture for the trip photo album, all for the equivalent of a Canadian quarter.

Talking with the girl, I learned that as she sits on that bench, she's often propositioned by travelling sex offenders. She's never gone with one of the men. But day in, day out, repelling the advances of men from all over the world is just part of her day job. It's what she endures to sit on the bench and sell birds to locals and tourists alike.

The brick maker

As I ate in restaurants and checked into hotels, it often struck me that paying children to work for only 30 cents a day plays a big role in keeping prices down. Great deal for tourists. Rotten deal for children. I met a second girl, in a brick factory just south of the Thai border, in Cambodia. In this factory, children work seven days a week, from sunup to sundown. Some climb perilous piles of bricks two storeys high to stack new ones on top. They cover their faces with scarves to keep out the choking dust.

The girl I spoke with, Vanna, works next to a machine with grinding jaws. She feeds it clay with her bare hands, to be shaped into bricks. The week before, at a nearby factory, another girl had lost an arm in a similar machine. Her sleeve was caught in the jaws and her arm, pulled in with it.

I thought of both girls as I checked into a nearby hotel that night, a place with a rate that -- by Canadian standards -- was an incredible deal. The hotel, only kilometres from the factories where both girls worked, was constructed of solid brick. What role did the children in the brick factory play in keeping my vacation costs down? Looking around, I saw the hotel was almost completely staffed by teenagers. How did my incredible bargain contribute to their leaving school so soon?

The fisherman

The seafood in Thailand is fresh, and plentiful. You can get a beautiful fish dinner for the equivalent of a Canadian dollar. I never actually met Bounmy (not his real name) who had spent nine years trapped on a fishing boat. But one of my World Vision colleagues did. When he was only 15 years old, Bounmy had been lured into a job on a fishing boat. From that point on, he worked 24-hour shifts, with only a few hours' rest in between. When he slowed, he was beaten.

He had only wanted to send money back to his struggling family in Laos. This is why he had left his village, at an age when Canadian boys are still dreaming of getting their drivers' licenses. He wasn't allowed to leave the ship, and didn't set foot on shore for nine years. He'd watch the fish leave his vessel in a smaller delivery boat, to be sold at markets and restaurants for a rock-bottom price. As I ordered fish that night for dinner, I wondered who had caught it.

What you can do

Canadians are generous, caring people, and that doesn't change when we go on holiday. But surely we can't cure all a country's problems in the one week we are there! There's nothing we can do to change things for these children, right?

Actually, there's a lot we can do:

1. Ask your travel agent, tour operator or hotel if and how they help protect children. Half of all Canadians surveyed said they'd be willing to spend an average of 27 per cent more if tour operators, hotels, and airlines could guarantee that their companies don't use or support child labour.

2. If you see it, report it. Any time you speak up, whether to a hotel manager, a restaurant owner, or the local police, you apply pressure for change. Another great option -- one that 80 per cent of Canadians we surveyed said they'd take -- is to report incidents to a tip line for child exploitation. World Vision recommends when the incident involves a Canadian.

3. Speak up to fellow travellers. As a Canadian, you have the power to encourage others to travel responsibly. Please share this page with others, especially those who are planning a trip.

4. Learn more at

Join World Vision's End Child Slavery campaign and help protect children year round.