11/01/2012 12:19 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Child trafficking: Closer to Home Than You Think

For many Canadians, human trafficking may seem like an "over there" problem. Yet, it's time to consider our own connections, especially if we want to get serious about helping children who are caught up in these crimes. Most Canadians equate trafficking with sexual exploitation and therefore consider ourselves far removed. In fact, the majority of trafficking victims are slaving in factories, farms, mines, and fishing boats, often producing products that show up on our store shelves.

Child labour exploitation is one of the most tragic aspects of trafficking. Millions of children around the world are working in dirty, dangerous and degrading (3D) jobs. Many are trafficked into this hazardous work; poverty and desperation making them easy prey for traffickers. When parents can't afford their basic needs, children are often forced to drop out of school and support their families by doing work that damages their bodies, minds and spirits.

Sadly, Canadians are unintentionally fuelling the demand side of the problem. Perhaps you're scouring websites for a cheap winter vacation. Child labour exploitation occurs in the tourism industries of many countries, and not only in brothels. Think back to your travels. Have you seen children clearing tables in cafes or selling souvenirs on streets? While these jobs may seem relatively safe, they put children in unsafe places alone late at night, or keep them out of school. Tourists can take responsibility for our "travel footprint" by researching travel companies and destinations to make sure they have policies or adhere to codes that protect children.

Driven by greed, child trafficking is a borderless crime that must be fought on all fronts. The policies of one country impacts lives in another. Canada is undeniably implicated as a source, transit and destination point for trafficking. In June the Government of Canada achieved a critical milestone with the announcement of a National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking. This was a first for our country, giving the issue much needed federal attention and recognizing that people are trafficked for labour, not only sexual exploitation.

Yet, action plans won't protect anyone if they remain words on paper. As part of World Vision's End Child Slavery campaign, 20,000 Canadians have signed a petition calling for implementation of Canada's new anti-trafficking plan. To put this plan into action overseas will require a multi-pronged approach that features a strong mandate for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and development NGOs to fight the poverty that puts people at risk.

Canada's anti-trafficking strategy must also make sure that boys are not overlooked as victims. This year World Vision took five Canadian MPs to Cambodia and Thailand to witness this problem first hand. In the Cambodian capital we visited a slum where World Vision runs a program to help boys who are sexually abused, often by travelling sex offenders. These boys are not perceived to have virginity and honour to lose, and therefore their experiences are often not taken seriously. Canada's efforts must also protect boys and ensure they get the attention they deserve.

Finally, let's not forget the vital role of the corporate sector. In a recent Ipsos Reid poll, 93 per cent of Canadians said they would support companies that guarantee children aren't exploited in the making of their products. However, following through on that conviction is not easy. I often feel immobilized when trying to make the best possible choice. Sometimes all I can do is ask stores for options like Fair Trade and use my voice and consumer power. We Canadians clearly care about how companies behave at home and abroad. Canadian businesses need to take a closer look at their own operations and step up with solutions.

While trafficking may feel far away, understanding our connections helps to bring the issue home. As we start our Christmas shopping, let's not forget who is on the production end of our gift purchases. Is it possible that box of chocolates was produced by children swinging machetes in cocoa plantations?

Tracking supply chains is complicated and challenging, but many products are certified as "ethical" in some way, including the treatment of people. Let's stop and think about what we're buying, examine labels and logos and demand ethical choices. Everything we buy is linked to the lives of others.