Our love of cheap products continues to fuel underground child labour 0
BANGKOK, Thailand -- Though the Canadian government has announced a national strategy to fight the last frontiers of slavery, the road ahead is bitterly long and backbreaking.
As the Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking was unveiled this week, the sad reality is it comes at a time when the numbers of people enslaved on Earth has likely never been higher.
In countries around the world, women are trafficking women, children are being sold from one hand to other for sex, the weakest members of society are tricked into forced labour for the promise of a better tomorrow, those without a voice are exploited as domestic servants and, don't kid yourself, the borders of Canada have not been a barrier to the exploitation of the desperate.
A disturbing number of trafficking victims are kids -- about 1.2 million youngsters out of an estimate of 2.4 million people worldwide -- though in some corners, including in parts of Africa and the Mekong region, children are the majority. The damage goes beyond even child soldiers and sex tourism, to become as commonplace as the domestic help working right next door.
"It's heartbreaking," says Manith Chea, the manager of a Cambodian government transit centre that tends to migrants being returned from nearby Thailand, "to see entire families lured by brokers ... where adults are told if you don't work, they would cut off parts of the body of the children."
The reason is as old as money, even if the dirty tricks have been modernized.
In Kazakhstan, as people flock to the cities for the promise of a better life, brokers sell humans off to farmers for their fields.
Those that fight against trafficking are modern abolitionists, though many Canadians are still unaware of the staggering statistics.
QMI Agency recently shadowed experts from World Vision Canada through Cambodia and into Thailand -- the land of milk and honey for many migrants in the region -- as they gathered information for the kick-off of a three year anti-trafficking and child labour campaign called Help Wanted -- End Child Slavery (endchildslavery.ca).
Story after story -- along the path taken by migrants searching for hope -- was of narrative of corruption, cruelty and humans preying on one another for a quick reward.
In Canada, beyond humanitarian organizations, perhaps no one has championed the cause of combating trafficking harder than Manitoba MP Joy Smith. The Conservative politician has been the main architect of anti-trafficking legislation, including minimum sentencing for child traffickers and introducing Bill C-310, which gives the ability of Canadian human traffickers to be prosecuted in Canada when offences occur outside of our country. That bill has now moved to the Senate for review.
She was also front and centre when the national action plan to fight back against trafficking was unveiled last week.
The plan includes assistance for victims and victim service providers, support for law enforcement and prosecutors and a plan for collaborative efforts. Human trafficking is a lucrative criminal activity that generates billions of dollars annually for syndicated criminal organizations, and affects virtually every country, including Canada, Smith points out.
"This is a modern-day form of slavery that our government denounces and is committed to addressing," she says.
"Today in our nation, men women and children are being bought and sold like commodities and coerced into forced labour and providing sexual services.
"It is an egregious abuse of fundamental human rights that we must take action against."
While criticized in the past for not doing as much as countries like the U.S. and Australia, Smith says Canada is ready to take a leadership role.
"A big part of this is public participation in combating human trafficking," she says.
For Smith, the fight is personal.
She was inspired by the work of her son, RCMP Cpl. Edward Riglin, on the Manitoba Integrated Child Exploitation Unit.
The unit was formed in 2001 to hunt down online child predators and pedophiles. Her son was one of the original 10 officers assigned to this special squad.
"During the year that my son was in the ICE Unit, his hair turned from jet black to grey," she recalls.
"For these officers, work often travels home with them at the end of the day or week.
"My son once told me their motto was 'One child at a time," she says.
For Smith herself, her drive to fight was fuelled by the story of a 14-year-old Canadian girl who was caught up in trafficking and never saved. "I will never forget about her and I work to ensure no one has to be bought or sold."
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MAHACHAI, Thailand -- Labels don't spell out the percentage of human trafficking or child labour that went into the product.
So it's almost impossible to be sure that the child's school backpack you're about to buy or that frozen dinner in your freezer doesn't contain at least a bit of human misery.
Canada imported $2 billion worth of merchandise from Thailand last year -- a jump of $1.7 from the year before.
The top 10 list of goods run from electrical machinery to prepared foods, such as fruit and nuts.
The International Labour Organization estimate 60% of child labour worldwide is in the agriculture industry -- small hands feeding a hunger for cheap food.
Large multinational companies, including Gap clothes stores and WalMart, routinely inspect the companies that make their goods. In fact, clampdowns made in the clothing industry, while not perfect, are held up as a model of cleaning a supply chain.
But the routes of $2 billion worth of merchandise are vast and complicated, with smaller companies producing bits for larger manufacturers.
And local government inspection here is often suspect, as officials can't just walk into a company without cause.
Even with a reason, corruption is rampant and illegal factories are often purposely overlooked by officials, says Sompong Sakaew, director of the Labour Rights Protection Network in the fishing community of Mahachai.
He can tell you about the fake birth certificates created for underage workers and show you the videos of others who are locked up or drugged up to keep them under control and toiling.
He calculates 20% of underground factories exploit their workers.
Not the majority, but enough that the merchandise they produce might find a place in your home.
However, those who would profit from slavery or child labour are not going unnoticed.
"There is pressure from the outside, and that's bringing some good results," he says of international and local efforts to register all workers and close down corrupt plants.
Though he adds: "There won't be a day when all confess and open their doors."
There is also a growing move to put control into the hands of average consumers.
"Whether we like it or not, we in Canada are driving the demand for children overseas to be pushed into 'three D' jobs -- jobs that are dirty, dangerous and degrading," says Carleen McGuinty, a World Vision policy adviser and child protection expert.
"But we can change that.
"One way is by changing what we buy."
She's hoping Canadians will do what they did with their coffee, tea and chocolate choices -- getting into a habit of buying fair trade labels and doing their homework.
"Responsible consumerism isn't the perfect solution to this complicated problem of child slavery," he says. "But it is part of the answer."
The other elements are governments and corporations, she notes, believing: "Everyone has a role to play in ending child slavery."
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Buying a T-shirt for your child is not as simple when you consider the origins.
As they begin a 'Help Wanted: End Child Slavery' campaign to help rid the world of the worst forms of labour servitude, World Vision Canada is also launching resources to help consumers become more informed about where their imported products come from (endchildslavery.ca).
Child welfare experts at the international development and advocacy organization are pushing on three fronts -- ordinary shoppers, corporations and government action.
Here are some of the ways to ask questions before you hand over your money on a purchase that could have started with the sweat and blood of a child.
Look for certified or labelled products that are defined as ethical in some way.
These include Fairtrade, where it's been ensured that inspectors have looked closely at the habits of manufacturers.
Good Guide (goodguide.com) rates companies and products on environmental and social performance.
Rankabrand.org and ethicalconsumer.org also help filter the backgrounds of companies. However, experts say these resources have their limits, as they may point to a company that's strong in one area but weak in another.
Companies such as The Body Shop actively campaign against child trafficking.
World Vision is also looking at ways to help consumers make smart choices about the purchase of cellphones, a product that's often at the heart of the child labour debate.
Do your own homework and ask questions about the things you want to add to your shopping cart.
SUMUTSAKHON, Thailand -- Just follow the lowly shrimp.
It's often difficult to trace the blood and sweat that goes into the products Canadians buy every day.
Smartphones -- which have a notorious history of child labour -- don't have an app for that.
But we can be guided along one murky path by the pink crustaceans and other seafood pulled from the waters off these shores.
"Trafficking affects Canadians," says anti-trafficking expert Sompong Sakaew, director of the Labour Rights Protection Network in Mahachai, Thailand; "Because (they're) major consumers of products from this area."
As he outlines the plight of local migrant workers, more than 1,000 factories work overtime around him.
About 5.4% of the $2 billion in products imported from Thailand into Canada every year is food pulled from these waters. Another 9% of that fish and seafood is contained in prepared foods -- including frozen dishes -- that find their way onto our tables.
The majority of those products are from likely reputable overseas businesses and factories that are regularly inspected, including by advocates working for companies such as WalMart. International garment buyers often do the same.
But the fishing industry of the Pacific and Indian Oceans are still rife with trafficking and forced labour, including the use of children.
With at least 250,000 workers needed on Thai fishing boats, the Federation of Thai Industries estimates there's a shortage of 10,000 workers needed for jobs on the water and in the fish-processing factories on shore. This is in part due to the fact local crews have abandoned an industry that faces ever-diminishing fish stocks.
That means brokers have to get creative -- and devious.
For those who thought the days of Shanghaiing sailors -- tricking or kidnapping unwilling workers onto ships for months or years -- were long gone, there are plenty of modern horror stories along crowded Thai docks told by those few who manage to get away.
Migrant worker Ber has been working the docks in the Thai seaside city of Pattaya since he was 14 years old. He's now 27, and has a wife and child.
He's build up a good life, and even some savings.
But he's been careful - careful to work hard and careful to avoid traffickers and their tricks.
A friend recently contacted him to say he wasn't so lucky.
He got drunk with another man and ended up on a fishing boat, forced into labour for several months with no pay.
"When the boat was close to the coast, he and three others jumped over board," explains Ber sitting next to his young wife.
"Two of the men were shot."
The study by the Anti-Human Trafficking Center of the Thai-based advocacy group Mirror Foundation found most crew members are foreign migrants, smuggled over the borders from Cambodia and Myanmar. A good number have faced the same fate as B's friend and the men he told of who were shot.
There's a remote island east of Jakarta that has become a depository for hundreds of migrants from Burma that have escaped the boats. Though they may be lucky.
Many men leave their countries, head to work in Thailand, and are never heard from again.
A survey by the United Nations' Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking, among Burmese workers on the boats, found 59% had witnessed their Thai boat captains murdering a sailor.
Some men are told they are being employed at construction sites, only to be driven directly to a pier. Others are held captive until the next boat pulls out.
And once out on the water, many captains avoid detection and escape by offloading and taking on supplies while remaining at sea.
Despite officials launching steady raids to free those held captive on shore, experts say local laws have so far not been strong enough to break the chains that shackle many to the boats.
And according to the most recent U.S. State Department probe, the numbers of slaves on the high seas is only growing.
Few Canadians will realize this, as they reach for the convenience of a frozen seafood dinner in their freezer.
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Child labour facts:
- June 12 is World Day Against Child Labour.
- 2016 is the target date for eliminating the worst forms of child labour.
- The Hague Global Conference on Child Labour in 2010 called for more action on the worst forms of child labour, including kids working in trafficking situations.
- World Vision is launching an End Child Slavery campaign to tackle the worst forms of child labour (endchildslavery.ca).
- According to the UN's International Labour Organization (ILO), an estimated 115 million children do hazardous work.
- That's about 53% of the 215 million child labourers and more than 7% of all children aged 5-17 in the world
- About 48 million children - aged 5 to 17 - do hazardous work in Asia and the Pacific.
- About 9.5 million are involved in hazardous work in Latin America and the Caribbean.
- Almost 39 million have been counted in Sub-Saharan Africa.
- And an additional 18.9 are involved in hazardous work in other regions.
- ILO officials have found a 20% increase over the past four years in the in hazardous work done by older children.
- There has been a substantial decrease in hazardous work done by younger children -- aged 5 to 14.
- Child labourers are those up to the age of 17
- Children have a higher rate of injury and death at work than adults.
- There has been success in getting children out of unsafe work environments, largely due to international efforts to reduce child labour numbers.