Behind the items we use everyday is a disturbing reality: child labour has tainted many Canadian household products.
160 million boys and girls are trapped in child labour, including 79 million children working in jobs that are dirty, dangerous, and degrading. In 2021, Canada imported nearly $48 billion in “risky goods”, products with a high risk of being connected to child labour.
“Child labour is a Canadian problem,” says a 2023 Supply Chain Report. “Canadians may be contributing to the exploitation of both child and adult workers every time they go shopping—and the problem is getting worse.”
Child labour is work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous, and harmful to children. Child labour keeps children from school and puts them in dangerous environments where they are exposed to abuse, hazardous equipment and machinery, and harmful substances. In the worst cases, children are enslaved and used for illicit activities.
Even though child labour is illegal in many countries, these laws are often left unenforced, leaving children working in deplorable conditions. But the cryptic nature of our supply chains makes it difficult for Canadians to trace the origins of their favourite household items, even for the most ethically conscious consumers.
If Canadians are to put a stop to child labour in our supply chains, we must open our cupboards and closets, look at our everyday items, and ask: “Who made this?”
1. Cellphones and electronics
We depend on our cellphones, tablets, and computers to connect with loved ones, make a living, and just about everything in between. Our technology is probably the last item we’d want to question the origins of.
But the devices our lives revolve around are powered by cobalt—a substance mined in the heart of Central Africa to make lithium ion batteries. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), around 40,000 child miners chisel away at dirt and rock, exposed to harmful toxins that cause lung diseases. These children spend long days handpicking cobalt ore, without protection, that ends up in the cellphone in your hands.
While the onus is on our tech manufacturers to remove children from the supply chain, you can decrease your demand for cobalt. By decreasing the demand for new tech devices, we decrease our consumption of cobalt and help keep children out of cobalt mines.
Instead of upgrading your cell phone every one or two years when it gets a little slow, replace the battery and challenge yourself to hold onto that iPhone 12 a little bit longer. How about peeling off your phone case, giving it a good scrub, cleaning your phone, and putting on a new screen protector? It’ll feel as crisp as the first day you peeled off that plastic casing.
Want to take your tech purchases to the next level? Purchase ethically-made technology, like Fairphone.
The popularity of cheap, fast fashion requires cheap production costs, putting children at every stage of the production of our clothes: from harvesting the raw materials to dyeing and ripping jeans or sewing pockets.
Not all Canadians can afford to keep up their shopping habits while buying pricier, more sustainable clothing. We can, however, reduce our consumption of clothes tied to poor working conditions and questionable production.
Before heading out to the mall for the latest fashion item, take a look at your closet. Can you invite your friends over for a clothing swap? How about learning to use a needle and thread and repair that hole in your favourite blouse?
Perhaps you’ve become tired of your clothing options. In Canada, we wear clothes for all four seasons: heavy down jackets and wool sweaters for frigid winter months, tank tops and tees to keep us cool in summer, rain jackets and light coats to stay dry in spring and fall. By storing away seasonal clothes in a bin for a few months, it will feel like you’re getting a whole new wardrobe with each new season! And with less wear and better storage, your favourite sweater will last longer.
Buying secondhand also lowers the demand for new, fast products. Instead of buying new pieces off of cheap online stores, can you head to a local consignment or thrift store?
When you do, however, need to buy a new item, go into the store equipped with these questions: “Where is this from? Who made it? Under what conditions? Can I buy this secondhand?” When you head to the checkout, try to buy something that is quality and timeless, that won’t go out of style with the next fashion trend.
3. Makeup and cosmetics
Every year, Canadians spend $11.5 billion on cosmetics. Within their favourite sparkly eye shadows, highlighters, blush, and lipgloss is a small iridescent mineral used to make them shine: mica.
A quarter of the world’s mica is sourced from illegal mining in India, deeply linked to child labour and extremely hazardous work conditions. Over 22,000 children are exposed to toxic air from quartz silica dust and dangerous gasses, mine explosions, cave-ins, and violence and abuse.
It’s not a pretty picture. The price of our beauty standards should not be paid for by a child.
So, the next time you go to your local beauty counter, check the label. Is Mica an ingredient? While there are no labels yet to guarantee a mica product is child-labour free, you can purchase ethical make-up products from labels that purchase Mica from mines where child labour is prohibited. Some ethical brands include FAIR Squared, Pure Anada, Omiana, and Fair CosmEthics.
Pressuring Canadian companies to examine their supply chains
Pressuring Canadian companies to examine their supply chains
While child labour is more present in our products than we care to admit, Canadians are demanding companies examine their supply chains.
In May 2023, the Canadian Government passed Bill S-211 Fighting Against Forced Labour and Child Labour in Supply Chains Act, requiring companies to publicly report their efforts to prevent the use of forced labour and child labour in global supply chains.
In the coming year, large companies will be required to take a close look at where the products they make and sell come from—and be honest about it.
As you take a look around your home and ask these hard questions, contact your favourite brands in an email or tag them on Twitter, asking them what they’re doing to address the risk of child labour.
Ending poverty puts children out of work
Poverty is a root cause of why child labour ends up in our everyday products.
“Over the past few years,” says the International Labour Organization, “conflicts, crises, and the COVID-19 pandemic, have plunged more families into poverty—and forced millions more children into child labour.”
In the face of poverty, parents, like Wato in Ethiopia, are trapped with impossible choices: sending their children to work or watching them starve. Wato could barely afford to feed his five children, and with no way to pay for their school fees, his sons dropped out of school to work.
|Wato's son no longer has to go to work and now attends school, since his father received agricultural training and a means to make a living.|
By addressing the root causes of child labour, like poverty, we can stop it at the source. Food for the Hungry partners with communities to journey with them out of poverty. When parents like Wato are equipped to make a living and give their children access to education, their children are released from child labour.
You can help release children from child labour. As you take a look around home, ask the hard questions and face the facts. Do you need a new electronic device, or can you take steps to make yours last longer? Can you breathe new life into your closet by buying secondhand, repairing your clothing, or doing a clothes swap with a friend? Can you order an ethical brand instead of a drugstore brand for specific cosmetic products where you know mineral ingredients could have been mined by children?
If Canadians play their part to reduce demand for child-made goods and pressure corporations to examine their supply chains, we can remove the stain of child labour from our homes.
Written by Tatum Bergen, photographs by Avery Sass