Many Canadian kids are thrilled by the make-believe horrors of Halloween. Dreadful as it seems, my sons actually enjoy the severed limbs hanging from trees in our neighborhood.
But it’s chilling to think that most of our Halloween treats have real-life nightmares in their supply chains.
I recently watched the BBC documentary Chocolate – The Bitter Truth showing West African children swinging sharp machetes as they perch in tall cocoa trees. Balancing on branches, they hack down the cocoa pods. One miss and they could be injured or maimed.
Fatao’s horror story
The story of a boy named Fatao – the same age as my twelve-year-old son – nearly broke my heart. Like many boys in the region, he had been sold into slavery, to do some of the world’s most dangerous work. Climbing trees and swinging machetes is all part of the daily grind. So are carrying heavy loads in extreme heat, and working with deadly pesticides without the protection.
There’s no danger pay for Fatao and the thousands of other children forced to work in the lucrative West African cocoa industry. Many don’t receive any money for their work. There’s no college fund accumulating for their futures, and no school today. It’s as though Harry Potter has wrapped his ‘invisibility cloak’ around them. We have little or no sense that they even exist.
The same is true of children harvesting sugar cane. Some of my World Vision colleagues just returned from El Salvador, one of 12 countries where girls and boys work in the sugar industry. For some children, toiling in the sugar cane fields is an after-school job to help parents. But the reality is that many children forced to work in the evenings fall behind in school, or drop out together.
A happier ending
You can always make the argument that in desperately poor countries, children harvesting cocoa pods or sugar cane need work to survive, or help families make ends meet. How would boycotting chocolate and sugar on Halloween help them, if it took away their only source of income?
I don’t have a storybook ending for the problem of child slavery. But there are some things that we can do to help children like Fatao. For starters, we can find ways to help make sure their parents are fairly paid, so they can provide for their children without forcing them to work. This in turn makes entire communities stronger, so families aren’t as vulnerable to the wiles of traffickers promising better solutions in other places.
That means buying fair trade treats whenever you can. And, just as importantly, e-mailing mainstream chocolate and candy companies to tell them why you’re doing it. A recent Ipsos Reid poll indicated that 89 per cent of Canadians are willing to pay more for products that are free from child labour.
Yet in reality, many of us still search for the lowest-possible prices, even on things like Halloween chocolate and candy. This results in a race to the bottom, as subcontractors compete to provide cocoa beans and sugar cane as cheaply as possible. One sure way to keep the price low is to pay your workers little or nothing.
Please don’t get me wrong, I love trick-or-treating as much as the next person! I laugh when I see my sons dumping their bags onto the living room floor, sorting their booty into piles before eating the first one. But it’s still tainted with sadness for Fatao and many children like him.
Here are five ways to help make Halloween safer for all children:
1) Look for logos like Fair Trade, UTZ, or Rainforest Alliance to guarantee there’s no child labour in the treats you buy.
2) Use the ChocoFinder to find stores selling ethical chocolate. http://chocofinder.com/
3) If you can’t find chocolate and candy in treat-sized servings, e-mail candy companies to tell them you’d like to see it in the future.
4) Give out alternative treats like stickers, temporary tattoos, cheesy crackers or Halloween pencils.
5) Visit a local second-hand shop or create a homemade Halloween costume to avoid something that may have been sewn in a sweatshop.
Debbie Wolfe worked as a TV journalist with the CBC for ten years. Now with World Vision Canada, she tells the stories of children in developing countries around the world. Debbie lives in Toronto, with her husband and two school-aged boys.