CASE STUDY

Five Lives I Can’t Imagine for My Son: Coffee worker

The stories of boys who are abused can keep me awake long into the night. Since I happen to have sons, I can’t help but imagine one of my kids in their places.

But the plight of girls in abusive situations is equally devastating. And often, it’s the story of a girl child which pulls my heart right out of my chest.

As part of our five-week series, Five Lives I Can’t Imagine for My Son, I invite you to view a short video that you may find hard to watch. But once you meet the central character, you won’t be able to leave her side. Here is the story of eight-year-old Fatima in Guatemala.

The Cruelty of the Coffee Plants

Fatima will walk for nine hours today. And she’ll get nowhere.

Vultures circle overhead, as Fatima leaves home in the morning – she’s a tiny figure on a long, empty road. Fatima’s too small to carry the large bag that holds the water bottles. She hitches the straps over her skull, leaning forward to shoulder the dead-weight. The bottles bump along on her back.

How does Fatima’s neck not break with the weight of the bag? Some of those muscles are among the tiniest in the body. Yet hour after hour, they carry this heavy burden. It’s hard to imagine Fatima’s pain – both now, and later in life.

Caring for what’s precious

Fatima reaches the coffee plants, on the hills of the plantation. The sun is hot overhead. She crouches beside these precious, living things. Carefully administering the life-giving liquid. These plants are nurtured. They are clearly very important to someone.

It’s time for the long walk back to the pump. We don’t see Fatima drink any of the water before the journey back. But her body visibly droops with exhaustion, and she drags the bag beside her.

Perhaps she’ll rest a little at the pump, before filling the bottles for her next trek. Or perhaps she’ll wait until the third journey.

Cruelty and violence

Child labour is often defined as a form of “exploitation” – the overworking and underpaying of someone for the unfair benefit of another party.

Fatima is overworked and underpaid – no question about it. Between them, Fatima and her mother will make a total of five dollars for their shared day’s work. And indeed, several people are benefitting unfairly from Fatima’s toil. (The video hints at this, in a feverish montage of images toward the end.)

But I’m choosing to use the word “abused”. To be fair to Fatima, that word needs to be here. The dictionary defines “abuse” as the treating of a person (or animal) with cruelty or violence, especially regularly or repeatedly. What’s happening to Fatima is cruel. It’s violent. It’s happening, over, and over again.

No one’s standing there with a whip, but they might as well be. Fatima’s parents rent their hut – her father is too sick to work. There’s clearly no money for medical treatment. Even though Fatima has sacrificed both her schooling and her childhood, the money she makes is not enough to pay for what they need. She’s given everything and it’s just not enough.

Who holds the whip?

Fatima’s too small to carry the large bag that holds the water bottles. She hitches the straps over her skull, leaning forward to shoulder the dead-weight.

Fatima, 8

So who’s standing there with a whip? The kid needs a job, right? Wouldn’t it be worse to take her job away?

How often we fail to consider the many alternatives. Pay Fatima’s mother fairly, for starters. Reward her labour with enough money to cover medical bills and purchase a tiny home. Give her what every mother deserves – the chance to kiss her child goodbye as she heads happily off to school.

Know that your work has been worth it. Your child has a chance to thrive.

Desperate for details

I know in my heart that we’re all complicit in what’s happening to Fatima and her family. I’ve chosen the cheaper coffee option time after time – knowing nothing about how it was sourced. Or who broke their bodies to care for the plants.

My heart breaks to know that I could be holding that whip. But at the same time, I feel I need more information. How can I make choices which ensure that children like Fatima are not abused and exploited, just to help keep their families alive?

Canadian companies with global supply chains need to be held accountable for the way their products are made, grown and harvested. Sign this petition asking Canada’s leaders to require that companies report publicly on how they are addressing child labour in their global supply chains.

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