My family has booked a cottage on Georgian Bay. To my kids’ delight, there are shipwrecks lurking beneath the waters just offshore.
Eleven-year-old Gavin is longing to see those wrecks close-up. It’s created some tension in our home. Gavin can’t understand why I haven’t yet said “yes!” to scuba diving. I’m still reading all the safety regulations for diving companies in Ontario. I want to ensure that anyone we consider puts children’s safety first.
But in many regions of the world, child divers have no such protection.
In Honduras, child workers risk death to hunt for treasure under water. They do it without equipment, training or supervision. And the treasure they’re seeking isn’t gold – it’s seafood.
As part of our five-week series, Five Lives I Can’t Imagine for My Son, I want to tell you Ariel’s story. It began when he was very young.
Starved of Food and Oxygen
The day he reported to work for the first time, Ariel was just seven. Although he lived quite near the ocean, he didn’t know how to swim. But Ariel had to learn – and learn quickly. His livelihood depended on it.
Now at 14, Ariel is something of an expert in his field. Like other child divers in the region, his work is dependent on the patterns of the ocean tides. Although his shifts can last up to 24 hours, Ariel mostly works at night.
When the shift is over, Ariel has usually earned about six dollars – but must subtract his costs for boat rental and gasoline. There’s no time in his schedule for school.
There are other costs to this job. The innocence of Ariel’s childhood has been replaced by night dives deep into the murky blackness. My sons love reading novels about descending into the darkness, to explore abandoned ships. But for Ariel and other child divers, it’s a real-life nightmare.
My body forced me to breathe while I was still far below the surface. When I came to the surface, the boat had moved. I had to swim while choking.
“My only light is a flashlight, tied up in a plastic bag,” says Ariel.
Gasping for oxygen
Ariel says he can hold his breath for five minutes underwater. But he describes a time when he nearly drowned after swimming too deep. “My body forced me to breathe while I was still far below the surface,” says Ariel. “When I came to the surface, the boat had moved. I had to swim while choking.”
Even if Ariel’s estimate – five minutes under water – is high, his brain is likely gasping for oxygen on a regular basis. Brain cells are very sensitive to lack of oxygen, say medical experts. Some cells start dying less than five minutes after their oxygen supply disappears.
An invisible fate
Here in Canada, children learn to scuba dive for fun. They’re supported by teams of qualified adults, who are never more than a few feet away.
But in Honduras, Ariel’s work is largely invisible. Tourists tucking into a seafood meal just down the shore from his boat – perhaps raising a glass of wine at sunset – likely have no idea who hauled up their dinner from the ocean floor.
And although the work is sometimes deadly, child divers’ deaths aren’t registered in the country’s national statistics database, says a leader in Ariel’s community. When children drown, their stories die with them.
“If a child dies, the lobster company will often pay the parents to keep quiet,” says Maria Santiago Martinez. Although they give up their childhoods to help support their families, there’s no official record of their sacrifices.
Speaking up for Ariel
Honduras is one of the countries from which Canada imports the goods you might see in your grocery store, and seafood is one of the products that Honduras exports to the world. Is it possible that Ariel’s sacrifice has ended up on your dinner table?
Ariel’s family may not hold the power to advocate for their son. But we do. You can speak up for Ariel, and millions of other children like him. Let’s start by holding Canadian companies with overseas factories accountable for the way their products are made. World Vision Canada is meeting government officials and asking them to respond to the risks of child labour in our goods, but we need your voice to help them take the next step.
Sign the petition asking Canada’s leaders to require that companies report publicly on how they are addressing child labour in their global supply chains.
Written by: Deborah Wolfe
Photos by: Chelsea Maclachlan