CASE STUDY

Five Lives I Can’t Imagine for My Son: Sugar Plantation Worker

When my two boys were little, Starbucks was the sweetener in the long Saturday walks that we took as a family. Anything to eventually tire them out!

Money was tight, so we could afford just one chocolate chunk cookie each visit. I tried to split it right down the middle – but cookies don’t always crumble that way. I inevitably had to choose which child to disappoint.

In Canada, my ‘tough decisions’ are so often related to treats and privileges. But in countries around the world, poverty forces parents to make heart-breaking choices. Often, they must select which of their children will leave school forever, for a life of hard labour.

As part of our five-week series, Five Lives I Can’t Imagine for My Son, I want to tell you the story of Paul, in the Philippines. Here’s where it begins.

No parent dreams of their child working at a young age, missing out on school. But for Mark and his family of seven children, one income wasn’t enough to provide for their basic needs. At seven-years old, his son Paul carried the burden of work to give his other siblings a better chance in life.   “I wish things could be different. But if I work alone, I bring 600 pesos a week to my family. Rice alone costs 700 pesos a week” Mark says, his head hung low.

No parent dreams of their child working at a young age, missing out on school. But for Mark and his family of seven children, one income wasn’t enough to provide for their basic needs. At seven-years old, his son Paul carried the burden of work to give his other siblings a better chance in life. “I wish things could be different. But if I work alone, I bring 600 pesos a week to my family. Rice alone costs 700 pesos a week” Mark says, his head hung low.

The choices that break children

I wonder where Paul was standing when his father broke the news. Perhaps Paul was just starting homework, when his dad sat down to talk. Or perhaps they took a walk together. Either way, I can imagine the news would have been devastating.

There would be no more school. No time for play. Paul would now join his father as a labourer, working long hours in the sugar cane fields.

At seven years of age, Paul was about to begin the work of a man.

The work begins

“I just thought maybe it would mean my brothers and sisters might go to school, even though that didn’t happen for me.”

Paul, 14

“Every time I worked, it was hard for my body,” says Paul. This is likely an understatement.

Children in the cane fields often work seven-hour days in the baking sun, bending or crawling to pull up weeds. Their feet are bare. Dirt and sweat cover their bodies and faces. As they get older, children learn the hazardous work of cutting sugar cane.

There would have been emotional pain too, as Paul watched other children head off to school and play. How did he cope with this sadness?

“I just thought maybe it would mean my brothers and sisters might go to school,” he said, of the money he earned. “Even though that didn’t happen for me.”

As the parent of two boys who still argue over dessert portions, I don’t know what to make of this almost unthinkable sense of honour. It belongs to a person much older than Paul.

Seven years into his work, Paul has gallantly made the best of a brutal situation. But that doesn’t make it right.

His father, Mark, must have felt his boy’s pain. No parent dreams of their child working at a young age, and giving up school. Yet for so many families around the world, this is the reality.

Hope amidst the loss

Paul may have carried the hope of returning to school someday.

But in 2013, Typhoon Haiyan put a violent end to that possibility. The devastating storm tore through the Philippines, leaving a million people without homes. It swept away Paul’s humble house, along with the family’s few possessions.

World Vision did an assessment of the family’s community as part of the Haiyan recovery effort. They deemed Paul and his family among the neediest.

It led to a job change for Paul, who was by now fourteen years old. And a chance at a different, less painful life.

Paul’s new job

World Vision provided Paul’s family with two piglets, food to feed the animals, and training to care for them.

“Now we have the piglets, and I am their caretaker,” says Paul. “We can breed more piglets, and keep selling them so we have enough money.”

Paul now works from home, meaning he can spend more time with his neighbors, brothers and sisters. He can finally explore what it means to be a child.

“I am not so tired – and my body doesn’t hurt like before,” he says. “I am very happy to have stopped working in the fields.” And Paul smiles.

Speaking up for Paul

For many poor families, child labour is inevitable. It’s not their preferred option, and they’re not comfortable with it. Paul’s father hung his head as he shared the family’s story with World Vision staff.

Paul’s father may not hold the power to advocate for his son. But we do. You can speak up for Paul, and millions of other children like him.

Let’s start by holding Canadian companies with global supply chains accountable for the way their products are made, grown and harvested. If Paul’s father had earned a better wage at the sugar cane fields, his children may not have to work.

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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