Warning: your groceries may contain child labour

Feb 03, 2021
Last year, Canada imported more than $3.7 billion in food products that may have been produced by children, according to a new World Vision report. That’s about $264 dollars in risky groceries for each Canadian household every year. 

Most of these goods come from Mexico, which despite progress, continues to grapple with a high rate of child labour, particularly in agriculture. From coffee to melons to sugar, Mexico serves up a nearly $1 billion platter of low-cost, risky food items to our grocery aisles and restaurants. 

Despite some progress to reduce labour exploitation, there are still more than three million children who have to work to support their families.

Watch this video and hear from child labourers Oscar, Elijah and Fernando*  in their own words.

Canadian imports of risky goods like coffee and sugar continue to rise. According to World Vision research, more than eight million children have already been pushed into child labour because of the COVID-19 pandemic, reversing 20 years of progress. 

Learn how you can help by adding ethical groceries to your shopping list. One of the most effective ways to address the worst forms of child labour is by demanding greater transparency within global supply chains. Join us in calling on our government to introduce Supply Chain legislation in Canada.


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Read more about Oscar, Elijah and Fernando  in their own words.

Oscar, 11, coffee worker

From the age of eight, I started to cut coffee. Now I pull the ripe coffee and put it into a ‘tenate’ (basket).

My mom gets up around 5:00am, makes some tacos and we go. Sometimes we get to eat and start cutting, or first we start cutting and then we eat last.

I don’t like it because there are snakes, scorpions, bed bugs and I no longer remember the name of the other insects.  Sometimes I pull the coffee and the ants bite me.

Sometimes we leave it on the ground and the landlord who hires my mom will collect it. Down the hill lives a man named, well, everyone calls him ‘Don Genaro’, the people leave the coffee there for pulping.

I cut coffee because sometimes they leave me at home alone. I don't want to stay here alone.
I don't want a career. Because I've gotten more used to it here. To cut coffee.

a young Mexican boy picks coffee beans surrounded by big green leavesOscar, 11, picking coffee in Mexico. Photo: ​Juan Cuevas

Elena, 38, Oscar's mother
When I go to cut coffee I take my children. They cut the lower part and I pull the taller part. We bring our children to earn a little more money, because if one person goes alone, that person collects very little and does not earn enough.

I don't have coffee field, I just go around cutting someone else’s coffee. They always say that the coffee is no longer valuable, that it is very cheap and we cannot say anything because we need the job, so we keep cutting it.

Working in the dense coffee bushes can be dangerous sometimes. You can get stung by Borreguillos (poison caterpillars) which get stuck on the branches, or a “chinahuate”. Spiders are often tangled in the coffee which throw off this yellow slime.  

*Note: The “borreguillos” and “chinahuate” are a type of furry worms (caterpillars). Some of them may be poisonous (plague). 

Elijah, 13, coffee worker

They tell me to cut coffee. I remember when I was little, like seven, I learned to cut. I cut the low grass with a machete so that the mountain does not grow too much. I also cut the coffee and re-joint it when it falls on the ground, if my ‘tenate’ (basket) gets full I put it in a sack. They pay me per kilo for what I cut. They pay me $2.50 per kilo ($0.16 CAD), sometimes I cut 40 kilos where there is coffee.

I would like to be a teacher. Because it's nice to be a teacher.

a young Mexican boy carries heavy toolsElijah, 13, has been ‘cutting coffee’ since he was seven years old. Photo: Juan Cuevas

Rosita, 38, Elijah's mother
We taught our children how to take care of coffee when they turned six. When Elijah was eleven, he began helping me cut the low grass around the coffee plants and to pick coffee.

With what they pay him for work, we buy sugar, corn, beans, and other things that are needed at home. 

Fernando, 14, sugarcane worker

 I work in the sugarcane cut like most of the town. I’ve been working about a year, since I was 13 or 12 years old, I don’t remember exactly. 

Some are boys, like eight years old, some like 15, 10, the age varies. In elementary school, I went a few days with my dad and from that day on I worker longer and longer. I was just a little boy, learning little by little. My dad taught me to use the machete. You can cut yourself, hit yourself with the machete.

We cut down and then we cut what stands out, like a few leaves, we cut them and we put it in a pile of several canes for the collector to take them. It is sold to companies that need sugar to make their products. 

It is difficult, it is very tiring because you are under the sun. 

When I grow up, I would not like to continue working in the cane, I really like sports and I would like to play on a team.

a young Mexican boy poses with his mother.Fernando, 14, with his mother Ana. Photo: Juan Cuevas

Ana, 41, Fernando's mother
The truth is that right now we are in a hard situation, that we do not have enough money to pay for all school expenses and food.

Because it is a very hard job, there are many hours of work and you earn very little money. Sometimes children go to support their parents. Workers come in groups sometimes from other places and bring their small children.

Because of the pandemic, Fenando has started to go more often. The fact is, he is happy, he likes it, but it is not something he wants to do all his life, he has always told us that. We know that it is an honest and dignified job, because the people do it honestly. I know it is a good job, but I would prefer a thousand times for him to have a career.

As it is right now, it is a little cool, but on the month of April, May, when the sun is very strong, there are many people who get sick: they dehydrate and they don't have a good diet. They have to drink serum because they get sick and have to go to the hospital because of severe dehydration.

The truth is that sometimes the products that they sell to us is from the sugar that comes out from the effort of cutting cane and it can be very badly paid. They should think about that, to value all the work and suffering that the farmer goes through here in order to earn a few pesos. The suffering of the people who dedicate themselves to cutting cane is a lot.

For more ways to help visit: nochildforsale.ca

a cup of coffee on a bed of roasted coffee beans with some green leaves on the left side
That morning 'cuppa joe' might be riskier than you thought. Photo: Oliver Guhr

*Names changed to protect their identities.

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