Sweat stings Bertina’s eyes as she toils beneath the hot El Salvadoran sun. The rough bags, loaded with coffee beans, weigh heavy on her sixty pound frame. The muscles in her back and shoulders cramp. She looks first to her parents, then to her brothers and sisters, one of 100 familes trudging through the rows, workers ranging from nine to seventy-two. And for what? If she is lucky and moves quickly, her supervisor might add sixty-cents, maybe a dollar, to her parent’s daily wage. Since there are five of them all together, they may leave with nearly $4’s combined–enough to feed their family for yet another day.
* * *
Carlo’s dodges market shoppers making their way from stall to stall, clutching a shiny coin in his hand. The smells of fried plantains, beans, and rice draw him. He licks his lips, his stomach growling, as he surveys each stall in turn, stopping in front of a collection of cakes soaked in milk, inhaling the sweet scent of cinnamon. Although the moist desert would go down sweet, it would do little to satisfy his hunger. Tearing himself away, he continues on, relishing the feel of the coin in his hand.
After selecting a chunk of cheese, he continues down the street until he reaches a small strip of stores. He pauses outside the window to watch the customers sipping coffee from ceramic cups, and instinctively rubs his shoulder, remembering the weight of the coffee beans pressed down on his eight-year old spine. He glances to a sign posted on the far wall and reads the prices. For $1.00, more than an entire day’s wage, these people sip a single cup of coffee.
* * *
Heather moves aside to allow a woman with long gray hair pulled back in a loose braid grab a package of coffee. The woman turns the package over in her hand, reading the back, then returns it to the shelf. Heather sighs, planting her hands on her hips, as the woman does this again and again before selecting one with a Fair Trade label.
Nothing the price, Heather rolls her eyes. Who in their right mind would pay $10 for a small package of coffee? She sifts through the coupons in her purse, pulling out a clipping for a dollar off a 39 0z container of coffee. She scans the prices. $5.92. With her coupon, she’ll pay $4.92.
Her daughter, an eight-year-old with almond shaped eyes and rosy cheeks, yanks on Heather’s sleeve. “Momma, can we have cocoa? Please? Please? Please?”
“It’s too expensive. We’re on a budget, remember?”
“But look, this one’s on sale!” She grabs a canister of cocoa and brings it to her mom. “Only $3.50!”
She doesn’t buy cocoa often, and it is a good deal. “Fine. Throw it in the cart.”
* * *
For most of my life, I’ve been a Heather, always looking for the best deal, oblivious to why some products were so much cheaper than others. Never putting two-and-two together, realizing if something was dirt cheap, there probably was a reason.
Then we took a mission trip to El Salvador and I experienced poverty–not, we can’t pay our electric bill this month, but, there’s no electricity or water in the first place. In fact, many families in Central America must walk up to an hour to gather water each day. They work all day beneath the hot sun for what we spend on a newspaper. And according to the International Labor Organization, the total number of child workers around the world could well be in the hundred millions.
Guess who buys their products? Yep, we do. Dirt cheap.
We spend thousands sending our church members overseas to go on mission trips, popping in for a week to build a building, but haggle over an extra $2 at the grocery store.
I think largely due to ignorance. I had no idea the coffee and many other items I bought were produced by children enslaved to daily, hand-to-mouth labor.
But now I know and can take steps toward being part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Every time I go to the grocery store, I have a choice–support child labor by letting price dictate or help create positive change by buying items from companies that treat their workers with respect. Because at the end of the day, money talks and consumers hold all the power.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6)
Last Wednesday, at my church a seminary professor discussed the book of Amos. Nearly three thousand years ago, through Amos, God called the nation of Israel to quit oppressing the poor–to quit living in luxury while trampling on others. I believe God says the same thing to us today. Quit oppressing the poor by always looking for that best deal. Stop and think of the bent backs that brought those products to us.
Before you buy your next candy bar, read this: Hershey Chocolate Linked to Child Labor
Before you buy your next low-cost container of coffee, read this: Honduran Coffee Harvest Relies Heavily on Child Labor
Before you drink your next soda, read this: El Salvador: Child Labor on Sugar Plantations
Did this information surprise you? It did me. Join us on Living by Grace as we talk about ways to live out Isaiah 58:6