Who’s the Oppressor? You Might Be Surprised

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


  1. Thanks, Joanne. When I first started learning about child labor and extreme poverty (parents have their children working alongside them in the field because they are trying to survive, not because they don’t love their children) I was overwhelmed and felt helpless. Yet, when I saw I could make a difference by shopping smart, suddenly there appeared to be hope. 🙂

  2. When you’re living on a budget, it comes down to self-control–what a wonderful fruit of the Spirit! I have a hard time passing up a sale sometimes too, and it’s doubly hard when I have kids in the grocery store with me to constantly be aware of making a difference while trying to get what I need and chase down the three year old who just ran off again. But I can develop a habit of buying fair trade of foods where slave labor is often employed, such as sugar, tea, coffee, chocolate, etc. I’ve found that fair trade often tastes better, too, especially the tea. I’ve also found that sometimes ‘fair trade’ needs to be researched, because sometimes the company is not as ‘fair’ as we are led to believe.

  3. I’d urge caution over emotion. Much as we hate sweatshops, shutting them down would have unintended consequences; remember, for the child’s family in your story, their sweatshop jobs mean the difference between life and death. Take away their jobs because we feel they are being mistreated, and they will likely will only gain the dignity of starving to death. Boycotts do not work, further. You pay more and have less money to actually make a difference with, while those kids still wake up, thanking god they have a job and that their family can afford to buy something to eat and, if they even know about it, hoping your refusal to buy their product doesn’t result in them losing their jobs. I understand how you feel, but I haven’t seen any raw numbers showing that buying fair trade will actually make a net difference for the better. Better way to help them is to take the money you would have spent on overpriced coffee and give it to World Vision or Kiva or another group that actually helps the impoverished people the sweatshops target learn how to run and/or finance their own dignified businesses. Rather than support the fair trade con artists manipulating you out of your money, find Christian ministries who teach people how to fish and support them. That’s how we can really make a difference.

    1. Andrea, I think this is a complicated issue that requires continual education and prayer. I understand what you’re saying, but I also see many wonderful organizations working directly with impoverished children,helping them learn marketable skills and find ways to sell their products. 10,000 villages are an organization that helps. I know a woman who works with theh homeless in Spokane. She taught women to make crafts and soup items, then uses fair trade organizations to get the products into stores. These women making the products now have hope and a sense of community. There’s also World crafts, ran by the Women’s Mission Union, that sells jewelry made by impoverished women in third world countries.

      Here’s what I see as a big problem with letting bottom line price dictate. Why do farmers pay their workers so little? Because they are selling their products to us for very little. Obviously, you’ve got sin natures tied up in all this, but I think you see what I mean.

      Love World vision and how they help children get an education. there are countless ways to help. I think the important thing is to become aware of the problem and find an educated way to be part of the solution.

      One thing about my story I’m not sure if many picked up on. Heather felt guilty for not buying her daughter hot cocoa, while another child her daughter’s age struggled to earn enough so her family might be able to buy a day’s worht of food. The main idea is learning to recognize needs from wants and taking from our over-abundance to help those in need. but, we have to be careful we’re not just giving hand-outs that keep others dependent on us, as that can do more harm than good. Encouraging education and not being part of the problem by driving lower prices, in my mind, are great positive steps.

  4. A Christian ministry found out the Chinese government had imprisoned Chinese people for their faith, and is/was forcing them to make Christmas lights in prison sweatshops. The ministry asked the prisoners if they wanted the ministry to lead a boycott against the prisoners’ product, and to the ministry’s surprise, the prisoners said NO. Instead they asked their American brothers and sisters, when they see those “made in China” lights on their tree, to *remember* them and pray for them.

    1. I think this brings up another issue. Christians are severly persecuted worldwide and sometimes the added political focus results in martyrdom. It is a tough thing and I’m not sure there’s an easy solution, except like those prisoners suggested, praying, connecting with the heart of the Father who sees those precious brothers and sisters in Christ daily, always hearing their cries for mercy. The good news is, one day Christ will come to take His bride home and there will be no more tears or suffering. Oh, glorious day!

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