Every day as I leave my house, I apply a layer of shiny lip gloss that promises to leave me feeling fabulous. Most likely, a child in Eastern India sacrificed holding a pencil in school to mine mica, used to add shine to cosmetics, to make me look “worth it.”

Mica mining is just one of the thousands of industries profiting off the abject poverty of millions of families in developing countries, where destitute conditions force children to work. According to Save the Children, approximately 218 million kids around the world work — 152 million of them in dangerous conditions such as those in mica mines, missing out on playtime to help dig up a substance that will make a pair of eyes somewhere shimmer.

The global capitalist market almost demands that people consume incessantly, using products, throwing them out, and then consuming some more. Market competition results in lower prices for consumers, but the production of cheap products to get people Instagram-ready often involves children. As consumers, we may not see the conditions in which products are made, but we become complicit in perpetuating the egregious conditions of labour markets in developing countries, where laws may be looser and more easily bent.

Canada’s mass consumption of products from child labour

Every year Canada brings in $34-billion worth of products, including $798-million worth of cosmetic items, which, most likely, include child or forced labour in their supply chains, according to World Vision. But this is “definitely a conservative estimate,” said Simon Lewchuk, the organization’s senior policy advisor.

The Canadian government has promised to play a bigger role in addressing child labour in developing countries after the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development released a report in October 2018 looking at the connection between child labour and the products and services Canadians consume.

“This may seem like a bells-and-whistles luxury, but it’s actually a survival necessity.”

No actual commitments, though, have been made, other than to look into the matter. Maegan Graveline, spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, simply confirmed Canada’s “commitment to begin a process in 2019 to consult on possible legislation to help eliminate child labour from global supply chains.”

Smriti Gupta, founder of Where Are India’s Children, a group working to create sustainable solutions for India’s most vulnerable children, said putting an end to child labour is definitely an important first step.

“Without supply chain transparency, children could be enslaved in hazardous situations, forever. But eliminating child labour has to go hand in hand with figuring out the next for the child,” said Gupta.

Supply chain transparency doesn’t address poverty

Canadian industries in developing Asian and African countries may be able to eliminate child labour from their factory lines, but extant poverty may force families to send their children into another factory, where transparency in supply chains does not exist.

Poverty is the fundamental reason most families end up sending their children to work. Developed countries will have to go beyond supply chain logistics and set up incentives for families to send their children to school by offering them sustainable means of sustenance.

One possible solution, Gupta said, is giving bonuses to employees to turn in report cards or letters signed by teachers as proof that the children are going to school. Providing transport assistance could be another solution, as transportation continues to remain one of the key barriers to children accessing or remaining in school.

France took a somewhat historic step towards mitigating human rights abuses by passing a due diligence law for companies.

One of the Standing Committee’s recommendations is, in fact, to improve access to and quality of education for both children and adults, with a particular focus on entrepreneurship. The committee also recommends that the government create incentives for the private sector to actually monitor child labour in their supply chains and develop tools to do so.

Labour supply chains may include migrant labour, and parents are most likely not going to send their children to school for only a few months, only to migrate again. In this case, organizations can create crèches (daycare) for children until a certain age.

“This may seem like a bells-and-whistles luxury, but it’s actually a survival necessity and can be the difference between a child languishing on the street or being next to his/her parents in a safe place,” Gupta added.

‘Not the silver bullet’

In 2017, France took a somewhat historic step towards mitigating human rights abuses by passing a due diligence law for companies that are headquartered in the country and have over 5,000 employees. These companies must establish standards that respect labour and human rights at their production sites.

This legislation came five years after the collapse of Rana Plaza — which accommodated five garment factories — in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing over a thousand people and injuring thousands more. This incident woke governments and people up to the hazardous conditions children and adults alike work in for some of the lowest wages in the world, just to keep prices low for consumers in richer countries.

No one is asking Canadian companies the uncomfortable questions of where, how, and in what conditions their products are being created.

“Supply chain (transparency) is not the silver bullet, but certainly one tool,” said Lewchuk of World Vision, to “ensure dual responsibility between companies and states to uphold human rights.”

But, he, like Gupta, also thinks that the approach has to be more holistic, as a myriad of problems force children into labour. The Standing Committee did offer recommendations on creating avenues for child protection and offering a meaningful education to people — but these solutions may require funding from Canada.

When asked about this, Graveline said, “Canada will continue working with international partners to tackle the root causes that give rise to child and forced labour, including by supporting poverty reduction and women’s economic empowerment and peace and security, and by supporting greater capacity to enforce child labour laws internationally.”

Uncovering how our products are made

Right now, no one is asking Canadian companies the uncomfortable questions of where, how, and in what conditions their products are being created. Legislation will, at the very least, create more room for dialogue and accountability.

“In parallel to legislative methods, consumers and civil society need to pressure companies to be transparent about methods and urge them to act responsibly,” Lewchuk added. Critical self-reflection from the consumer side will pressure companies to act ethically to protect their brand image.

In India, where I originally come from, child labour exists in plain sight. There’s no effort to hide it because it’s an accepted social reality — the dirty family secret everybody knows but nobody talks about. Children work on the streets selling magazines, behind streetside tea stalls, in homes as domestic staff, and in factories. They work when they should be in school studying and frolicking gleefully in hallways.

Until the vicious cycle of poverty is broken, there’s no one-fix solution to eliminating child labour. So while pressure through trade diplomacy from countries such as Canada is certainly one approach, it needs to work in tandem with policies tackling poverty.