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Child Labor and Work Ethics

Recently, I was filling out a portion of the application for renewal of our Fair Trade Federation certification.  One of the questions read as follows:  “How often does your business evaluate children’s roles in production?” It was clear to me that this question was leading to the defense against practices of children being forced to work and thereby unable to be children. Children who can play and go to school and relax on a lazy day in the sun.  You can bet that It’s Cactus is firmly in that camp. Kids should be kids!

Certainly there are endless heart-breaking examples of children being treated as little more than slaves, forced by economic circumstance to labor long hours at the expense of their education, and furthermore, their childhood. I have blogged about such children in Haiti, who suffer under the restavek system. (Sept. 13,2013  The Price of Poverty:  300,000 Cinderella and No Ball.) They are children of poor families “given” to be raised by wealthier “foster families” of dubious intent.  In exchange for labor, a restavek child is supposedly afforded the opportunity for an education. All too often, however, that exchange for the child translates into exploitation and abuse. Though we have never seen this practice in our own Haitian experiences, we stand in total opposition to it.  In fact, our work in Haiti is undertaken to elevate economic conditions so that such practices are no longer even considered to be possible solutions to a problem. We strive to make them unthinkable.

Having said that, however, we are happy to see children given tasks and responsibilities for which they may or may not be  monetarily compensated as a means of cultivating a strong work ethic that will serve them well throughout their years. Coming home after school and flattening out a few pieces of metal in their father’s workshop is a healthy means of accomplishing this end. In fact, Casey is rather adamant that her own daughter pitches in for It’s Cactus. And she does, working in the booth at shows during the summer and writing out price tags after school. In Casey’s words:  “You could call it child labor, I suppose, but I prefer to think of it as good parenting. Its an opportunity for her to learn and to participate. To develop a sense of responsibility, satisfaction and pride in the work that she has done. It helps our business and working together becomes a shared family experience. It’s good for all of us!”


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

The Price of Poverty: 300,000 Cinderellas and No Ball

Beyond Borders - fighting poverty with art. Fair trade keeps families healthy, safe, and together.

Beyond Borders – fighting poverty with art. Fair trade keeps families healthy, safe, and together.

When I was little, I loved the story of Cinderella.  In fact, I had it read to me so often that there came a time when I could recite it, word for word, knowing exactly when the page turn came and frustrating every attempt to shorten the story before bedtime. (I’m not kidding, you can ask my mom.)  I knew exactly how that story went and no one was going to change ANYTHING about it.

What I didn’t know was that it really was a story of human rights violation.  Poor Cinderella was bound in perpetual servitude to her wicked stepmother and two ugly stepsisters.  She worked from morning ‘til night with no monetary compensation, she wore rags for clothing, her meals were crumbs and leftovers, and she slept by the hearth for warmth.  By any other name, she was a slave. Thank heaven for that ball!

Jean Robert Cadet didn’t have it quite so lucky.  No fairy godmother, no fabulous ball at the palace, and no glass slipper that fit only him.  His mother died before he turned four and he was given as a “domestic gift” to his father’s mistress. From then on, he labored; assigned the most menial, distasteful of tasks and given crumbs for food.  Rest was found at the end of each arduous day under the kitchen table.  The physical and mental abuses he endured were unspeakable.  Eventually, at the age of 16, he and the woman to whom he was “given” moved to the States.  Shortly thereafter, she threw him out.

As are an estimated 300,000 child slaves in Haiti today, Jean Robert was a victim of the restavek system.  Restavek is

The Jean Robert Cadet Restavek Organization is working hard to keep families intact and enable little sisters to walk hand-in-hand with their big brothers home from school.

The Jean Robert Cadet Restavek Organization is working hard to keep families intact and enable little sisters to walk hand-in-hand with their big brothers home from school.

a seemingly innocuous Kreyol term meaning literally, “to stay with” but in reality representing a harsh childhood of servitude and it is, unfortunately, woven into the fabric of Haitian poverty. Children born into families who have no way to care for them are not uncommonly “given” or even sold to families of greater means.  The handshake agreement is that the child will be fed, clothed, and schooled in return for “some” extra help around the house.  In function, it rarely turns out that way; the children are exploited, often grossly, by the receiving family.

The “magic” occurred for Jean Robert when a social worker found him sleeping in a laundry mat. She got him enrolled in school, from which he graduated in 1972.  He enlisted in the Marine Corps, and following his discharge, attended college and became a high school French teacher.  Today, he is the head of the Jean Robert Cadet Restavek Organization, working tirelessly as an abolitionist, not only advocating for cultural change, but also assisting restavek children by giving them clothing, decent food, clean water, and providing for their education.  Collaborating with universities in the US, he has developed a kindergarten curriculum that is in place in Haitian schools which teaches children – all children – of their worth as human beings.  The material for the students is presented in discussion, stories, and music to convey its vital message. (To read more about Jean Robert Cadet and his work, click here:  http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/09/08/haiti-anti-slavery-foundation/2782649/ )


For today’s restavek children of Haiti, their “fairy godmother” comes as a middle-aged male, wearing a baseball cap and blue jeans.  He fully understands the gravity of their plight, and though he has no wand to wave, his dedicated efforts as their tireless advocate could well be their salvation.

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