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THE QUESTION

Has child labour gotten any better since you started?

THE ANSWER

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A group of fathers in Tamil Nadu, India, told us how middlemen came to their village and offered to hire and lodge their children in a local factory. The fathers were given contracts that they signed with their thumbprints. They received a small sum of money in exchange for custody of their children for a year. At the end of the year, the fathers went to bring their children home but were refused: The contracts they "signed" were for 10 years, not one. They went to the local police, who had been bribed by the factory owners. Those desperate fathers had lost their children to a life of bonded labour.

We've heard countless similar stories over the past 16 years. While the statistics are slowly improving, child labour remains stubbornly prevalent. In 2008, there were approximately 225 million children working who were either under the minimum age or in conditions that threatened their safety, health or moral development. Of them, about 125 million were exposed to hazardous working conditions, armed conflict or illicit activities such as the sex trade.

Most child labour overseas occurs in agriculture, domestic servitude and local industries, and it can best be tackled through sustainable development that fights poverty. We've seen significant progress with universal primary education, coupled with alternative-income and micro-lending projects that stabilize families' incomes so they can afford to put their children in school.

Contributing to these development efforts is one way Canadians can fight child labour, but consumer vigilance is also key.

For instance, just last year, Apple admitted to finding child labourers in factories making iPods, iPhones and computers. The complexities of large corporate supply chains – deliberately or not – make it easy for companies to be blind to blatant abuses. A report from Tulane University last year found child-trafficking, bondage and hazardous work in the cocoa fields of western Africa, despite promises from the companies who make our seasonal treats to clean up their act.

Always ask where the products you buy came from and under what conditions they were made. At least today there are enough child-labour-free, sweatshop-free and fair-trade options that you can shop elsewhere. As the holiday shopping season hits full stride, consider buying a goat in the name of a loved one, or filling your stockings at home with fair-trade products – to show you care about all the children.

Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free the Children. Follow Craig at facebook.com/craigkielburger and @craigkielburger on Twitter. Send questions to Livebetter@globeandmail.com.

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