As a morally conscientious global citizen and current supporter of the Coalition Against Child Slavery, you are likely aware that thanks to the hard work of organizations like ours and countless others, thousands of young people in the developing world are liberated from unfair working conditions each year. But sadly, these organizations also depend on the sweat of thousands of unskilled workers to carry out their day-to-day operations. Repetitive light labour: stuffing envelopes, moving boxes of paper, fixing copiers with their bare hands, writing mail-outs very much like the one you might be reading right now — these are the tasks they are forced to do day in, day out behind closed doors.
Instead of trying to tell you about all of the workers’ suffering, let us tell you about just one. His name is David. He works at the Coalition Against Child Slavery. His employer refers to workers like him as “interns,” but David is no fool. Working twelve-hour days for almost no pay, he knows what he really is: he is a human slave.
Unshaven and pale, David’s sunken features and dead eyes betray his youth. Like almost all unpaid day labourers “employed” at human rights organizations, he is extremely young.
“I don’t think I’ll ever own a house,” he tells us. “I don’t think I’ll ever get to stop working either. With what I make, I’ll be working until the day I die.”
Only twenty-one years old, he has already lost hope. What he doesn’t realize is that in a few short years, when his fingers are too fat to collate flyers and his body too weak to withstand the toxic fumes and intense heat of the copier room, he will likely be let go, thrown to the wayside to be replaced by a new batch of workers freshly trafficked from university campuses across Canada.
Employers prey on the idealism and relative youth of prospective interns like David. Despite being both educated and literate, David tells us how he was tricked into taking the job. Only twenty years old at the time, he was told by one headhunter that he would only have to work for free for “a month or two” and then would be given a paying job as soon as one became available. It was only after he was recruited and forced to move to another city that he discovered the true nature of his new-found employment.
Mindless and dehumanizing, the repetitive and isolated nature of his work takes a heavy toll. Working in a room without any natural sunlight or fresh air, the stench of chemically saturated printer paper burns his lungs. Still, despite the conditions, David continues to work hard, holding out hope that such degrading duties might be a test by his superiors to gauge his suitability for the paying job that he prays awaits him.
But there is no paying job waiting for him.
What is more, after six long months, David still has not been paid a dime. After repeatedly protesting, he receives neither a promise of regular remuneration nor any kind of punishment. In a clear effort to silence him, he receives a one-time payment of a completely arbitrary amount: $385. His boss calls it an “honorarium.” For nearly seven months of work, it amounts to mere dollars a day in an economy where a cup of coffee might cost his day’s wages. What little earnings he does make are mercilessly clawed back by predatory loan sharks who David borrowed money from to take “preparatory courses” at a local university that he was told would be a requirement of his employment.
Paper cuts, repetitive strain injuries, eye strain, carpal tunnel syndrome, chronic fatigue — his scars paint a picture of suffering and indignity on the pale canvas of his body. But while these physical scars will eventually heal, the mental scars of his past will forever remain.
“The student loan collectors,” David whispers out of fear. “They have no compassion. You tell them, ‘Look, I have a job, but it’s not what you think, they don’t pay me.’ They say, ‘Do you think we are stupid? You have a job, you must be making money. You must pay us.’ The government does nothing to protect us; sometimes the government even helps them collect.”
Even at the end of the day when it is all over, there will be no respite from the waking nightmare of his everyday existence. Living in a cramped, unsanitary bachelor apartment which he shares with four other interns at humanitarian NGOs, there is less than 3.5 square metres of living space per intern. After spending six hours printing and folding a poster on proper living conditions in Kenyan refugee camps, David knows that this is a clear violation of human rights standards set out by the UN, but he is too tired to care.
Are you too tired to care too?
Please consider sending a small monthly donation of $10, $20 or $50, or a one-time lump-sum donation of $500, and help us let them know they have not been forgotten.
Donations in the form of cash or personal cheque (only) can be sent directly to:
Ad-Mail Coordination Intern
Coalition Against Child Slavery