The suffering of a little boy – terrified and far from home – might feel worlds away from our Valentine’s Day romances. But the harsh reality is that too many of the products we buy – even the lovely gifts we give for Valentine’s - can be made by people in slavery, including children.
According to Ethical Trading Initiative, a staggering 71 per cent of UK companies believe there is a likelihood of slavery in their supply chain.
In fact, the traditional Valentine’s gifts that we love here in the UK – jewellery, roses and chocolate – are particularly at-risk of having slave labour in their production.
Global supply chains can be vast and hard to trace, and whether people are making products for local markets or for UK importers, slavery too often lies hidden behind even innocuous things like heart-shaped Valentine’s Day sweets and chocolates.
Suriya and Vijay's story
Our International Justice Mission colleagues in South Asia recently told us about 11-year-old Suriya. His family was locked in desperate poverty. When a stranger offered his parents an advance of £11.50 for Suriya and his young cousin, Vijay, to work in a factory and earn a consistent income, the family reluctantly agreed.
Suriya and Vijay were taken 900 miles away to a small sweets factory. Here, the young boys were at the mercy of the abusive factory owner. They were shouted at and even beaten for anything from tiny mistakes to attempting to take a break from their brutal 16-hour work days.
For five years this was their life. They weren't allowed to visit their families even once.
At last, Vijay escaped and made his way home. His family’s joy at seeing him turned to horror as he told them about the abuse he and the other children at the factory suffered. He showed them scars on his legs. When he had accidentally added too much salt to a recipe, he had been scalded with hot oil as a punishment.
Vijay and Suriya's desperate parents quickly reported the situation to authorities, and we at International Justice Mission – the largest anti-slavery organisation in the world – were asked to help with the case. IJM teams worked together with NGO partners and police to discover the factory where Suriya might be held. Police worked diligently to question and eventually arrest the factory owner for his abuse of children.
But Suriya was nowhere to be found.
His family began to wonder – had he escaped? Had he been taken to another facility? Their fears grew. Had he been killed?
Police searches for Suriya repeatedly came up fruitless, and as months wore on, his family was starting to give up hope.
But then, after six months of searching, IJM teams received this short message: “Today, it is such a joy for me to share that Suriya was once lost but now he is found.”
Authorities had finally found Suriya – alive. He had managed to escape and was working on a nearby farm. Police travelled hundreds of miles to personally bring him home just a week later.
Suriya remembers: “My only thought was to get home and see my family.”
“I was not able to control my tears when I saw Suriya for the first time after many years,” says his father, Arumugam.
There are 25 million people in forced labour slavery right now – kidnapped, coerced, or tricked into a life of brutal suffering.
Many of them are forced to make or harvest the products that people around the world will buy today in their local store – people including you and me. The chocolate industry is notorious for its use of forced child labour, and whole families are trapped for generations in dangerous mines doing back-breaking labour to produce some of the jewellery we buy to bless our loved ones.
We’ve worked with local police to rescue families trapped in quarries, or forced to harvest sugarcane. We’ve even raided flower farms to rescue young children whose fingers bled from 12-hour days tending roses. Slavery is everywhere – and it touches all our lives.
Valentine’s Day presents an opportunity both to celebrate love, and – as agents of God’s love in the world – to consider how we are showing love. Most of us have asked ourselves how am I showing love to those closest to me? But the challenge is greater still. How am I showing love to people trapped in slavery whose lives, though miles away from mine, nevertheless touch my life?
Love is not passive or complacent. In the face of pain, love acts. Love is a rescuer, and it sent rescue to Suriya. You can send rescue to the millions trapped in slavery today.
Isabel Crawley works for International Justice Mission (IJM). To give a gift of freedom in honour of someone you love, view IJM UK Valentine’s Day Gift Card at gifts.ijmuk.org