3 Valentine's Day Gifts That Exploit Workers

Chocolate, flowers and diamonds are examples of modern-day gifts for many Americans, but how we get those luxuries may surprise you. According to the National Retail Federation, (NRF) a recent spending survey shows only a slight increase in expected sales this year, with the average person planning to spend $130.97 on candy, cards, gifts and more. That's up from $126.03 last year. In other words, the total spending for this year will reach $18.6 billion.

The survey discovered that a mix of traditional and non-traditional Valentine’s Day gifts will be popular this year. The survey also concluded that more than half (51.0%) of gift givers will buy candy, spending $1.6 billion in total, and another one-third (36.6%) will give flowers, with floral spending expected to top $1.9 billion. Others will treat their special someone to jewelry (19.7%), spending more than $4.4 billion on diamonds, gold, and silver. And while Valentine’s Day remains one of the biggest gift-giving holidays of the year, many shoppers are not aware of the trafficking and exploitation that takes place during this time. Here's three gifts you might not realize are exploitative.

1. Chocolate:

You just love those heart-shaped boxes filled with your favorite pieces of chocolate, but are you aware that those chocolates were possibly picked by the hands of an enslaved child? The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that around 150 million children aged 5-14 in developing countries are forced into child labor. Many children are even forced to work at even younger ages.

West and Ccentral Africa are two of many locations in which children become victims of trafficking in the cocoa fields. Their work consists of using machetes and knives to harvest plants, carrying heavy loads of cocoa beans, and spraying dangerous chemicals such as pesticides, which often makes them sick. In order to meet the demand of this day, child workers also have to work long hours and are less likely to go to school. In 2012, Jasper Perry-Anderson from Philadelphia, PA made a petition on change.org that demanded Hershey's Chocolate stop exploiting children into growing cocoa beans. With a total of 25,449 signatures, Hershey's agreed to outsource ethically by 2020, but has not has not specified what changes would be made. 

2. Flowers:

According to the U.S. Labor Education in the Americas (USLEAP), 60% of all flowers bought in the U.S. for Valentine’s Day come from Colombia, employing nearly 100,000 who are mostly women. Behind Columbia, Ecuador is the largest flower exporter to the U.S.

No unions have been formed due to workers' inability to win a collective bargaining agreement. Employees work long hours, don’t earn enough to support their families, suffer from sexual harassment, and are fired when they try to speak up about improving wages and conditions. Workers develop health issues such as asthma, impaired vision, miscarriages, malnutrition, headaches, rashes, and more. They earn around or less than $2 a day, while the flowers they pick are sold for between $600 and $800. USLEAP has campaigned against Dole and Flor-America Sunburst by protesting around the country, writing letters, email blasts, and more. Colombian unions even started International Flower Workers Day to expose the conditions flower workers face for most of their lives.

3. Diamonds:

A diamond may be a girl's best friend, but searching for diamonds is not exactly easy. In 2010, the U.S Department of Labor reported that diamonds are produced under forced labor in Angola, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe. Diamonds are usually mined from areas in which there is war or armed conflict involving rape, violence, and harassment. The miners are subjected to poor working conditions such as abuse, overcrowding, cheap pay, long hours, and many are forced to travel long distances. Children have often been exploited to do work because they are small enough to be lowered into small, narrow pits by ropes to dig out sacks of dirt, which is then washed by other children in search of diamonds. Movements such as the Global March Against Child Labor and the Anti-Slavery Society are dedicated to creating public awareness about these issues. Don’t take for granted the next diamond you purchase, because you may be giving your money to human traffickers. 

If you don’t want your tokens of affection to support pesticides, child slavery, and farm worker exploitation, learn more about the products you are buying and support fair labor practices today. Buying fair trade certified and organic products are the easiest things you can do to ensure the health and safety of workers and the environment. Stores such as Whole Foods and One World Flowers are common places that provide Fair Trade Certified items. If you feel you can do more, get involved with an organization such as the Fair Trade USA, which empowers workers to get a fair price for their harvest, create safe working conditions, and obtain a decent living wage.

The bottom line is this: be a conscious consumer because every dollar can literally make a difference in someone's life.