Santa Claus with his elves in a folkloric illustration.

Some of us might have grown affectionate to them through Tolkien’s works – and the girls probably through Orlando Bloom’s interpretation in the related films, others by playing all sorts of online games, others yet by reading the ancient texts of Norse mythology, but on one thing all of these currents agree: elves are still a thing in the 21st century. The Christmas folklore in particular pictures our pointed-ears friends working in Santa’s factory somewhere in Lappland, in Northernmost Finland, among fir trees and reindeers, producing the stuff all children’s dreams are made of for the most anticipated holiday ever, following a chain-production mechanism not too dissimilar from what we might observe in way more down-to-earth factories around the world. But who are the elves?

Elves originate from Norse and Germanic mythology, where they belong as spirits of nature and protectors of the four elements – earth. air, water and fire. They are known as ælfs in Middle English, álfarr in Norse and Elbe in Middle German, but despite the different names, they seem to share the same appearance in all three traditions: slim, almost aethereal figures with fair hair and skin, bright lively eyes and, of course, the typical pointy ears. Smart and playful creatures, elves live in communion with nature, hiding in forests where they spend their immortal lives dedicating themselves to the arts and playing tricks on unsuspecting visitors. So how did they end up signing a contract for Santa Claus?

The Christian-pagan folklore pretty much agrees that at some point during his life, Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra and traditionally patron saint of children, defeated a demon in a fight, freeing the elves that had been under its command. Apparently, in order to thank him for releasing them from slavery, the elves agreed to work for Saint Nicholas – this time probably achieving better respect of workers’ rights – and become the beloved toy manufacturers we all know.

However, the cheerful employees of Santa’s factory are not the only source of the goods and commodities we enjoy today. Especially thanks to globalization and the rise of emerging economies such as the BRICS countries (namely, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) we have access to a wider range of products than we have ever had before. This massive increase in the supply of goods that are available to everyone everyday has certainly improved the overall quality of life of the world population, but it also means that countries where labour is extremely cheap – if not free – can now access and sell their products on the global markets. The necessity to keep up with global demand calls for an increase in production, and the most ruthless and profit-focused employers might be tempted to lower their rights standards and start exploiting their labour force. One of the most terrible consequences of such a policy is child labour.

The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) estimates that around 150 million children all over the world are engaged in forms of work that prevent them from exerting a healthy and natural lifestyle and from getting an education. In particular, 75 millions are involved in dangerous endeavors that seriously threaten their physical and mental well-being, such as working in ore mines, using pesticides and other hazardous chemicals in plantations, or also maintaining and maneuvering dangerous machines in workshops. Despite the gradual improvements registered over the years – UNICEF itself estimates a decrease of around 26% in minors involved in risky working environments in Latin America and in the Caribbean, while slower progresses are taking place in Sub-Saharan Africa and in South-East Asia, where this issue is unfortunately still very relevant – there is still much to be done about this modern form of slavery, which makes ending child labor one of the so-called Millennium Development Goals of the international community.

child labor

An underage plantation worker in Northern Vietnam.

The hard truth is that child labor is very advantageous to overseas production facilities, which is why this phenomenon is so widespread: children need less food than adults to survive, which means less costs for the employer, and their small constitution allows them to work in narrow spaces where adults could not access. So what can really be done against this heinous practice?

The solution to the employment of child labor lies in three different dimensions, which have to intersect and cooperate harmonically, in order for the solution to be effective: consumption, public policy and corporate social responsibility.

Better and more conscious consumption means that consumers should be made aware that part of the products available on the market might be manufactured by children working in extremely dangerous and abusive environments, and thus discern them and boycott them, trying instead to switch to goods of a different origin, even though those might be more expensive. This will reduce the income generated by this practice, which would represent a very effective deterrent: after all, spoiled of its immorality, the use of child labour is nothing but a strategy; if producers realize it is no longer profitable, they might as well stop using it.


Education is the first step to break the cycle.

Public policy includes laws and policies that regulate the functioning of a country’s economy. Child labor is a product of poverty and illiteracy, which in turn cause children to stay into this unhealthy, underpaid – if paid at all – environment and remain poor and illiterate, which creates a vicious circle that leaves very little space to improvement. Local governments, in cooperation with international organization, should coordinate efforts in order to promote free public primary education, in order for the children to be able to develop both personally and professionally and acquire the skills needed to break this circle and look for other opportunities. This would also be a powerful tool to end child labor, as it would deprive it of its first resource.

Corporate social responsibility refers to the ensemble of ethics and principles that regulate the agenda of corporations, and that basically influences how corporations contribute to the society and environment they work in. By making reducing the amount of child labour a priority within corporate social responsibility, firms would commit to ensuring that all of their factories and suppliers function without the aid of underage workforce, making it harder and harder for organizations that do use such workforce to access the market, making the practice less appealing.

As Christmas is approaching, we are soon going to have to face the choice of which presents to buy, so how about trying and recognizing the ones that are 100% child labor free? For example, counterfeit goods are usually produced in secrecy and in dubious conditions, which means that – in addition to being illegal – they have a high risk of being produced in sweatshops that employ child labor.  Also, searching for stamps certified by UNICEF and similar organizations on the products can help identifying the “clean” ones. Another interesting website on the subject is Rank A Brand, a non-profit organization that ranks the most popular brands in order of transparency on their methods of productions and sustainability, as well as respect of workers’ rights.

These are all measures that we can implement in our daily lives to make sure Santa’s little helpers have no unfair competition on their way to making children happy, as today some elves are still slaves. The question is: will we be the ones who step forward and kill the demon?