At Christmas time it’s almost impossible to be both poor and ethical

Christmas is a stressful time for families, especially those on strict budgets, and those surviving below the poverty line. Shops are filled with items crying out to be bought. Toys fill shelves, and children wait not-so-patiently for Santa to come. It’s well known that elves make toys in the north pole, and they will be delivered by a jolly fat man, via a sleigh replete with magical reindeer and gaily ringing bells.

For poorer families, the presents Santa delivers aren’t nice wooden toys made in the north pole (or the UK) by happy elves with secure jobs paying at least minimum wage. It would be lovely if they were, but they’re not. For kids in poverty, Santa sources his gifts from China and India rather than the north pole (or the UK). They’re cheap, they’re affordable, and they ensure something is there to be unwrapped. The true meaning of Christmas. The elves who make these toys are working in conditions that leave them trapped, tired, and miserable. Mrs Claus isn’t feeding these workers mince pies, either.

It’s not just cheap toys at fault. Disney’s Sing & Sparkle Ariel doll retails at £34.99. This is a “high-end” gift for families struggling to make ends meet. Disney – a company like that can be trusted to pay their elves a living wage, surely? No, as it happens. The workforce making these dolls are paid as little as 1p per doll. Some worked 175 hours of overtime in one month. They sleep at their stations, and work until they can’t see straight. For 85p an hour, these “elves” are little more than modern-day slaves to a consumer society that may have – dare I say it? – got a little bit out of hand. If this is the treatment at a Disney factory, what are the conditions like further down the line? How much are the elves who make the knockoffs paid? How are they treated? I’m going to guess at badly.

From clothing to food, when living on or under the breadline, life is filled with balancing morals against practicality. After all, we all need to eat, and we all need to wear clothes. Importantly, too, children need toys. They must be able to play, to learn, regardless of their family situation. It’s why the cheap knockoff stuff exists in the first place: so families without the cash to buy the “good stuff” can at least access a facsimile of it. My youngest daughter, who is now 14, learned her shapes, letters, numbers, and colours from toys bought for less than £5. They were invaluable to her early years education … and all I could afford to buy.

I wanted to buy wooden toys: shape-sorters; tactile bead-tables that sit in the corner of doctor’s surgeries; a cute push-along thing; building blocks; train sets. Not because of their premium toy status, but because I knew they were ethically made, and the people who make them are paid fairly and work in good conditions. I would prefer to buy my clothes from British manufacturers instead of Primark. I would prefer to feed my family free-range food. My ethics have nothing to do with my wallet; they don’t change when I’m struggling to make ends meet, but they do get pushed aside.

I buy what I can afford, and that’s all there is to it really. I have to ignore my ethics and my conscience daily – it can feel like punishment for being “poor”. I’m told by the media that I am responsible for the plight of Chinese workers, because I buy the stuff they make. It’s my fault they are so exhausted they fall asleep in front of their stations when they get a break. It’s my need keeping them in the trap they’re in. Make no mistake – if I didn’t need the things they produce, I wouldn’t buy them.

Ethics are an internal battlefield when you can’t afford to have them. Morals don’t vanish when money does. It could be argued that, because we live in such a privileged society here in the UK, we feel the injustice of the conditions these overseas workers are forced to endure. We know it shouldn’t be happening, and we can see there is another way, but we simply cannot afford to listen to our conscience. It hurts. I do what I can, but our choices are made by what we can afford. In an ideal world, I would be able to afford to balance my accounts and my ethics, but I don’t live in an ideal world. I live in the real one.

Yet, despite the cheap food, the cheap gifts and the cheap booze (it is Christmas, after all), I will make merry and celebrate the season as best I can, and spare a thought for the elves who made it possible – because, this year, I’m afraid a thought is all I can afford to give.