Is Victoria’s “Secret” Child Cotton Laborers in Africa?

Victoria's Secret, child labor, human rights, organic cotton, fair trade, fair-trade fashion, fair-trade clothing, fair-trade cotton, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style

The halo on Victoria’s Secret is looking a tad askew after a report alleged that malnourished, underaged West African children picked the cotton used in some of its undergarments, including a number labeled as fair trade and organic. In a startling exposé by Bloomberg News, reporter Cam Simpson documents the heart-wrenching story of 13-year-old Clarisse Kambire, who works on an organic-cotton farm in Burkina Faso under a program designed to financially empower women and enable more children to attend school. But Kambire’s reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Beaten and verbally abused, she labors in the fields on bare hands and feet to harvest tiny tufts of fiber that are sent to factories in India and Sri Lanka to be fashioned into leopard-print hip-hugger panties and lacy fishnet thongs.

Victoria's Secret, child labor, human rights, organic cotton, fair trade, fair-trade fashion, fair-trade clothing, fair-trade cotton, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style

NO ANGELS

Kambire is what’s known as an “enfants confies” (French for “foster child”) in West Africa, abandoned by her parents and left in the care of her cousin, who put her to work at age 12 after he began growing organic, fair-trade cotton. While forced and child labor in West Africa are nothing new, Simpson says that lucrative premiums for organic and fair-trade cotton have created “fresh incentives for exploitation.”

In the wake of Bloomberg’s investigation, the question of who’s responsible for making sure fair trade is indeed fair trade, looms largest.

In the wake of Bloomberg’s investigation, the question of who’s responsible for making sure fair trade is indeed fair trade, looms largest.

In the case of Burkina Faso, Fairtrade International doesn’t certify the individual farms or even the cooperatives that the farmers belong to. Rather, it works with Union Nationale des Producteurs de Coton du Burkina Faso, the national union that comprises hundreds of thousands of cotton farmers, only a fraction of whom bear the fair-trade imprimatur.

Because Victoria’s Secret purchased its cotton from the union, with no brokers interceding on its behalf, it too relied on taking the fair-trade label at face value.

Fairtrade International is supposed to do surprise visits to farms where child labor’s endemic, according to Simpson, who spoke with NPR’s Melissa Block on Friday. “You know, fair trade has faced criticism over child labor in fair-trade cocoa fields in West Africa, and they have adjusted a couple times and said that they’re increasing scrutiny. And it looks like there’s probably still a ways to go,” he says.

Victoria' Secret, child labor, human rights, organic cotton, fair trade, fair-trade fashion, fair-trade clothing, fair-trade cotton, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style

FAIR FOR WHOM?

In a statement, Fairtrade International says it takes any allegation of the violation of human rights of a child “very seriously” and has put in place appropriate actions. “We guarantee that if breaches of our requirements on child labor are found, we take immediate action to protect children, prevent the farms using child labor from selling into the fair-trade system, and then support the producer organization to strengthen its own systems and develop child-protection policies and procedures adapted to their specific context,” it says. “However, no person or product certification system can provide a 100 percent guarantee that a product is free of child labor. Child labor, especially exploitative and abusive forms of child labor, are illegal activities that are often well-hidden.”

Some of the farmers thought that fair trade meant their own children couldn’t work in the field but other people’s children were okay.

But part of the problem, Simpson says, is a lack of communication. Some of the farmers he spoke to, for instance, thought that fair trade meant they couldn’t force their own children to work in the field but that other people’s children were okay. “They didn’t think that they were doing anything wrong,” he says. “Some people said, well, you know, they tell us something about children when we first sign up and then that’s all we ever hear.”

He also cites an unpublished 2008 report on child labor that found foster children in Burkina Faso to be particularly vulnerable. It also included a number of recommendations to stem the problem. “One very simple one was just to have the farmers themselves come up with a charter on conduct for child labor and have them police it themselves,” he says. It was never implemented.

Limited Brands, Victoria’s Secret’s parent company, says it is “very concerned” about the allegations. “If this allegation is true,” it says in a statement, “it describes behavior that is contrary to our company’s values and the code of labor and sourcing standards that we require all of our suppliers to meet. These standards expressly prohibit child labor.”

We’re not giving up on fair trade just yet, of course. Despite its flaws, there remains the overwhelming potential to make the system work for the betterment of all communities. If what we have here is a failure to communicate, then we need to talk.

[Via Bloomberg News]

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4 Responses to “Is Victoria’s “Secret” Child Cotton Laborers in Africa?”

  1. TejasDawg says:

    People need to be more understanding of the context of rural agriculture. Small farms need lots of hands to harvest crops where expensive machinery is not available. These kids were likely not ‘forced’ to harvest cotton. There is likely some sort of incentive for them helping, be it food, money or something else. Additionally, these experiences provide an invaluable learning experience to these children. They learn about farming, hard work, and the importance of education. Keeping them off the farm is a mistake and will lead them into the urban chaos which often leads to drug/sex trade and other degenerative life styles. Keep the kids on the farm! Let them learn from experience and capitalize on opportunity. These models and Victoria Secret should be proud to support these farmers, their families, and even the children helping with the harvest. This is what life on our planet is like, lets stop pretending kids don’t need work.

  2. Tabuism says:

    Any company that usese child labour will never see a penny from me !

  3. Scott Poynton (@Scottpoynton) says:

    Guys, it’s simple. You’ve got to get out in the bush and look deeply into your supply chain yourselves or get someone with experience to do it for you. This is the same problem that Nestlé had with its palm oil when Greenpeace attacked it – it simply hadn’t gone right out to the farm to know exactly where it’s palm oil was coming from. Victoria’s Secret has good Values, don’t outsource their delivery to a certification scheme – this will happen time and again. After Values, you need Transparency to know exactly where your raw materials come from and then you need Transformation to help your suppliers change to meet your Values.

    TFT can help http://www.tft-forests.org

    Scott Poynton
    Founder
    TFT

  4. Michael Zelmer says:

    Following its own investigation of the claims made by Bloomberg of child labour, Fairtrade International released its response today.

    It can be found on the front page of http://www.fairtrade.net (or directly at http://www.bit.ly/FIBlmbgResp). In particular, it refutes the claims that the person featured in the articles was involved in cotton production at all (Fairtrade certified or otherwise) and that she was under the age of 18. It also raises serious concerns regarding the journalist’s methods.

    Nevertheless, it should be noted that no system can guarantee that a product is 100% child labour free. However, the Fairtrade system has standards against it, an audit-based monitoring system to catch it if it occurs, and clear protocols on what to do if it does that focus first on the safety of any at-risk children and second on mitigating the risk of it happening again.

    Michael Zelmer
    Fairtrade Canada

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