A young 13-year-old girl, Clarisse Kambire, bent over in a cotton field pictured above in my Photoshop 2-minute masterpiece, caught my attention as a father. When I hear about a child labor scandal involving a national corporation as large as Limited Brands, who owns Victoria’s Secret, and physically see photos of a young girl being forced to work and read a little of her daily life – I automatically go into rage mode.
If you’re a decent person, you’d hopefully generate empathy too with a question like, “What if that was my daughter/son?”. And damn that’s a scary thought as I safely sit in a comfortable chair behind an awesome computer.
As a U.S. citizen and sometimes consumer, I hate to say it but I’m not surprised at this story. It’d be nice to see products like this sh*t made in the USA and sold for 1/2 the price – but that will never happen. The sad fact is the Third World competes to survive off America while America focuses on profit, looking for world bargains, slowly drowning the middle class with corporation’s lust for greed. In 2006, Hanes was found to have exploited children in Bangladesh.
So now that Victoria has finally been exposed, their PR department has found themselves smack dap in the middle of a media sh*t-storm, stiff-arming all accusations of forced child labor so far. There’s no mistake that this is still happening, there’s no doubt it will continue to happen, but right now it’s happening in Burkina Faso.
Big ups to Bloomberg News for uncovering this story, spending more than six weeks reporting in Burkina Faso, including interviewing Clarisse, her family, neighbors and leaders in her village.
(Cam Simpson, Bloomberg) — Clarisse Kambire’s nightmare rarely changes. It’s daytime. In a field of cotton plants that burst with purple and white flowers, a man in rags towers over her, a stick raised above his head. Then a voice booms, jerking Clarisse from her slumber and making her heart leap. “Get up!”
The man ordering her awake is the same one who haunts the 13-year-old girl’s sleep: Victorien Kamboule, the farmer she labors for in a West African cotton field. Before sunrise on a November morning she rises from the faded plastic mat that serves as her mattress, barely thicker than the cover of a glossy magazine, opens the metal door of her mud hut and sets her almond-shaped eyes on the first day of this season’s harvest. (Follow her journey in videos, photos and more here.)
She had been dreading it. “I’m starting to think about how he will shout at me and beat me again,” she said two days earlier. Preparing the field was even worse. Clarisse helped dig more than 500 rows with only her muscles and a hoe, substituting for the ox and the plow the farmer can’t afford. If she’s slow, Kamboule whips her with a tree branch.
This harvest is Clarisse’s second. Cotton from her first went from her hands onto the trucks of a Burkina Faso program that deals in cotton certified as fair trade. The fiber from that harvest then went to factories in India and Sri Lanka, where it was fashioned into Victoria’s Secret underwear — like the pair of zebra-print, hip-hugger panties sold for $8.50 at the lingerie retailer’s Water Tower Place store on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.
“Made with 20 percent organic fibers from Burkina Faso,” reads a stamp on that garment, purchased in October.
Forced labor and child labor aren’t new to African farms. Clarisse’s cotton, the product of both, is supposed to be different. It’s certified as organic and fair trade, and so should be free of such practices.
Planted when Clarisse was 12, all of Burkina Faso’s organic crop from last season was bought by Victoria’s Secret (LTD), according to Georges Guebre, leader of the country’s organic and fair- trade program, and Tobias Meier, head of fair trade for Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation, a Zurich-based development organization that set up the program and has helped market the cotton to global buyers. Meier says Victoria’s Secret also was expected to get most of this season’s organic harvest, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its February issue.
Telltale Green Flag
The leader of the local fair-trade cooperative in Clarisse’s village confirmed that her farmer is one of the program’s producers. A telltale green flag, given to its growers, flies at the edge of the field she works.
As Victoria’s Secret’s partner, Guebre’s organization, the National Federation of Burkina Cotton Producers, is responsible for running all aspects of the organic and fair-trade program across Burkina Faso. Known by its French initials, the UNPCB in 2008 co-sponsored a study suggesting hundreds, if not thousands, of children like Clarisse could be vulnerable to exploitation on organic and fair-trade farms. The study was commissioned by the growers and Helvetas. Victoria’s Secret says it never saw the report.
Clarisse’s labor exposes flaws in the system for certifying fair-trade commodities and finished goods in a global market that grew 27 percent in just one year to more than $5.8 billion in 2010. That market is built on the notion that purchases by companies and consumers aren’t supposed to make them accomplices to exploitation, especially of children.
Perverting Fair Trade
In Burkina Faso, where child labor is endemic to the production of its chief crop export, paying lucrative premiums for organic and fair-trade cotton has — perversely — created fresh incentives for exploitation. The program has attracted subsistence farmers who say they don’t have the resources to grow fair-trade cotton without violating a central principle of the movement: forcing other people’s children into their fields.
An executive for Victoria’s Secret’s parent company says the amount of cotton it buys from Burkina Faso is minimal, but it takes the child-labor allegations seriously.
“They describe behavior contrary to our company’s values and the code of labor and sourcing standards we require all of our suppliers to meet,” Tammy Roberts Myers, vice president of external communications for Limited Brands Inc., said in a statement. Victoria’s Secret is the largest unit of the Columbus, Ohio-based company.
“Our standards specifically prohibit child labor,” she said. “We are vigorously engaging with stakeholders to fully investigate this matter.”