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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Child Labor Used In Victoria’s Secret ‘Fair Trade’ Products

Clarisse Kambire, 13, a child laborer, center, holds a sack used for collecting fair trade organic cotton while other laborers pick cotton during a day's harvesting in a farmer's field near Benvar, Burkina Faso. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)Clarisse Kambire, 13, a child laborer, carefully draws bolls of organic cotton from a plant in her farmer's fair trade field near Benvar, Burkina Faso. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)Clarisse Kambire, 13, a child laborer, prepares to carry a basket of freshly-picked fair trade organic cotton to her farmer's store house nearly a mile down the road after a day's labor in fields near Benvar, Burkina Faso, 2011. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)Clarisse Kambire, 13, a child laborer, stands in the room of a hut where her farmer stores cotton after delivering a basket of freshly-picked organic cotton from a field almost a mile down the road near Benvar, Burkina Faso. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

If you’re shopping for the holidays, you may look for the “Fair Trade” label on food and clothes. But that label is not always living up to its promise.

Certified fair trade products claim to come come from farmers and workers who are justly compensated and treated ethically. But a Bloomberg News investigation found that in some cases, the “Fair Trade” label might be masking some of the worst labor practices imaginable.

Bloomberg found children working in slave-like conditions in the West African country of Burkina Faso, growing and picking the cotton used in millions of pieces of clothing sold by Victoria’s Secret.

The investigation focused on a girl named Clarisse Kambire, a 13 year-old foster child who is forced to work on an organic and fair trade cotton farm.

Clarisse’s Work In The Fields

She starts work around sunrise, and because there’s no pesticide or herbicide used on the organic crops, one of her jobs is to pick bugs or worms from each individual cotton plant. She also has to haul buckets of manure compost on her head about half a mile to the cotton field, and she spends a lot of time digging rows in the dirt for the cotton.

“She has to dig a plot the length of four football fields by hand with nothing more than her muscle and a hoe,” Bloomberg News reporter Cam Simpson told Here & Now‘s Robin Young.

Clarisse says the work is very painful, she has lower back pain and she fears the farmer, who beats her if she slows down.

Tracing Clarisse’s Cotton

Bloomberg reports that the cotton Clarisse picks is sold through the country’s organic and fair trade cotton program. That cotton goes to textile factories in India, then a garment manufacturer in Sri Lanka where it’s made into cotton underwear for Victoria’s Secret.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that with the exception of gold, cotton is produced with child or forced labor in more countries than any other commodity.

Victoria’s Secret Response

Bloomberg reports that:

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.”


  • Cam Simpson, Bloomberg News reporter

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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