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Thursday, December 15, 2011

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

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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  • Anonymous

    Hmmmmm I had heard about V S “fair trade cotton” practices two years ago…..and before that the story came out about the way their workers were treated in Jordan…..where is the corporate responsibility?  Their clothes/underwear  are a far cry from inexpensive.  So where does the money go???

  • Danophillip

    I find this pretty discouraging. In college I was very profair trade, now I am a not sure you can buy anything ethically.

  • Sheri4peace

    This is one

  • Anonymous

    don’t let Newt Gingrinch get wind of this….

  • Sheri

    I am so heartbroken by this story. I just listened in my car while in the midst of holiday shopping. As I heard the story of Clarisse, I contrasted her life with that of my own 12 year old daughter. My daughter has such a happy life: her friends, her school, her drama club, a holday vacation with family who love her. Meanwhile little Clarisse does not even have the basics or any love in her life. Thinking of my daughter and her friends, I do not even know how it could be possible that a malnourished  13-year-old  Clarisse could work the fields for 12 hours a day. The sensation of the Victoria’s Secret panties I wear is making my skin crawl to think of it.

    As I have been holiday shopping I am struck by how inexpensive – or actually cheap -  are so many of the items for sale. I know the companies are making money so my mind wondered about the people who made the items. I was concerned before I heard this story about those people, and the story about Clarisse harshly drove home the point. It has become almost impossible to know how the goods we buy are sourced.  Now I hear the Fair Trade certification is iffy at best.

    According to the story, many consumers do desire Fair Trade. We need an organization that is reliable and dedicated to accurate Fair Trade labeling. I would love to see more media attention on this issue so that people know what it takes to bring them the inexpensive and, sometimes even expensive, items they buy.

    It is extreme poverty that facilitates this use of child labor. These people are so dependent on the small amount of income paid for their cotton, they must produce it very cheaply. The reporter said there is a possibility that the farmers named in the story will lose the work and then none of them will eat. What a horrible choice: use child labor or starve. 

  • Rodney North

    Here at Equal Exchange, the organization most responsible for introducing Fair Trade commodities to the U.S. market, we welcome this kind of investigative journalism. What most people never think about is that the sad reality reported by Cam Simpson is, in fact, the _norm_ for millions of farmers, and children, around the world. The details vary place to place, and by the crop involved, but the larger truth is that the way the world’s commodities are grown, or mined, and then traded – EVERY DAY, EVERYWHERE – is very often a brutal one that grinds down adults and children alike. This is why the Fair Trade system, and our own company, were created over 25 years ago.
    Unfortunately the lesson of Mr. Simpson’s piece could be missed by many listeners. The lesson is not so much about this lapse in the Fair Trade certification system (which, by the way, operates in 58 countries and touches 1.2 million farmers and farm workers every year), but rather that:
                – The world’s cotton farmers are NORMALLY very poor (and remember that the dirt-poor farmer in this story, Victorien Kamboule, is actually getting ABOVE-average prices for his crop.
                   – A cultural norm in Burkina Faso (and many countries) is to use forced child labor and not think anything of it.
    - The global cotton, garment and retail trades do _nothing_ about any of this, day after day, year after year.
    So, against that backdrop, one brand, Victoria’s Secret, has been trying to do the right thing, unlike their competitors. And they’re working with the two certification systems, organic & Fair Trade, that are to date leading their fields for reforming the environmental and social methods for how farms operate and how crops are traded. Clearly in this case Mr. Simpson observed the Fair Trade system falling short of its goals – at least for now. But at least the system is trying to create better conditions for farmers and children alike.
    What will happen next will be one of two things – Mr. Kamboule and the farmer organization, UNPCB, to whom he sells his cotton – will change their ways (the most likely outcome) – OR UNPCB and their 8,000 farmer-members will lose their access to the attractive Fair Trade market. From experience we know that once alerted to the issues they will work hard to set things straight. Too much is at stake to do otherwise. That is part of how the Fair Trade system effects changes in places otherwise impervious to change. In either case the system will – over the longer term – have delivered on its promise to improve conditions and, when necessary, decertify those operations that do not meet the stated goals.
    This does not lessen the tragedy of Clarisse, but it should put her story in a different light. Thanks to Fair Trade her servitude will soon be brought to an end, and, quite possibly, thousands of Burkinabe farmers will finally earn enough to improve their own conditions, and buy the draft animals and plows that will replace children, and a new norm regarding child labor will be propagated (Mr. Simpson says this is already underway). But WITHOUT Fair Trade none of this happens, and thousands of child-laborers like Clarisse keep toiling, year after year after year, with no one ever taking notice. Not the manufacturers, not the shoppers, and not the media. It’ll be business-as-usual.

    • Jeremy

      You’re completely right Rodney.  It seems common these days companies who are at least trying to do good get criticized so easily for not doing enough, or missing some part of their social impact goals because of situations like these.  The organic market itself is only about 1% of all cotton produced in the world.  Now if you realize that this 1% represents those who are actually trying to make sustainable and fair changes to the global cotton system, imagine the stories of the 99% of all conventional/GM cotton growers.  One need only to research “cotton farmer suicides in India” to see an even grimmer picture of what can happen when conventional or GM practices are involved.  Hopefully readers of this article really try to inform themselves on what Fair Trade and Organic aims to accomplish, including the challenges of these niche industries, instead of simply bashing the organizations.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Karyn-Dennen/100003167098222 Karyn Dennen


    This is a simple one, Make it illegal for the US to import or have made any products which incorporate child labor.  Also stop all aid to countries who do not take care of their number 
    one resource, their children.  In this country we can also address families in need.  Mandate
    the hiring of everyone unemployed and seeks employment.  Implement a Federal Sales Tax of
    2% on all internet sales.  Use that money to hire, full time with medical and benefits all those
    who seek employment.  Train, Train and Train these people for various positions, best reflecting
    their skill sets and put them to work.  If the so called unemployment rate is so low as you report
    this is a no brainer and would work.  When solutions are presented, does our government work ?
    No, because you report the news and like all media outlets offer few solutions.  The same goes for that Emily Rooney Show aired as a Boston Show.  You need to have some affect on society as a 
    remedy or a cure, doen’t exacerbate the sickness.  

    Thank you,

    Karyn Dennen

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Karyn-Dennen/100003167098222 Karyn Dennen


    If we are not a part of the solution Robyn, we are validating and justifying the disease which plagues our society.



  • Lilcowgal

    I was 23 when my country, the US, passed the Clean Air & Water act.  The American fabric and clothes soon reflected this as commercial dyes are VICIOUS on the water.   I remember fondly the white with little flowers and checks…the Bicentennial ginghams.

    Soon the market was flooded with dark, loud fabric from the satanic mills of China, India, Pakistan.  India and Pakistan actually bought the original mills from Britain in the 70s, filling them with child labor and horrible conditions.   What irony for Gandhi!!

    Anyway for all these years I’ve tried to consider the earth and human rights…but it’s almost impossible.  Why do the young today love black so much? It turns the water a horrible, putrid color.

    Finally I make simple skirts and such, ever the unrepentant child of the times of my youth.

    If you haven’t the $$ to buy the good, pure stuff, (And I sure don’t) then make SOME effort…The angels will reward you for caring and trying.

  • L_e_joel

    did cam simpson actually go to burkina faso?

  • Mitch Teberg

    When journalism makes an accusation of forced child labour
    with links to Fair Trade, there is a need to address the issue immediately and
    make reparations. However, when the link to Fairtrade proves invalid, there is
    a need to call for integrity in corporate media! 


    Mitch Teberg, MA

    Sustainable Development / Fair Trade

    Researcher / Trainer / Consultant

  • Michael Z

    Following its own investigation of the claims made by Bloomberg of child labour in Fairtrade certified cotton in Burkina Faso, 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

  • http://www.gsplantfoods.com/liquid-fish--kelp-blend.html Richard Maliza

    Organic food is one of the most important food which should be taken as because these foods are healthy food helpful for our health. But sometimes every organic food is not properly labelled and in order to label this people are taking the help of small children those who can work for free in their factories for free.

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