Report Links Victoria's Secret With Child Labor

Melissa Block speaks with Bloomberg reporter Cam Simpson about his article on Victoria's Secret — and child labor violations under the fair and organic trade banner.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Fair Trade, we see those words a lot - when we buy coffee, food, even clothes. But what do they mean? Well, when Victoria's Secret began marketing underwear made from organic, fair-trade cotton, company executives assumed they were helping women farmers in the West African nation of Burkina Faso. But according to an in-depth investigation by Bloomberg News, in this case, fair trade meant children being kept from school and forced to labor long hours in the country's cotton fields.

Cam Simpson headed that investigation. He joins me now from the Bloomberg News studio in London. And, Cam, your story focuses on one child laborer, a 13-year-old named Clarisse Kambire, who you observed picking cotton in the fields in Burkina Faso. Tell us about her and her situation.

CAM SIMPSON: Clarisse is what's known as a foster child in West Africa. It's a very common system where kids are sometimes abandoned because their parents are migrants or they're specifically sought to work in homes. And when the farmer that she was left with a few years ago, who's a cousin, he started growing organic fair-trade cotton. Last year, he put her to work when she was 12. She has to dig rows by hand across this field, but this year, it's about the length of four football fields.

She has to haul manure compost on her head to the field in buckets and pile it up and spread it on every plant. She has to cut weeds. I mean, this is heavy, hard work that is intense for several months throughout the cotton season every year.

BLOCK: How do you explain how cotton that's grown using child labor, such as you have said with Clarisse, ends up getting a fair trade stamp? Whose job is it to make sure that fair trade means what it says, that it's fair trade?

SIMPSON: Well, Fair Trade International, they certify a national union, not the individual farms and not even the individual cooperatives that the individual farmers belong to. They're supposed to do surprise visits to places where child labor's endemic. And they're supposed to do surprise visits to places where clearly there are commodities grown with child labor, and that's also clearly cotton. 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.

BLOCK: It seems that some of the farmers that you talk to in Burkina Faso thought that they were playing by the rules. One man told you that he thought that fair trade meant that he couldn't force his own children into the field but other children were OK.

SIMPSON: Yeah. I mean, that's the problem. I mean, people talked about this extensively. They didn't think that they were doing anything wrong. 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. There was a study done in 2008 of child labor in this program that was never made public until we did our story. And it found that these foster children were particularly vulnerable on these farms and it listed a lot of specific recommendations that it said should have been implemented. 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. It was never implemented.

BLOCK: Now, what about Victoria Secret's role here, because they marketed the underwear as coming through a program that they said was good for women, good for the children who depend on them. What's their reaction been to your story?

SIMPSON: Well, Victoria's Secret relies on the fair trade label as well. They don't have people who look at these fields. You know, this is a unique program. Victoria's Secret buys directly from the farmer's union. There are no brokers involved. It is a contract directly between the union that runs this program and Victoria's Secret.

BLOCK: Has the parent company of Victoria's Secret said that it's going to do anything differently since you launched this investigation?

SIMPSON: Well, they said they're very concerned. They say they're investigating and that they're going to take, you know, swift and decisive action as soon as they can get a handle on what they think the situation is.

BLOCK: I have to say, Cam, as I was reading your story, I got quite concerned about the impact that it might have on Clarisse herself for telling about the conditions that she works under. Have you been able to follow-up on what's happened to her since?

SIMPSON: We have been, and so far so good for Clarisse. I mean, that was obviously a major concern for us. The good news is the harvest is over. It ended about a week ago. So, the difficult work that she's doing, has been doing, is now finished. And we have people in her community that were checking with her on a regular basis to make sure that she is OK. And so far so good.

BLOCK: But she will be going back to the fields?

SIMPSON: Well, we'll have to see about that. I mean, the season will start again in May and June, and whether she goes back into this field is an open question.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Cam Simpson, a reporter for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Markets magazine. Cam, thank you very much.

SIMPSON: Thank you, Melissa. It's been a pleasure.

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