By Cam Simpson
Dec 15, 2011
Bloomberg Markets Magazine
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.
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, 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.
Child slavery isn’t new to African farms. Clarisse’s cotton 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 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 farm 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
The program has attracted subsistence farmers who say they don’t have the resources to grow fair-trade cotton without forcing other people’s children into their fields -- violating a key principle of the movement.
By the time Clarisse started picking her first harvest in 2010, Victoria’s Secret was becoming the program’s only buyer instead of just the most prominent, according to Guebre of the growers group and Meier, whose Swiss group advises it. That’s because the country’s overall organic yield was shrinking ever-closer to the 600 metric tons per year guaranteed to the lingerie company.
In The Fields
Interviews around the country with fair-trade growers, officers of fair-trade cooperatives and child-welfare officials reveal that there is little training and few if any safeguards against using children, even after dangers were uncovered by the 2008 report.
Victoria’s Secret, whose supermodel “Angels” helped it set record sales and profit in the third quarter of 2011, agreed in 2007 to a deal to buy fair-trade and organic cotton from Burkina Faso. The aim was to purchase sustainable raw materials and benefit female African farmers.
In time for Valentine’s Day 2009, the retailer marketed a special lingerie line made from “pesticide-free, 100 percent rain-fed cotton” and sold with the claim that each purchase improved lives in the country.
‘Good for Children’
“Good for women,” read a booklet accompanying a white thong covered with blue and lavender daisies. “Good for the children who depend on them.”
The thong was labeled 95 percent organic. Today, such Burkinabe fiber is blended into lingerie at a much-reduced level, allowing the company to spread it across most of its cotton underwear lines, Lori Greeley, chief executive officer of Victoria’s Secret Stores, told a Wharton School publication in March.
Growers sell the fiber to the company with fair-trade certification, though the finished garments no longer carry the “good for children” marketing message, nor do they have a fair-trade stamp. Victoria’s Secret has more than 1,000 stores in North America, and sells through its famously risque catalogs and around the world via the Internet.
An executive with Limited Brands’ sourcing and production arm, Margaret Wright, visited Burkina Faso in April. Women who produce organic cotton serenaded her under mango trees in the city of Tiefora, according to a press release from the national growers group. In Tiefora, about a 130-mile (210-kilometer) drive from Clarisse’s village of Benvar, Wright told them that the well-being of women was the main reason the company was interested in organic cotton, the release said.
The company’s desire for fair-trade cotton testifies to the success of a labeling movement that began in the 1980s with small-scale Mexican coffee farmers and now boasts the involvement of consumer-goods giants such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. The movement has boosted the profits of farmers in impoverished parts of the world.
Fairtrade International, the world’s largest group of its kind, certified that Burkina Faso’s organic crop met its standards, says Tuulia Syvaenen, chief operating officer of the Bonn-based organization.
Myers, of Limited Brands, says the company relied on that certification to meet its goal of “improving the lives of some of the world’s poorest women and children through the responsible sourcing of cotton -- something we have been doing through our efforts with Burkinabe women cotton farmers.”
Thousands of Farmers
On small-plot farms like Kamboule’s across Burkina Faso, researchers sponsored by the growers federation in 2008 found that more than half of 89 producers surveyed had a total of 90 foster children (name given to child slaves) under the age of 18. Many had two or more.
The problem was acute in the country’s southwest, which is the heart of the program’s production and Clarisse’s home. There were about 7,000 fair-trade farmers in the program that year, according to data from Helvetas.
Fair-trade farmers told researchers they didn’t pay the kids, leading the study’s authors to write, “This category of children is a problem on several levels: in terms of their social vulnerability on the one hand, and in terms of their status at work on the other. These foster children have an employee status: they are clearly asked to work, as expressed in the words of the producers, but they receive no remuneration, regardless of age.”
Wanting to Learn
Some foster children also were abused or malnourished. Even though they’re legally required to be in school, fewer than one in three was enrolled in the southwest, in contrast to the farmers’ own children.
“The study showed that the situation of the children is not a catastrophe, but they are quite weak,” says Meier, of Helvetas, adding that his group is “in favor” of implementing its recommendations. “But we cannot act ourselves in this respect.”
The bulk of the research focused on the work performed by the growers’ own kids, arguing that even when they were illegally kept out of school their labor was a beneficial form of vocational education.
‘Nothing About Children’
“No, they said nothing about children,” recalled Louis Joseph Kambire, 69, a wiry fair-trade farmer who sits on the audit committee of the Benvar cooperative. Without kids of his own, Kambire forces the foster children in his care to work in an organic and fair-trade cotton field that he’s cultivated right next to Clarisse’s.
The children -- 10-year-old Edmond Dieudone and 12-year-old Ponhitierre Some -- make it possible for him to earn a living from fair-trade cotton, says Kambire. “That’s why they are working with me,” he says. Before the fair-trade program, he hadn’t made them labor in his subsistence fields.
Sometimes, Clarisse spies Edmond and Ponhitierre in the distance, though they keep silent. “We can’t speak when the farmers are there,” she says.
Hauling Manure Compost
Like others, Baasolokoun “Bassole” Dabire, 53, president of the organic and fair-trade cooperative in the village of Yabogane, said his understanding was that it’s acceptable for his roughly 60 farmers to use children in their fields on two conditions:
They’re not their own biological children, and they’re at least six years old.
“Your own children, no, but somebody else’s child can work,” he says in an interview near his farm in the southwest.
The cotton Clarisse grows comes with two certifications -- one for fair trade and one for organic. Buyers pay the program a premium for each. In the field, the organic designation means she avoids pesticides or mineral fertilizers that can plague children forced to labor in conventional cotton.
Yet the lack of chemicals carries its own cost. Two or three times between digging rows and harvesting each season, Clarisse must spend days hauling buckets of manure compost on her head about half a mile to her field from a pit she helps maintain. Bending at her waist, she uses both hands to spread a circle of compost around each of the thousands of plants. Her lower back aches.
“It’s very painful,” Clarisse says, “because I have to keep doing it until he tells me I can stop.”
Without herbicides and pesticides, Clarisse must defend the crop against weeds and other invaders -- by hand. One of the cotton farmer’s greatest enemies is the boll worm, which can quickly destroy an entire crop if left unchecked.
Clarisse says she walks the rows, delicately reaching into a plant when she spots a worm. Without disturbing their fragile bolls, she extracts each worm with a firm pinch. They can grow as large as her index finger. She throws them onto the ground, flips over her hoe and uses its flat side to crush each one against the gravelly earth.
Buying something made under these conditions does not only show no respect or compassion for other human beings but also degrades and denigrates us.