Victoria’s Secret & Bloomberg’s Secret (updated)Posted: December 15, 2011
Today I came across the Bloomberg story „Victoria’s Secret Revealed in African Child Labor“ by Cam Simpson, who stayed in Burkina Faso for 6 weeks to report about child labour in cotton fields.
Here are some remarks regarding the article:
- The article stresses that cotton farmers in Africa work very hard. This is very true. However, the main focus of the article is to show that the 13-year-old girl Clarisse Kambire (which is supposed to be representative for many others) is exploited on Fair Trade (FT) / organic cotton fields. It also connects the underwear giant Victoria’s Secret to the FT/organic cotton fields on which Clarisse works. This might not yet be a scandal, because when you look for child labour, you always find it. What I found more scandalous was that my questions/comments on the Victoria’s Secret facebook site to comment on this article were immediately deleted. So how seriously does this company take CSR?
- When talking about child labour, the author refers to children below 18 working. I wonder why he does not differentiate this more strongly, since 18 is not the internationally set age for child labour. He also does not properly distinguish between hazardous and systematic child labour and normal family labour. In many places in Africa, children work on the fields (last week I worked on the fields with 15 years old children in Malawi) – but these children also go to school and are happy about their work.
- The article does not really answer the question, whether this is a single case or whether child labour is widely used in a systematic way. It indicates that there are also other children working, but we do not get much information to evaluate whether this is exploitative child labour. And it does not explain what FT/organic organizations do to prevent this in a systematic manner.
- The article causally connects child labour to be a result from organic/FT cotton – “lucrative premiums for organic and fair-trade cotton has – perversely – created fresh incentives for exploitation”. The claim that child labour is endemic in the region is not new, as a 2008 study quoted in the article shows. However, the author reasons: the profits promised by organic/FT cash crops made farmers grow cotton (for which they required the hands of the children). So the authors claims that organic/FT makes more profits, and thus it leads to child labour …?! Making this causal connection seems pretty absurd. What, in Simpson’s eyes is better? Leave the region poor? He does not give any answer to how this – in his words “perverse” situation – can be treated better.
- One problem is surely that the farmers of the Fair Trade cooperative in the southwest seem to have either received little training on child labour or didn’t understand the message. Basically, the article claims that the message that FT/organic cotton should not involve child labour does not get through to the farmers. This is a serious matter. But the article does not say why this was not the case, which is very disappointing, considering that the author spent a long time in the country.
- I do not understand why the article mentions the hard work on cotton fields without mentioning with one single word the US subsidies that prevent African cotton farmers from getting a fair price for their cotton. In Simpson’s logic the stop of subsidies would also lead to child labour, so maybe this is why the US is promoting US cotton farmers … And maybe we should follow the money behind Bloomberg and see where it leads us to (at least the article sounds a lot like: Victoria’s Secret – buy US cotton!).