Clarisse Kambire’s nightmare rarely changes. In a field of cotton plants, 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 works for in a West African cotton field.
This harvest is Clarisse’s second. Cotton from her first went from her hands on to the trucks of a Burkina Faso programme that deals in cotton certified as fair trade. The fibre from that harvest then went to factories in India and Sri Lanka, where it was fashioned into Victoria’s Secret underwear – like the pair of zebra-print panties sold for US$8.50 ($11) at the lingerie retailer’s store on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.
“Made with 20 per cent organic fibres from Burkina Faso,” reads a stamp on the garment.
Forced labour and child labour aren’t new to African farms. Clarisse’s cotton, the product of both, is supposed to be different. It’s certified as organic and fair trade and so should be free of such practices.
All of Burkina Faso’s organic crop from last season was bought by Victoria’s Secret, according to Georges Guebre, leader of the country’s organic and fair-trade programme, and Tobias Meier, head of fair trade for Helvetas Swiss Interco-operation, a development organisation that set up the programme and has helped market the cotton to global buyers.
As Victoria’s Secret’s partner, Guebre’s organisation, the National Federation of Burkina Cotton Producers, is responsible for running all aspects of the organic and fair-trade programme 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 said it never saw the report.
Clarisse’s story exposes flaws in the system for certifying fair-trade commodities in a global market that grew 27 per cent in one year to more than US$5.7 billion ($7.4 billion) last year.
In Burkina Faso, where child labour is endemic to the production of its chief crop export, the lucrative premium paid for organic and fair-trade cotton has – perversely – created incentives for exploitation. The programme has attracted subsistence farmers who say they don’t have the resources to grow fair-trade cotton without forcing children into their fields – violating a key principle of the movement.
An executive for Victoria’s Secret’s parent company Limited Brands said the amount of cotton it bought from Burkina Faso was minimal, but it took the child labour allegations seriously.
“They describe behaviour contrary to our company’s values and the code of labour and sourcing standards we require all of our suppliers to meet,” said Tammy Roberts Myers.
“We are vigorously engaging with stakeholders to fully investigate this matter.”