Victoria’s Secret Revealed in Child Picking Organic Cotton

In Burkina Faso, where child labor is endemic, paying premiums for organic and fair-trade cotton has created fresh incentives for exploitation. A program there has attracted subsistence farmers who say they can't grow "ethically sourced” cotton without forcing children into their fields. Bloomberg News spent more than six weeks reporting in West Africa to capture the plight of Clarisse Kambire, a 13 year old who is kept out of school, malnourished and beaten. This is her story.

Childhood Lost

Forced and child labor 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.

Clarisse's life and her experience in Victorien Kamboule's field capture a childhood lost at the bottom of an American company's purportedly ethical supply chain.

“I don't know how many hours I've worked”

As a little girl, Clarisse viewed the world around her with wide eyes, giving her a look of constant amazement. Her expression earned her a nickname, Pree- Pree. In her family's native tongue, Dagara, it roughly translates into “bug- eyed.” Though a term of endearment, it wasn't terribly flattering. The girl, born in 1998 to migrant-worker parents in neighboring Ivory Coast, hated it. Still, Pree-Pree stuck.

After her parents split up when she was about 4, Pree-Pree was shuttled between her father's relatives on either side of the border until the age of 9. That's when an aunt took her to the village of Benvar in Burkina Faso and left her in the sod-covered, mud-walled home of Victorien Kamboule, where she lives today. She is his enfant confié, a French term used in West Africa to describe children who can be vulnerable to exploitation.

“When I get tired and I slow down,
he comes
to beat me”

Machine vs. Girl

Without tractors and other mechanized equipment, Clarisse and Kamboule dig for weeks to carve a plot stretching the length of about four American football fields.

Even in poor countries, this job is often performed by a beast tethered to a plow. But the farmers who force Clarisse and the other children to work can't afford animals or a plow, which costs the equivalent of about $150 in Burkina Faso, where about 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. The farmers contend they wouldn't need child laborers if they had the right tools.



“If I leave the child out, how will I be able to do the work?”

Kamboule acknowledges striking Clarisse.
“I sometimes beat her,” he says. “This is when I give her work and she doesn't deliver.”

Like Clarisse, his own parents left him with relatives to labor rather than attend school. Strong and lean, the illiterate farmer seems to toil endlessly, wearing the same pair of tattered shorts each day.

By the time Clarisse picked her first harvest in 2010, Victoria's Secret was becoming the fair trade program's only buyer instead of the most prominent, according to Georges Guebre , the program's leader.

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,” says Tammy Roberts Myers, vice president of external communications for Limited Brands Inc., which owns Victoria's Secret. “We are vigorously engaging with stakeholders to fully investigate this matter.”

“I have no chance to go back to school”

No Dolls, No Photos, No Toothbrush

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. Pushing open the metal door of her mud hut, she sets her almond-shaped eyes on the first day of this season's harvest.

Each afternoon, Clarisse walks back to the hut, exhausted. Some days, she says, the farmer's wife brings her a starchy white paste, made from corn or millet. Her head bowed, Clarisse makes the sign of the cross with her right hand before raising her chin and sinking her fingers into the gelatinous paste. If she's lucky, she's fed once per day, she says. Some days, she doesn't eat at all.

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Read more about Clarisse, Victoria's Secret, and child-labor in Burkina Faso, the U.S. government investigation that has been launched and Bloomberg's response to criticism from Fair-Trade International.

Learn about how the reporter criss-crossed Burkina Faso three times to get the story.

See Cam Simpson discuss his reporting on child labor in fair-trade cotton

Photographs by Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg (West Africa); Scott Eells/Bloomberg (Victoria's Secret); Getty Images

Video filmed by Chris Ratcliffe

Video produced by Carol Olona and Ben Priechenfried

Narration by Cam Simpson

Page design by David Yanofsky