Child Labor for Victoria’s Secret Cotton Examined by U.S.

U.S. investigators are conducting a preliminary inquiry into forced child labor used in an organic and fair-trade cotton program that supplies the American lingerie retailer Victoria’s Secret, a federal law enforcement official confirmed this week.

Victoria’s Secret’s parent company, Limited Brands Inc., said in an e-mailed statement yesterday that it continues “to take this matter very seriously as we do not tolerate child labor.” Those practices were disclosed in a Dec. 15 Bloomberg News report about the program the company buys from in Burkina Faso. Fairtrade International, the Bonn-based organization that certified the cotton, said in a statement last week that it has “prioritised further training on child labour and child protection for its members” beginning in early 2012.

At the same time, both Fairtrade and the company have disputed elements of the story. Bloomberg News stands by its reporting. (To learn how the piece was researched, click here.)

While Fairtrade quietly removed from its website several initial assertions about the story, the organization and Columbus, Ohio-based Limited Brands say their own inquiries show the girl at the center of it picks vegetables, not fair-trade cotton, and is an adult.

Dead Girl’s Certificate

Yet a purported birth certificate cited as evidence names a deceased older sister of the 13-year-old girl, Clarisse Kambire, who adopted the name after her sibling died more than a decade ago, according to their parents. Bloomberg also confirmed through several sources before publication that the surviving child picks cotton for Burkina Faso’s fair-trade and organic program.

There have been no allegations that Victoria’s Secret was aware of forced child labor. The company has contracted through a supplier to buy about 600 metric tons of fair-trade fiber annually from Burkina Faso.

Even if a full investigation is done and allegations of forced labor are proven, there are important exceptions that can protect companies against U.S. government sanctions. If the content in a product suspected to have been made with forced labor doesn’t give it a competitive advantage, the merchandise can be exempted from the law.

Bloomberg reported last month on the use of child labor in the Burkina Faso program, focusing on the plight of so-called foster children who are kept out of school and forced to work the fields. Their potential vulnerability on fair-trade farms across the country was highlighted in a 2008 unpublished study commissioned by the program’s sponsors in Burkina Faso. Victoria’s Secret has said it never saw the report.

Homeland Security Inquiry

The U.S. government’s preliminary inquiry is being done by the ICE Homeland Security Investigations division, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on such matters.

The department is responsible for enforcing Section 307 of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, a 1930 law banning the importation of goods manufactured by forced labor. Those powers were strengthened by a 1999 executive order and anti-human trafficking laws passed in 2005 and 2008. The government can seize goods and impose fines.

It’s difficult to get the evidence to build forced-labor cases because other countries often don’t allow U.S. investigators to tour factories that are suspected of using forced labor, said Rachelle Jackson, a senior director at UL Responsible Sourcing. The Los Angeles-based organization inspects plants for U.S. and European companies.

Cooperation Key

A federal prosecutor said that getting another country’s cooperation was key to pursuing allegations.

“We need the permission of the host country before we can use investigative techniques” there, said James McMahon, who as an assistant U.S. attorney in New Jersey successfully prosecuted a company connected to products made with Chinese prison labor.

The dearth of successful cases shows the law should be strengthened, said Karen Stauss, director of programs at Free the Slaves, a Washington-based advocacy group. Efforts to close loopholes so far have failed in Congress because of resistance to creating more regulations for businesses, she said.

“There seems to be no political will to tighten it up,” Stauss said in an interview.

Burkinabe Cotton Banned

Under regulations separate from those being examined by homeland security, the U.S. Department of Labor had determined the problem of forced child labor in Burkina Faso’s cotton sector was serious enough to ban its fiber from the federal government’s procurement system. It’s one of just 29 products from a total of 21 countries that U.S. agencies are forbidden from buying under those rules.

Victoria’s Secret executives have said their contract to buy cotton in Burkina Faso broke new ground by dealing directly with farmers. They have also said the program benefits farmers across the country, especially women, and that social premiums paid by the company help deliver clean water.

Since 2007, the company has been one of the top customers of the nation’s fair-trade and organic cotton program. The lingerie maker blends the fiber into millions of pairs of underwear, Lori Greeley, chief executive officer of Victoria’s Secret Stores, told a Wharton School publication last March. Earlier, the company had used cotton from the program to produce an all-organic clothing line sold to customers with the promise that garments were “Good for women” and “Good for the children who depend on them.”

No Promises

Though Fairtrade International says it makes no promises about products it certifies, including the cotton Victoria’s Secret purchases, its website states that under its principles “forced labour and child labour is prohibited.”

Fairtrade officials declined to say what, if any, specific safeguards the organization had taken regarding child labor in Burkina Faso in light of the serious human-rights abuses cited by the U.S. government in the cotton sector.

Fairtrade’s then-chief executive, Rob Cameron, resigned within one week of publication of Bloomberg’s Dec. 15 story. At the time, a spokeswoman said his departure wasn’t related to the article.

Bloomberg’s report was centered on the Burkinabe village of Benvar, where there are fewer than 20 organic producers this season. Since publication, individuals identified by local producers as representatives of the national farmers’ federation, which runs the program and is certified by Fairtrade, visited Benvar. They intimidated the producers and warned children not to speak to outsiders, according to farmers and village elders interviewed in person and by telephone since late December. The representatives also threatened a Bloomberg reporter with arrest and physical harm.

Threats Against Farmers

When asked if Fairtrade was aware of threats made against producers in Benvar and a Bloomberg journalist, Reykia Fick, a Fairtrade spokeswoman, declined to comment.

One farmer interviewed about the visits to Benvar is the man who forced Clarisse Kambire to work in his organic and fair-trade cotton plot. Throughout Bloomberg’s reporting in and around his village during September, October, November and December, the man identified himself as Victorien Kambire. In the Dec. 15 article, Bloomberg decided to use the name listed on the illiterate farmer’s national Burkinabe identity card, Victorien Kamboule, because that is the only official document in his possession containing his name.

Fair-Trade Confirmation

Bloomberg confirmed cotton from the field where he and Clarisse worked was part of Burkina Faso’s organic and fair trade program in recorded interviews in September and November with Victorien Kambire; with a member of the Benvar organic and fair-trade cooperative’s audit committee in an 89-minute interview recorded Nov. 7; and in a recorded interview in early December with Alexandre Somda, president of the Benvar organic and fair-trade cooperative.

In his interview, Somda also detailed how his cooperative had local seamstresses make green flags for its members to fly in each of their plots. Bloomberg journalists also photographed the flag in November during the harvest.

In a Dec. 27 interview with Bloomberg, Victorien Kambire said representatives of the growers union -- known by its French initials UNPCB -- began arriving in the village within a few days of the article’s publication and threatened to withhold payment for this year’s organic and fair-trade harvest. The cotton provides most, if not all, of the cash farmers in the program need to live. Another farmer in the group and a local leader corroborated those threats.

‘Stop It’

One child laborer in the village said in a Dec. 26 interview that members of a delegation indentified by farmers as UNPCB officials warned: “Do not give out information to strangers. Stop it. Do not interact or share information with visitors.”

Victorien Kambire said he learned from someone present at one meeting that a UNPCB representative had mistranslated his words from the native Dagara and had “said totally different things that will suit him.”

A local leader interviewed by Bloomberg said, “There is fear in everybody now, as a result of these visits by the officials.”

In a telephone call Dec. 27, the UNPCB’s regional chief for the organic and fair-trade cotton program, Mande Diallo, said he had influence in Burkina Faso and told a Bloomberg reporter who had been visiting the village that he was sending the police to have the journalist arrested. In a follow-up call, Diallo said he was withdrawing his threat to have the journalist and a translator arrested, but that they should never return to Benvar. Doing so, he said, “would be at your own peril.”

Response from Growers Union

Karim Traore, head of the UNPCB, said he was unaware that representatives of his group went to Benvar and threatened producers.

“Maybe there were some local people who did that, I don’t know, but there weren’t any instructions from the UNPCB,” Traore said in a telephone interview yesterday. “There weren’t people from the UNPCB who went to threaten producers or tell children not to talk to outsiders.”

Fairtrade International, the world’s largest labeler of goods marketed for the benefit of small-scale producers in emerging markets, said in a statement Jan. 3 that it conducted an investigation of Bloomberg’s Dec. 15 story by traveling to Benvar with “leading officials” of the UNPCB, the group whose fair-trade practices it is supposed to audit.

Girl’s Age Disputed

Fairtrade said in its Jan. 3 statement that a child from Benvar profiled by Bloomberg isn’t under 18 and is therefore not a child under international standards. “We have seen her birth certificate and corroborated her age with school records,” it said. In an undated statement posted on its website, Limited Brands said the girl was a 21 year-old-woman.

Fairtrade officials declined to provide documents cited in the group’s statement. A copy of a purported birth certificate given to Bloomberg lists the name of a girl who died in Ivory Coast more than a decade ago, according to separate interviews with both of the now-divorced parents, including one recorded with the mother more than 10 weeks prior to publication, and follow-up interviews by telephone this week.

The parents also said there is no birth record for the girl profiled by Bloomberg, which is a common problem across West Africa, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, or Unicef. Prior to publication of the article, the girl and five independent sources told Bloomberg she was 13. One, Moussa Kiemtore, is the headmaster of the primary school the girl briefly attended during the 2008-2009 school year before she was withdrawn by Victorien Kambire.

School Records

Fairtrade International said after publication that it had determined through school records that Clarisse was an adult. But Kiemtore said in an interview in his office Sept. 30 that the school’s official estimate of her birth year was recorded as 1998. He made the statement based on his review of a school roster he removed from a storage cabinet in his office while Bloomberg was present. He also said Clarisse had no birth certificate when she came from Ivory Coast in 2008.

Fairtrade and Limited Brands didn’t dispute details of two other foster children named in the article -- boys who are 10 and 12. They were kept out of school and forced to work in an organic and fair-trade cotton farm next to the one where Clarisse worked.

In addition to the reporting Bloomberg did to confirm her farmer’s participation in the organic and fair-trade program, Bloomberg journalists witnessed, photographed and videotaped hours of the girl’s work in the organic and fair-trade cotton plot during four separate days of the first week of the harvest, which started Nov. 9.

Bloomberg also extensively documented her work in organic and fair-trade cotton through interviews with the girl and her relatives in September, October and November. This included 12 separate and recorded interviews with her during those months.

(Updates with link to blog explaining how story was reported, in third paragraph.)
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