Lingerie Brand Purchases Cotton from Farms Using Child Labour

15/12/2011 - A new report by Bloomberg News Agency found the child labour is being used in Burkina Faso's cotton industry, including the organic and fair trade sectors. Among the national cotton industry's buyers is lingerie chain, Victoria's Secret.
Glamour, sensual appeal and fashion—words associated the lingerie brand, Victoria’s Secret. Now, according to a new report, the brand has unknowingly acquired another secret that will add two more words to this list: child labour.
In the West African country of Burkina Faso, child labour is endemic to cotton production, Bloomberg News Agency reports. The news team spent more than a month and a half in the country, interviewing child labourers and their families, neighbours and community elders.
Children as young as ten years old labour in cotton fields to harvest the raw materials for undergarments sold in the brand’s chain stores. The cotton fiber is then shipped to textile factories in India and Sri Lanka, where it will be fashioned into the underwear sold in the USA for the price of $8.50 a pair, for example.
In Burkina Faso, Victoria’s Secret purchases organic cotton crops, confirmed Georges Guebre (leader of the National Federation of Burkina Cotton Producers) and Tobias Meier of the Zurich-based Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation.
A partner of Victoria’s Secret, the National Federation of Burkina Cotton Producers, co-sponsored a 2008 study that suggested that hundreds, maybe thousands, of children could be vulnerable to exploitation on organic and fair-trade farms, Bloomberg reported today.
The research indicated that half of the 89 surveyed cotton producers had 90 foster children under the age of 18, each having two or more. But, two-thirds of these children weren’t in school when they should have been—their vulnerability had been taken advantage of, as they had “employee status,” but received no regular education or remuneration. Some of the children had even been abused and malnourished.
The situation exposes that fact that “organic” or “fair-trade” (depending on how it is conceptualization) are only some elements of ethical production. The fair-trade commodities and finished goods market grew 27 per cent in just a year to $5.8 billion in 2010.
According to Fair Trade Canada, “how people practice Fair Trade is largely determined by how they understand the problems it's meant to address.”
The group also makes a distinction between “child labour” and “child work.” Child labour is prohibited within its Fair Trade certification system.
“Whereas child work could loosely equated with safe chores on the family farm, child labour is any work that is hazardous, exploitive or undermines a child’s education or emotional and physical health.”
Victoria’s Secret says it never saw the 2008 report, which was commissioned by the growers and Helvetas. Though Victoria’s Secret purchases only small amounts of cotton from the country, it takes the 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,” affirmed Tammy Roberts Myers, vice president for external communications at Limited Brands Inc., of which Victoria’s Secret is the largest part.
“Our standards specifically prohibit child labor … We are vigorously engaging with stakeholders to fully investigate this matter,” she added.