The halo on Victoria’s Secret is looking a tad askew after a report alleged that malnourished, underaged West African children picked the cotton used in some of its undergarments, including a number labeled as fair trade and organic. In a startling exposé by Bloomberg News, reporter Cam Simpson documents the heart-wrenching story of 13-year-old Clarisse Kambire, who works on an organic-cotton farm in Burkina Faso under a program designed to financially empower women and enable more children to attend school. But Kambire’s reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Beaten and verbally abused, she labors in the fields on bare hands and feet to harvest tiny tufts of fiber that are sent to factories in India and Sri Lanka to be fashioned into leopard-print hip-hugger panties and lacy fishnet thongs.

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NO ANGELS

Kambire is what’s known as an “enfants confies” (French for “foster child”) in West Africa, abandoned by her parents and left in the care of her cousin, who put her to work at age 12 after he began growing organic, fair-trade cotton. While forced and child labor in West Africa are nothing new, Simpson says that lucrative premiums for organic and fair-trade cotton have created “fresh incentives for exploitation.”

In the wake of Bloomberg’s investigation, the question of who’s responsible for making sure fair trade is indeed fair trade, looms largest.

In the wake of Bloomberg’s investigation, the question of who’s responsible for making sure fair trade is indeed fair trade, looms largest.

In the case of Burkina Faso, Fairtrade International doesn’t certify the individual farms or even the cooperatives that the farmers belong to. Rather, it works with Union Nationale des Producteurs de Coton du Burkina Faso, the national union that comprises hundreds of thousands of cotton farmers, only a fraction of whom bear the fair-trade imprimatur.

Because Victoria’s Secret purchased its cotton from the union, with no brokers interceding on its behalf, it too relied on taking the fair-trade label at face value.

Fairtrade International is supposed to do surprise visits to farms where child labor’s endemic, according to Simpson, who spoke with NPR’s Melissa Block on Friday. “You know, fair trade has faced criticism over child labor in fair-trade cocoa fields in West Africa, and they have adjusted a couple times and said that they’re increasing scrutiny. And it looks like there’s probably still a ways to go,” he says.

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FAIR FOR WHOM?

In a statement, Fairtrade International says it takes any allegation of the violation of human rights of a child “very seriously” and has put in place appropriate actions. “We guarantee that if breaches of our requirements on child labor are found, we take immediate action to protect children, prevent the farms using child labor from selling into the fair-trade system, and then support the producer organization to strengthen its own systems and develop child-protection policies and procedures adapted to their specific context,” it says. “However, no person or product certification system can provide a 100 percent guarantee that a product is free of child labor. Child labor, especially exploitative and abusive forms of child labor, are illegal activities that are often well-hidden.”

Some of the farmers thought that fair trade meant their own children couldn’t work in the field but other people’s children were okay.

But part of the problem, Simpson says, is a lack of communication. Some of the farmers he spoke to, for instance, thought that fair trade meant they couldn’t force their own children to work in the field but that other people’s children were okay. “They didn’t think that they were doing anything wrong,” he says. “Some people said, well, you know, they tell us something about children when we first sign up and then that’s all we ever hear.”

He also cites an unpublished 2008 report on child labor that found foster children in Burkina Faso to be particularly vulnerable. It also included a number of recommendations to stem the problem. “One very simple one was just to have the farmers themselves come up with a charter on conduct for child labor and have them police it themselves,” he says. It was never implemented.

Limited Brands, Victoria’s Secret’s parent company, says it is “very concerned” about the allegations. “If this allegation is true,” it says in a statement, “it describes behavior that is contrary to our company’s values and the code of labor and sourcing standards that we require all of our suppliers to meet. These standards expressly prohibit child labor.”

We’re not giving up on fair trade just yet, of course. Despite its flaws, there remains the overwhelming potential to make the system work for the betterment of all communities. If what we have here is a failure to communicate, then we need to talk.

[Via Bloomberg News]