Child Labor and Coming Clean About Victoria’s Dirty Secret

It is a multi-million dollar company built around and marketed as being intimate, seductive, and mysterious, but Victoria now has another dirty secret that, until recently, has been kept completely quiet.  According to a new Bloomberg report, areas in Burkina Faso were found to be using child forced labor in order to grow and harvest organic cotton to be used in the Victoria’s Secret lingerie line. 

Cam Simpson, who headed the investigation in Burkina Faso tells the story of a young girl, Clarisse Kambire, who has been working tirelessly at her cousin’s farm for the past couple of years. She is just 13-years-old and, after being shuffled around through many family members, found herself with her 30-year-old cousin at his farm.  Practically an orphan, Clarisse was at the mercy of her cousin who, like others, switched from simply growing millet (to feed his family) to pulling in large quantities of organically grown cotton every year (a prized commodity for consumers worldwide who believe they that are making environmentally responsible purchases).

But the work is hard, as Clarisse is quick to point out. This being her second harvest, she knew what to expect this time around.  To begin, the harvest season starts months in advance.  During this preparation time, Clarisse was responsible for digging rows in a field approximately the length of four football fields, with just her bare hands (plows are an expensive luxury that she does not have access to).   The field, then, needed to be composted, so Clarisse would tow heavy loads of manure and buckets of water all across the freshly planted field. 

This harsh work is hardly the least of it as fears of her cousin’s threats haunt her dreams and keep her awake through most of the night. “I’m starting to think about how he will shout at me and beat me again,” Clarisse explains. And her fear is justified as the man she knows as boss berates and hits her with a stick whenever she shows signs of slowing down and tiring in her work.  In areas of Africa, such as this one in Burkina Faso, cotton with an organic seal of approval is a hot item. Groups like Fairtrade International work as a buffer between large companies (like Victoria’s Secret) and small farms (like Clarisse’s).  The only problem is that while the priority of the work is insuring that the product is up to par, the standards of child labor are often times neglected or overlooked. 

For example, Baasolokoun “Bassole” Dabire—the president of an organic and fair-trade cooperative in the village of Yabogane—explains that the terms of what is permissible child labor are shaky at best.  According to him, child labor is deemed acceptable if and only if the child is not working for a biological parent, and that the child is at least 6 years old.  “Your own children, no, but somebody else’s child can work,” he explains.  This is where we find Clarisse, who was dropped off by an aunt to work for her cousin’s farm, instead of attending school—a  option she would much rather choose.

So where does this leave the lingerie megastore? Tammy Roberts Myers, vice president of external communications for Limited Brands, Inc. (the company that owns Victoria’s Secret) has expressed the company’s distaste with this new information: “[The investigation] describe[s] behavior contrary to our company’s values and the code of labor and sourcing standards we require all our suppliers to meet,” additionally stating, “Our standards specifically prohibit child labor…We are vigorously engaging with stakeholders to fully investigate this matter.”

For the time being, Victoria’s Secret has vowed to investigate the matter, which we hope they do.  And with this latest season over, Clarisse is left waiting for the next—which will begin again sometime next May.  Rob Cameron, CEO of Fairtrade International, has recently stepped down from his post, although it has been dutifully pointed out that his removal has had “nothing to do with” the recent allegations brought down against his company.

While Victoria’s Secret aims to impose a new detailed investigation, it is the time spent in the meantime that will decide the company’s stance.  To lend your opinion to the matter, and urge Victoria’s Secret to stop supporting child labor in other countries, sign the petition here.  

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