Bloomberg Markets went to Burkina Faso, where Victoria's Secret usually buys up the entire fair trade and organic-certified cotton crop to make the lingerie it sells in the West. There, the magazine found children of 12 and 13, laboring in the fields on pain of being whipped with switches by their bosses the cotton farmers. Burkina Faso-grown cotton is shipped to India and Sri Lanka, where it is milled into cloth, cut, sewn and finished (Sri Lanka and India, it is worth pointing out, also have their issues with child labor in the garment industry). From there, finished underwear is shipped to the U.S., where it used to be sold by Victoria's Secret with hang-tags that read, "Pesticide-free, 100% rain-fed cotton. Good for women. Good for the children that depend on them." (The company has since dropped the "good for children" part.)
Bloomberg, which spent six weeks in the country, reports:
In Burkina Faso, where child labor is endemic to the production of its chief crop export, paying lucrative premiums for organic and fair-trade cotton has perversely created fresh incentives for exploitation. The program has attracted subsistence farmers who say they don't have the resources to grow fair-trade cotton without violating a central principle of the movement: forcing other people's children into their fields.
Victoria's Secret's partners in cotton-sourcing, including the Swiss organization responsible for certifying the cotton and auditing producers, say they have raised concerns about child labor since 2008. Victoria's Secret says it never saw the relevant report. Cotton is produced thanks to forced and child labor in more countries than any commodity except for gold; the fair trade program is supposed to ensure fair labor standards are met. One of the children Bloomberg interviewed, a 13-year-old girl named Clarissa, took a reporter into the field where she works and demonstrated how she turns the soil with a hoe:
Bending at the waist, Clarisse buries the edge of the blade and starts scraping a deep row into the earth, taking small steps backward with each cut. "It's very, very hard," she says, "and he forces me to do it." Before long, her arms and hips ache. "It's painful," she says. When she strikes rocks beneath the soil, it sends the blade cutting into her bare toes. If she slows down from exhaustion, "he comes to beat me," she says. He whips her across the back with the tree branch and shouts at her. "I cry," she says, looking down as she speaks and rubbing the calluses on her hands.
As always, those $8.50 panties carry a high price.
Original report. Long, but seriously worth a read.