BENVAR, BURKINA FASO — Clarisse Kambire’s nightmare rarely changes. It’s daytime. In a field of cotton plants that burst with purple and white flowers, a man in rags towers over her, a stick raised above his head.
Then a voice booms, jerking Clarisse from her slumber and making her heart leap.
The man ordering her awake is the same one who haunts the 13-year-old girl’s sleep: Victorien Kamboule, the farmer she labours for in a West African cotton field. Before sunrise, she rises from the plastic mat that serves as her mattress, barely thicker than the cover of a magazine, opens the metal door of her mud hut and sets her almond-shaped eyes on the first day of this season’s harvest.
She had been dreading it.
“I’m starting to think about how he will shout at me and beat me again,” she said two days earlier. Preparing the field was even worse. Clarisse helped dig more than 500 rows with only her muscles and a hoe, substituting for the ox and the plow the farmer can’t afford.
If she’s slow, Kamboule whips her with a tree branch.
This harvest is Clarisse’s second. Cotton from her first went from her hands onto the trucks of a Burkina Faso program that deals in cotton certified as fair trade. The fibre from that harvest then went to factories in India and Sri Lanka, where it was fashioned into Victoria’s Secret underwear.
“Made with 20 per cent organic fibres from Burkina Faso,” reads a stamp on that garment, purchased in October.
Forced labour and child labour aren’t new to African farms. Clarisse’s cotton, the product of both, is supposed to be different. It’s certified as organic and fair trade, and so should be free of such practices.
Planted when Clarisse was 12, all of Burkina Faso’s organic crop from last season was bought by Victoria’s Secret, according to Georges Guebre, leader of the country’s organic and fair-trade program, and Tobias Meier, head of fair trade for Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation, a Zurich-based development organization that set up the program and has helped market the cotton to global buyers.
Meier says Victoria’s Secret also was expected to get most of this season’s organic harvest, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its February issue.
The leader of the local fair-trade co-operative in Clarisse’s village confirmed that her farmer is one of the program’s producers. A telltale green flag, given to its growers, flies at the edge of the field she works.
As Victoria’s Secret’s partner, Guebre’s organization, the National Federation of Burkina Cotton Producers, is responsible for running all aspects of the organic and fair-trade program across Burkina Faso.
Known by its French initials, the UNPCB in 2008 co-sponsored a study suggesting hundreds, if not thousands, of children like Clarisse could be vulnerable to exploitation on organic and fair-trade farms. The study was commissioned by the growers and Helvetas. Victoria’s Secret says it never saw the report.
Clarisse’s labour exposes flaws in the system for certifying fair-trade commodities and finished goods in a global market that grew 27 per cent in just one year to more than $5.8 billion in 2010. That market is built on the notion that purchases by companies and consumers aren’t supposed to make them accomplices to exploitation, especially of children.
In Burkina Faso, where child labour 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.
An executive for Victoria’s Secret’s parent company says the amount of cotton it buys from Burkina Faso is minimal, but it takes the child-labour allegations seriously.
“They describe behaviour contrary to our company’s values and the code of labour and sourcing standards we require all of our suppliers to meet,” Tammy Roberts Myers, vice-president of external communications for Limited Brands Inc., said in a statement. Victoria’s Secret is the largest unit of the Columbus, Ohio-based company.
“Our standards specifically prohibit child labour,” she said. “We are vigorously engaging with stakeholders to fully investigate this matter.”
To understand the plight of Clarisse and others like her, Bloomberg spent more than six weeks reporting in Burkina Faso, including interviewing Clarisse, her family, neighbours and leaders in her village. Her experiences were similar to those of six other children extensively interviewed by Bloomberg, such as an emaciated 12-year-old boy working in a nearby field.
Interviews around the country with fair-trade growers, officers of fair-trade co-operatives and child-welfare officials reveal there is little training and few if any safeguards against using children, even after dangers were uncovered by the 2008 report.
Victoria’s Secret, whose supermodel “Angels” helped it set record sales and profit in the third quarter of 2011, agreed in 2007 to a deal to buy fair-trade and organic cotton from Burkina Faso. The aim was to purchase sustainable raw materials and benefit female African farmers.
In time for Valentine’s Day 2009, the retailer marketed a special lingerie line made from “pesticide-free, 100 per cent rain-fed cotton” and sold with the claim that each purchase improved lives in the country.
“Good for women,” read a booklet accompanying a white thong covered with blue and lavender daisies. “Good for the children who depend on them.”
Growers sell the fibre to companies with fair-trade certification, though the finished garments no longer carry the “good for children” marketing message, nor do they have a fair-trade stamp. Victoria’s Secret has more than 1,000 stores in North America, including Calgary, and sells through its famously risque catalogues and around the world via the Internet.
Fairtrade International, the world’s largest group of its kind, certified that Burkina Faso’s organic crop met its standards, says Tuulia Syvaenen, chief operating officer of the Bonn-based organization.
Myers, of Limited Brands, says the company relied on that certification to meet its goal of “improving the lives of some of the world’s poorest women and children through the responsible sourcing of cotton — something we have been doing through our efforts with Burkinabe women cotton farmers.”
Fairtrade International started a review in Burkina Faso after Bloomberg raised questions, says Syvaenen, adding it would begin a training program for farmers. She also says the UNPCB never gave Fairtrade a copy of the 2008 study it co-sponsored on child labour, which identified concerns about the vulnerability of so-called enfants confies, a French term used in West Africa for a type of foster child — kids such as Clarisse.
Clarisse’s life and her experience in Victorien Kamboule’s field capture a childhood lost at the bottom of an American company’s purportedly ethical supply chain.
As a little girl, Clarisse viewed the world around her with wide eyes, giving her a look of constant amazement, her mother says. Her expression earned her a nickname, Pree-Pree. After her parents split up when she was about four, Pree-Pree was shuttled between her father’s relatives on either side of the border until the age of nine. That’s when an aunt took her to the village of Benvar in Burkina Faso and left her in the sod-covered, mud-walled home of the farmer, Kamboule, where she lives today. Though they’re separated in age by a generation, Clarisse and Kamboule, 30, are cousins. Clarisse also is his enfant confie.
Like other farmers in Burkina Faso, he says the cash that neighbouring growers fetched for organic and fair-trade cotton persuaded him to plant the fibre. Previously, he had grown millet, mostly to feed his family. For the cotton planted in 2010, organic farmers could net up to 70 per cent more per hectare than neighbours using genetically modified seeds, according to data from Helvetas.
In response to questions, the growers federation denied child labour is used in its program. Guebre, the head of organic and fair trade for the growers group, says its myriad requirements, including avoiding such labour, are read out to farmers when they initially sign on.
Like others, Baasolokoun (Bassole) Dabire, 53, president of the organic and fair-trade co-operative in the village of Yabogane, didn’t get the message. He said his understanding was that it’s acceptable for his roughly 60 farmers to use children in their fields on two conditions: They’re not their own biological children, and they’re at least six years old.
“Your own children, no, but somebody else’s child can work,” he says in an interview near his farm in the southwest.
At about 5:40 a.m. on the first day of Clarisse’s harvest, the horizon behind her hut starts to glow red, almost purple, while she stirs inside. Just before sunrise, she pushes open the metal door. She places a bucket inside a wicker bushel and tightly folds a faded propylene sack until it’s the size of a pocket book, flicking it into the bucket with a snap of her wrist. Without breaking stride, Clarisse raises the bushel with both hands, walks beneath it and balances it on her head.
After nearly a kilometre, she emerges to see the work that awaits her: row upon row of bolls bursting with cotton. At the opposite end stands a tree branch topped by the green flag.
The sliver of shade in the corner of her field disappears by 7:15 a.m., as the sun rises with the temperature. On the road above the field, a boy walking to school says he and his friends notice the children working almost every day. “We see them to be suffering,” says Seuka Somda, who, like Clarisse, is 13.
By 4 p.m., a large wicker bushel bulges with cotton. She bends over and compacts it as tightly as she can. Cotton towers above the bushel’s rim. Clarisse wobbles as she sets it atop a blue, yellow and red scarf wrapped on the crown of her head.
Back at Kamboule’s hut, under the light of a full moon, Clarisse says she’ll use some of the water she’s drawn from the well to wash herself, then she’ll go to the homes of neighbours and friends in the village. If they’re eating, she’ll wait politely and hope they offer her some food. For an enfant confie, this is everyday life, Clarisse says: “If your mother is not with you, you become like an orphan.”
Far away, in midtown Manhattan, Irina Richardson says she’s shopped at Victoria’s Secret for bras and underwear for 15 years and was pleased to think she was doing good. Told of Clarisse’s role in providing cotton for lingerie, the 51-year-old property manager from Long Island says she was stunned. “Buying something made under those conditions shows no respect for other human beings,” she says.
Clarisse no longer speaks French, because, she says, there is no one left in her life who would understand her.
She tries to think of a better life: She imagines owning and tending a few sheep and some goats. Women can earn money raising small animals, and it’s easier than working the fields. This is her new dream now that she knows, as she says, that, “I have no chance to go back to school.”