Victoria’s Secret Revealed in Child Picking Burkina Faso Cotton

By Cam Simpson – Dec 15, 2011

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. “Get up!”

The man ordering her awake is the same one who haunts the 13-year-old girl’s sleep: Victorien Kamboule, the farmer she labors for in a West African cotton field. Before sunrise on a November morning she rises from the faded plastic mat that serves as her mattress, barely thicker than the cover of a glossy magazine, opens the metal door of her mud hut and sets her almond-shaped eyes on the first day of this season’s harvest. (Follow her journey in videos, photos and more here.)

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 fiber from that harvest then went to factories in India and Sri Lanka, where it was fashioned into Victoria’s Secret underwear — like the pair of zebra-print, hip-hugger panties sold for $8.50 at the lingerie retailer’s Water Tower Place store on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.

Clarisse’s Cotton

“Made with 20 percent organic fibers from Burkina Faso,” reads a stamp on that garment, purchased in October.

Forced labor and child labor 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 (LTD), 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.

Telltale Green Flag

The leader of the local fair-trade cooperative 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 labor exposes flaws in the system for certifying fair-trade commodities and finished goods in a global market that grew 27 percent 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.

Perverting Fair Trade

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.

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-labor 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,” 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 labor,” she said. “We are vigorously engaging with stakeholders to fully investigate this matter.”

In The Fields

To understand the plight of Clarisse and others like her, Bloomberg News spent more than six weeks reporting in Burkina Faso, including interviewing Clarisse, her family, neighbors 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 cooperatives and child-welfare officials reveal that 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 percent rain-fed cotton” and sold with the claim that each purchase improved lives in the country.

‘Good for Children’

“Good for women,” read a booklet accompanying a white thong covered with blue and lavender daisies. “Good for the children who depend on them.”

The thong was labeled 95 percent organic. Today, such Burkinabe fiber is blended into lingerie at a much-reduced level, allowing the company to spread it across most of its cotton underwear lines, Lori Greeley, chief executive officer of Victoria’s Secret Stores, told a Wharton School publication in March.

Growers sell the fiber to the company 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, and sells through its famously risque catalogs and around the world via the Internet.

Mango-Tree Serenade

An executive with Limited Brands’ sourcing and production arm, Margaret Wright, visited Burkina Faso in April. Women who produce organic cotton serenaded her under mango trees in the city of Tiefora, according to a press release from the national growers group. In Tiefora, about a 130-mile (210-kilometer) drive from Clarisse’s village of Benvar, Wright told them that the well-being of women was the main reason the company was interested in organic cotton, the release said.

The company’s desire for fair-trade cotton testifies to the success of a labeling movement that began in the 1980s with small-scale Mexican coffee farmers and now boasts the involvement of consumer-goods giants such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) and Starbucks Corp. (SBX)The movement has boosted the profits of farmers in impoverished parts of the world.

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.”

Program Under Review

Fairtrade International started a review in Burkina Faso after Bloomberg News 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 labor, 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.

Bloomberg News obtained a copy of the study, which has never been made public, and spoke to a field investigator involved, as well as farmers who were originally interviewed for the report.

With the exception of gold, cotton is produced with child or forced labor in more countries than any other commodity in the global supply chain, according to the U.S. Labor Department. One of those countries is Burkina Faso. In its reports, the department has repeatedly cited the country for the worst forms of child labor, while the State Department has done the same regarding child trafficking to conventional cotton fields there. None of those reports has ever specifically examined Burkina Faso’s organic and fair-trade crop.

Lost Childhood

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. In her family’s native tongue, Dagara, it roughly translates into “bug-eyed.” Though a term of endearment, it wasn’t terribly flattering. The girl, born in 1998 to migrant-worker parents in neighboring Ivory Coast, hated it. Still, Pree-Pree stuck.

Pree-Pree’s Journey

After her parents split up when she was about 4, Pree-Pree was shuttled between her father’s relatives on either side of the border until the age of 9. 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.

In the room where Clarisse sleeps, a narrow wooden bench lines one wall. A few clothes washed by hand dry on a line strung along another. She has no dolls, no photos, not even a toothbrush. “Nothing,” she says. Kamboule, his wife, and their own children — a 3-year-old girl and a 1-year-old boy — sleep together under a mosquito net on a bed in the adjoining room. The air inside the room where Clarisse sleeps is stale, heavy with the smell of perspiration.

Except for the metal door, a small triangle is the only opening in the mud walls that surround her. It’s stuffed with a yellow rag, but when Kamboule wakes Clarisse for work she knows it’s still dark outside: Her mornings begin before dawn when the season demands it. After the farmer shouts her awake, “he tells me to go to the farm,” she says.

Slinging a Hoe

Clarisse steps outside after Kamboule has already pedaled his bicycle to the organic cotton plot. Slinging a hoe with a freshly sharpened blade over her shoulder, she makes her way alone along a ribbon of dirt, explaining how in the planting season in May and June she walks through a blanket of humidity and heat, when temperatures reach well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius).

The sun begins to rise as Clarisse approaches the empty field. She takes the hoe from her shoulder and clasps the handle, placing her right hand above her left along a patch of wood faded by wear. The grueling routine is so well-practiced that she demonstrates it with ease. Her hands are thick and strong, her thumbnails blackened. Her only possession, a gift from her grandmother, encircles her left wrist — a bracelet of eight strings of orange and blue beads, as small as apple seeds, and a single strand of white ones.

‘It’s Painful’

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.

The two of them dig for weeks to carve a plot stretching the length of about four American football fields.

Even in poor countries, this job is often performed by a beast tethered to a plow. But Burkina Faso ranked 181st out of 187 countries in the 2011 United Nations Human Development Index, and the farmers who force Clarisse and the other children to work don’t own animals. Even if they did, they say they don’t have access to a plow, which costs the equivalent of about $150 in Burkina Faso, where about 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. The farmers contend that they wouldn’t need child laborers if they had the right tools.

Going Hungry

Each afternoon, Clarisse walks back to the hut, exhausted. Some days, she says, the farmer’s wife brings her a starchy white paste, made from corn or millet. Her head bowed, Clarisse makes the sign of the cross with her right hand before raising her chin and sinking her fingers into the gelatinous paste. If she’s lucky, she’s fed once per day, she says. Some days, she doesn’t eat at all.

Kamboule says he couldn’t raise fair-trade cotton without Clarisse. “If I leave the child out, how will I be able to do the work?” Kamboule says. He acknowledges striking her. “I sometimes beat her,” he says. “This is when I give her work and she doesn’t deliver.”

Like Clarisse, his own parents left him with relatives to labor rather than attend school. Strong and lean, the illiterate farmer seems to toil endlessly, wearing the same pair of tattered shorts each day.

Thousands of Farmers

On small-plot farms like Kamboule’s across Burkina Faso, researchers sponsored by the growers federation in 2008 found that more than half of 89 producers surveyed had a total of 90 foster children under the age of 18. Many had two or more. The problem was acute in the country’s southwest, which is the heart of the program’s production and Clarisse’s home. There were about 7,000 fair-trade farmers in the program that year, according to data from Helvetas.

The study found that two-thirds of foster children in homes like Kamboule’s weren’t in school when they were required to be. Fair-trade farmers told researchers they didn’t pay the kids, leading the study’s authors to write, “This category of children is a problem on several levels: in terms of their social vulnerability on the one hand, and in terms of their status at work on the other. These foster children have an employee status: they are clearly asked to work, as expressed in the words of the producers, but they receive no remuneration, regardless of age.”

Wanting to Learn

Some foster children also were abused or malnourished. Even though they’re legally required to be in school, fewer than one in three was enrolled in the southwest, in contrast to the farmers’ own children.

“The study showed that the situation of the children is not a catastrophe, but they are quite weak,” says Meier, of Helvetas, adding that his group is “in favor” of implementing its recommendations. “But we cannot act ourself in this respect.”

The bulk of the research focused on the work performed by the growers’ own kids, arguing that even when they were illegally kept out of school their labor was a beneficial form of vocational education.

Clarisse was determined to attend school. Shortly after her aunt brought her to Burkina Faso, she set off without permission one winter morning for Benvar’s primary school, more than a mile down a red dirt road. She planted herself inside one of the three classrooms that make up the squat, concrete building, where she was one of 70 new pupils squeezed onto benches in a school with more than 300 students. One classroom had blackboards at either end, with half the students listening to one teacher, and the other half facing the opposite direction listening to another.

‘Clever and Polite’

Amid the crush of children, teachers noticed her. “She was unusual — clever and polite,” recalls Moussa Kiemtore, 34, the school’s headmaster, who sports a clean-shaven head and a small tuft of hair on his chin. Clarisse stood out because she understood and even spoke some French she had learned in Ivory Coast. Though it’s the official language in Burkina Faso — and the language of instruction in its schools — very few children in and around Benvar know French, especially the youngest, Kiemtore says.

Clarisse was overjoyed. “They showed me many new things,” she says.

She wouldn’t stay in school for long. Her seat was empty before she completed a single term. The schoolmaster was alarmed when he heard the French-speaking girl was no longer in class. He visited Kamboule and tried to persuade him to bring her back.

School ‘Useless’

“He claimed she left on her own,” the schoolmaster recalls, “but we realized later he had compelled her to leave.” Or as Clarisse puts it, Kamboule “told me going to school was useless.”

She wasn’t useless to Kamboule. Like other farmers from across Burkina Faso, he says the cash that neighboring growers fetched for organic and fair-trade cotton persuaded him to plant the fiber. Previously, he had grown millet, mostly to feed his family. For the cotton planted in 2010, organic farmers could net up to 70 percent more per hectare than neighbors using genetically modified seeds, according to data from Helvetas.

Kamboule and some growers say nobody from the program gave them rules or training about child labor on their farms. Face- to-face instruction would be a necessity in a nation where 71 percent of the population can’t read.

‘Nothing About Children’

“No, they said nothing about children,” recalled Louis Joseph Kambire, 69, a wiry fair-trade farmer who sits on the audit committee of the Benvar cooperative. Without kids of his own, Kambire forces the foster children in his care to work in an organic and fair-trade cotton field that he’s cultivated right next to Clarisse’s.

The children — 10-year-old Edmond Dieudone and 12-year-old Ponhitierre Some — make it possible for him to earn a living from fair-trade cotton, says Kambire, wearing a white crucifix on a black cord around his neck and a white fedora with a black band on his head. “That’s why they are working with me,” he says. Before the fair-trade program, he hadn’t made them labor in his subsistence fields.

Sometimes, Clarisse spies Edmond and Ponhitierre in the distance, though they keep silent. “We can’t speak when the farmers are there,” she says.

Little Training

There was little or no effort to increase training after the 2008 report, according to Bloomberg interviews with farmers in five of the six villages where the survey was conducted. Dramane Diabre, a farmer with 13 children in the eastern region of the country, says he received training on avoiding illegal child labor in 2010. By contrast, every farmer in the southwest said there was never any resulting action.

Growers across the country say they got regular technical training on how to maintain organic purity following concerns about contamination with the 2008 introduction of genetically modified crops in the country’s conventional cotton sector. The fiber can be scientifically tested for organic purity, not for whether children grow it.

Guebre, the head of organic and fair trade for the growers group, says technical sessions included information on child labor. “If someone doesn’t want it, we can’t force him,” says Guebre, whose group keeps a share of the price paid by Victoria’s Secret. “If he says he didn’t participate or didn’t hear, that’s something else.”

In response to questions, the growers federation denied that child labor is used in its program. Guebre also says its myriad requirements, including avoiding such labor, are read out to farmers when they initially sign on.

Hauling Manure Compost

Like others, Baasolokoun “Bassole” Dabire, 53, president of the organic and fair-trade cooperative 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.

The cotton Clarisse grows comes with two certifications — one for fair trade and one for organic. Buyers pay the program a premium for each. In the field, the organic designation means she avoids pesticides or mineral fertilizers that can plague children forced to labor in conventional cotton.

Yet the lack of chemicals carries its own cost. Two or three times between digging rows and harvesting each season, Clarisse must spend days hauling buckets of manure compost on her head about half a mile to her field from a pit she helps maintain. Bending at her waist, she uses both hands to spread a circle of compost around each of the thousands of plants. Her lower back aches.

‘Very Painful’

“It’s very painful,” Clarisse says, “because I have to keep doing it until he tells me I can stop.”

Without herbicides and pesticides, Clarisse must defend the crop against weeds and other invaders — by hand. One of the cotton farmer’s greatest enemies is the boll worm, which can quickly destroy an entire crop if left unchecked.

Clarisse says she walks the rows, delicately reaching into a plant when she spots a worm. Without disturbing their fragile bolls, she extracts each worm with a firm pinch. They can grow as large as her index finger. She throws them onto the ground, flips over her hoe and uses its flat side to crush each one against the gravelly earth.

First Harvest

By the time Clarisse started picking her first harvest in 2010, Victoria’s Secret was becoming the program’s only buyer instead of just the most prominent, according to Guebre of the growers group and Meier, whose Swiss group advises it. That’s because the country’s overall organic yield was shrinking ever- closer to the 600 metric tons per year guaranteed to the lingerie company.

At about 5:40 a.m. on the first day of Clarisse’s harvest this November, 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.

She heads down a path beside a corn field leveled by the harvest, a pair of flip-flops with pink straps popping beneath her feet, her hands resting easily at her sides. All around Clarisse, the earth is like a wasteland. It’s black and charred from clearing fires set by farmers, filling the air with the smell of burning grass, sweet and strong.

Row Upon Row

She crosses the main village road, the one that leads to Benvar’s school, and steps onto a slender trail winding through dry, golden stalks of grain that rise above her head. After about 50 paces, she emerges to see the work that awaits her: row upon row of bolls bursting with cotton. The farmer is already here, working where the plants are most in danger of being trampled by passersby. At the opposite end stands a tree branch topped by the green flag.

By 7:15 a.m., the sliver of shade in the bottom corner of her field disappears, as the West African 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.

Giant Shea Tree

The harvesting pauses at about noon, after six hours of picking. Clarisse heads to the village square to cool herself in the shade of a giant shea tree that grows in its center. Before long, a woman calls her name. She jumps to her feet and scurries over. Three men traveling through the village have stopped to cool themselves and drink some of the local brew, called “pito.” As Clarisse refills their bowls, one man tells her: “If you give me a refill, it means you have agreed to sleep with me.” She pours his pito, turns and walks away.

Around 4 p.m., Clarisse returns to the field. 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.

She makes her way along the road under the weight of the harvest, weak from eating nothing for two days except some roasted groundnuts given to her by another child laborer. Two men on bicycles pedal toward her, both carrying bulging bags balanced on their frames. “Have you gone to grind some flour?” she calls out. “Can you kindly give me some so I can make something to eat?” The men say nothing, continuing down the red dirt road toward the village square.

Storing the Cotton

Clarisse carries her bushel to a neighbor’s home where Kamboule stores his cotton because it’s closer to the pickup point for the organic and fair-trade program. The house, in relative luxury with its poured concrete foundation, sits just down the road from the school she used to attend.

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 neighbors 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 Islandsays she was stunned. “Buying something made under those conditions shows no respect for other human beings,” she says.

No More French

Clarisse, who once stared at the world in wonder, now has difficulty looking others in the face. She no longer speaks French, because, she says, there is no one left in her life who would understand her.

Exhausted at the end of each day, she can’t fall asleep easily after she lies down on her faded plastic mat. “I feel uneasy,” she says. “Sometimes, I’m very angry.” It’s hard to close her eyes, she says, when she knows waking up means “I will suffer again.” 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.”

Once she does fall asleep, the nightmares return.

To contact the reporter on this story: Cam Simpson in London at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Flynn McRoberts at; Melissa Pozsgay