Victoria’s Secret and Child Labour

Child labour is always bad, but it’s not always wrong. And here’s why.

Of all of the issues that fall under the very broad heading of “business ethics,” child labour is among those least likely to be seen as grey. Most people agree, I think, that play, and learning, rather than labour, should be the dominant features of a child’s life. For a kid, learning to tidy up your own room is a fine form of “work,” as is taking out the garbage or helping dad rake the leaves on the weekend. But kids, most will agree, shouldn’t be working in factories or toiling in the fields.

Unfortunately, the world isn’t like that. Bloomberg yesterday featured an utterly heartbreaking story about child labour in the cotton fields of Burkina Faso. The story, which focused on the hard life of 13-year-old Clarisse Kambire, resulted in an avalanche of tweets aimed at Victoria’s Secret.

Why Victoria’s Secret? Because the lingerie company buys almost all of the cotton produced by Burkina Faso, under a deal that features 3rd-party monitoring intended to ensure that the cotton is organic and fair-trade. The root of the story is that the monitoring system failed, and cotton that was supposed to be harvested without the use of child labour was not. Desperately-poor farmers in Burkina Faso, it turns out, have been using their children (and the children of relatives and neighbours) in their cotton fields.

In other words, the company tried to do something good, and the good stuff it did turned out to be less-good than they thought it would be. But if all you saw were the breathless tweets and the headlines of the me-too stories, you’d swear that Victoria’s Secret models themselves were out in the fields, beating children to work faster, faster, to feed the world’s hunger for thongs.

The case of Victoria’s Secret’s cotton supply illustrates a clear failure of third-party supply-chain monitoring, but it is also an illustration of the complexity of third-party supply-chain monitoring. It’s a lovely idea to promise your customers organic, fair-trade cotton, but making good on the promise is another thing altogether.

The fundamental problem, though — the one that makes the life of a parentless child in Burkina Faso so miserable — is that Burkina Faso is a miserably poor country. The sad truth is that for some kids there, labour in the cotton fields is their best alternative; their families can’t really afford to feed them, let alone to send them to school. This is why I say that while child labour is always bad, it’s not always wrong.

So consider: what will the effect be of the spotlight currently being shone on the use of child labour in Victoria’s Secret’s supply chain? One possibility is that the rule will now be enforced. Clarisse Kambire will then be out of a job, and then what? Another possibility is that companies like VS will decide to keep their hands clean, and abandon Burkina Faso altogether. That would let them avoid nasty headlines in the future, but it would also mean a significant economic hit for a country that can’t exactly take it in stride.

But if Victoria’s Secret is truly committed to keeping its supply chain free of misery, couldn’t it simply offer to pay more for cotton, so that kids like Clarisse Kambire could get at least one solid meal a day and maybe attend a bit of school? Perhaps. But it’s not obvious how effective that would be. Pouring more money into a supply chain has complex effects. As I’ve pointed out before in regards to fair-trade coffee, paying more for something draws more people into the business, which increases supply, which drives down prices. Note also that if VS customers are willing to pay more for the cotton in their panties, that inevitably means they’re spending less money on something else — and spending less on something else means someone else, somewhere, is earning less money. Will that be someone who needs it more, or less, than Clarisse Kambire? I have no idea.

We should never, ever be complacent about child labour. But nor should we delude ourselves into thinking that good intentions, or a few extra pennies spent on a pair of panties, can make the problem go away.

3 comments so far

  1. company2keep (@company2keepinc) on

    Hi Chris,
    I was one of the ppl tweeting this story when it first appeared, questioning the integrity of the FairTrade Brand. It will be more than Fair Trade who will suffer the consequences of this shoddy oversight.
    I am glad that you followed up on the story and introduced some good fodder for discussion. After reading your post, I feel that you have opened up two distinct stories. One story concerns the supply chain and the challenges of guaranteeing integrity throughout. The second story concerns child labour in Burkina Faso. And while at first blush it may appear there to be no harm blending one story with the other, I believe children are being served an injustice when you do.
    Child labour, distinct from child work, is a complex issue, driven largely by social, cultural and economic factors. Child labour is the exploitative practice that denies children access to education, one of their fundamental rights, and to protection from harm in general. It is always bad (we agree on this point) and it is always wrong (we disagree on this point, although perhaps by the end of my comments, you might agree with me). Allow me to explain. Whenever we accept child labour as not wrong, we are allowing excuses to prevail and the consequences of our inaction to continue.
    There are a few international instruments in place to protect children from exploitative child labour. The Government of Burkina Faso ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990 and in doing so, it made a commitment to all children that it would put in place measures to prevent children from being exploited in this way. Clearly, the Government of Burkina Faso has failed to put sufficient measures in place to provide its children adequate protection. The government has also ratified ILO Convention 182 on the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Hazardous Child Labour and ILO Convention 138 on the minimum age of employment. Additionally, the Government of Burkina Faso likely has several laws in place prohibiting child labour, yet child labour is allowed to persist for a whole bunch of reasons and I don’t want to begin to enumerate them here. By saying that child labour is not always wrong supports the status quo, instead of calling forth deliberate efforts to bring it to an end.
    And by bringing it to an end, I am not suggesting boycotts or the disappearance of children from public view.
    Agreeing that child labour is always bad and always wrong allows us to take the conversation to the next level. This conversation should not be about making child labour disappear from view with the enforcement of a rule. There is an abundance of evidence documenting the extraordinary harm that ensues when this tact is adopted. Idris, a film which documents the harmful impact of the threat of US sanctions on the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association in the early 1990’s, describes how the threat drove children not out of work, but out of sight into more hazardous, more exploitative, work conditions. To anyone who fought the child labour battle in Bangladesh in the mid –nineties I can only imagine their reaction today in knowing that the Government of Bangladesh, I learned recently, is still without a plan of action to eliminate child labour. Some may say, had the sanctions persisted, perhaps we’d have a plan in place today. Perhaps that is true, but at what cost? Sanctions always come with an enormous cost to society.
    So let’s return to Burkina Faso. What would be an appropriate response by Victoria’s Secret? Knowing that children from Burkina Faso are trafficked to Cote d’Ivoire to work on cocoa plantations or to work in gold mines, and that there is a genuine risk of this occurring with Clarisse, we would want to discourage Victoria’s Secret from acting unilaterally by insisting on the removal of children from the supply chain, as this is quite likely to be a consequence of such a demand. Nor would I suggest that Victoria’s Secret abandon Burkina Faso altogether. Rather, what an excellent opportunity for a corporation to introduce some positive change for the children of Burkina Faso. The UN Global Compact recently launched a revitalized plan for UN-private sector collaboration through ‘Transformational Partnerships’ as the means through which systemic change can be addressed in developing countries. I can think of no greater opportunity presenting itself to Victoria’s Secret than to collaborate with others from the private sector, with the UN and the not for profit sector with the goal to eliminate child labour in the country through appropriate measures that would alleviate poverty and improve access to education for children like Clarisse.

    Cathie Guthrie

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Cathie:

      Thanks for your thoughtful — and knowledgeable! — comment!

      If something is wrong, we should stop doing it, period. If something is merely bad, that gives us a reason (but not always an overriding reason) against it. That’s why I say that child labour is always bad (we always have reason, but not always overriding reason, to want it gone), but not always wrong (because stopping it isn’t always best). The ethically-best available option cannot, by definition, be wrong.

      So I think the apparent disagreement between you & me is actually closer to a verbal difference. From your comments, it seems to me you don’t actually think child labour is always wrong. After all, you say that Victoria’s secret should stay in Burkina Faso, despite the fact that that inevitably means indirect use of child labour at least for now.

      Our difference in perspectives might also be, in part, a difference in projects. Your main argument against me saying that child labour is “not always wrong” is that people will use my words in bad ways, namely by using this as an opportunity for excuses and rationalizations. That makes sense, from an activist’s point of view. But to be frank, I’m not all that concerned about that. Or rather, I’m concerned, but my main job is to present what I take to be the best, most well-supported, ethical argument.

      As far as I can see, the only thing that will stop child labour in Burkina Faso is for Burkina Faso to get rich enough to afford alternatives. And, unfortunately, signing an international treaty doesn’t accomplish that. What that implies for companies like Victoria’s Secret is not clear.

      Chris.

  2. Liesl Truscott on

    Hi Chris

    Thanks for the refreshing and thought-provoking blog – and interesting response from Cathie. The conversation about child labor – particularly illegal child labor (and one could argue all child labor should be considered ‘illegal’) is not one I’m even going to attempt to enter. That debate needs to continue but I agree it is so entrenched and entwined with poverty and hardship, not to mention trauma such as that caused by civil unrest, that it’s near impossible to decouple, isn’t it?

    Recently I was in a number of remote areas of rural India and saw the impact a school can have on a community. In all situations the schools were bringing so many obvious benefits and opportunities to the villages, but also many other things that at first one would not think about such as: sanitation, household budgeting, kitchen gardens (with vegetables grown for school dinners), and cleaner cooking techniques. And all this on the back of brands such as Victoria’s Secret deciding to make some of their pretty panties out of organic and Fairtrade cotton.

    The point I would like to make is, Fairtrade – and organic projects with a social purpose – are working. It was a serious accusation by Bloomberg and indeed was jumped on single-mindedly by those who followed it up. Like you I’m not sure this has been helpful. Movements such as Fairtrade are in place because markets need guidance to bring conventional potentially ‘unfair’ trade issues to light and help fabricate alternatives. Sure, more can be done but it will take collaboration and sheer determination, not accusations flung at those that are desperately trying to do the right thing.

    With more resources, more commitment, and most of all a deeper connection between suppliers and procurers that goes beyond certification, probably more can be achieved. But until we manage to move beyond certification towards models of ‘value sharing’ Fairtrade and organic systems and certification are the best we have, and in my opinion need to be treated with much more care than the current round of criticism.

    Isn’t the real question how do we get more global brands such as Victoria’s Secret deeply involved in addressing poverty through their business actions rather than making it too risky to be worth the trouble?

    Best
    Liesl Truscott
    Director Farm Engagement
    Textile Exchange


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