US investigators are conducting a preliminary inquiry into forced child labor used in an organic and fair-trade cotton program that supplies the American lingerie retailer Victoria’s Secret, a federal law enforcement official confirmed this week.
Victoria’s Secret’s parent company, Limited Brands Inc., said in an e-mailed statement yesterday that it continues “to take this matter very seriously as we do not tolerate child labor.” Those practices were disclosed in a Dec. 15 Bloomberg News report about the program the company buys from in Burkina Faso. Fairtrade International, the Bonn-based organization that certified the cotton, said in a statement last week that it has “prioritised further training on child labour and child protection for its members” beginning in early 2012.
Bloomberg reported last month on the use of child labor in the Burkina Faso program, focusing on the plight of so-called foster children who are kept out of school and forced to work the fields. Their potential vulnerability on fair-trade farms across the country was highlighted in a 2008 unpublished study commissioned by the program’s sponsors in Burkina Faso. Victoria’s Secret has said it never saw the report.
Homeland Security Inquiry
The U.S. government’s preliminary inquiry is being done by the ICE Homeland Security Investigations division, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on such matters.
The department is responsible for enforcing Section 307 of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, a 1930 law banning the importation of goods manufactured by forced labor. Those powers were strengthened by a 1999 executive order and anti-human trafficking laws passed in 2005 and 2008. The government can seize goods and impose fines.
Fairtrade Chief Resigns
Fairtrade officials declined to say what, if any, specific safeguards the organization had taken regarding child labor in Burkina Faso in light of the serious human-rights abuses cited by the U.S. government in the cotton sector. Fairtrade’s then-chief executive, Rob Cameron, resigned within one week of publication of Bloomberg’s Dec. 15 story. At the time, a spokeswoman said his departure wasn’t related to the article.
Bloomberg’s report was centered on the Burkinabe village of Benvar, where there are fewer than 20 organic producers this season. Since publication, individuals identified by local producers as representatives of the national farmers’ federation, which runs the program and is certified by Fairtrade, visited Benvar. They intimidated the producers and warned children not to speak to outsiders, according to farmers and village elders interviewed in person and by telephone since late December. The representatives also threatened a Bloomberg reporter with arrest and physical harm.
Adapted from “Child Labor for Fair-Trade Cotton Probed by U.S. Investigators,” Bloomberg, 13 January 2012.
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