Bloomberg article “Victoria’s Secret Revealed in Child Picking Burkina Faso Cotton” published yesterday draws attention to the plight of “enfants confies”, foster children common across West Africa. The article highlights the story of one particular child, allegedly from a Fairtrade certified cotton farm. We take this allegation on the violation of human rights of the child very seriously and have put in place appropriate actions.
Fairtrade International first learned of the specific child labour allegation last week when we were contacted by the Bloomberg journalist Cam Simpson. This allegation immediately triggered our internal Child Protection Policy and Procedures. We developed this policy and procedure to respond to detections and/or allegations of vulnerable children engaged in unacceptable labour within Fairtrade operations. Our first and foremost priority is the safety and welfare of impacted children and their communities.
UNPCB is the national organization for cotton farmers in Burkina Faso comprising hundreds of thousands of farmers, of which only a fraction belong to Fairtrade certified community-level cooperatives. While we cannot as yet confirm whether the child labour case(s) identified by Bloomberg are on Fairtrade certified farms, our Child Protection Policy and Procedures require us to act in the best interest of children who are identified as in need of care through the Fairtrade system. This means that we act with relevant child rights experts where ever possible to ensure that children in producer communities are protected and enjoy increased well being.
Fairtrade prohibits child labour as defined by the International Labour Organization (ILO) minimum age and the Worst Forms of Child Labour conventions. However, no person or product certification system can provide a 100% guarantee that a product is free of child labour. Child labour, especially exploitative and abusive forms of child labour, are illegal activities that are often well hidden. Fairtrade provides a rigorous certification and audit system designed to detect and remediate cases of child labour. We guarantee that if breaches of our requirements on child labour are found, we take immediate action to protect children, prevent the farms using child labour from selling into the Fairtrade system, and then support the producer organization to strengthen its own systems and develop child protection policies and procedures adapted to their specific context.
We strongly disagree with Bloomberg’s claim that paying farmers more for their cotton, as in Fairtrade, encourages exploitation. However, we understand that simply paying more for cotton is not enough to ensure children are not abused, neglected and/or exploited. Child labour is a systemic problem perpetuated by poverty and unfair terms of trade, lack of access to quality education and social protection, discrimination, conflict, and other factors. It is also a widespread issue, with an estimated 126 million children working under the Worst Forms of Child Labour around the world, and cannot be eliminated with a single approach. It is why Fairtrade has developed a multifaceted approach to address issues of child labour.
Fairtrade takes a holistic approach to addressing the root causes of child labour and proactively preventing abuse and exploitation of children. Besides improving our own systems to detect child labour, we also support Fairtrade producer communities to establish child-inclusive community-based monitoring and remediation systems. Fairtrade supports vulnerable farming families with a Fairtrade Minimum Price for much needed income stability and a Fairtrade Premium to invest in education, healthcare, rural infrastructure and other projects. We are building partnerships with expert organizations and have sought their feedback on our approach to eliminating child labour.
We are grateful that Bloomberg is drawing public attention to this important human rights issue, which we know is prevalent in West Africa and in cotton production more generally. We are however concerned that the article may discourage people and companies from sourcing cotton from Burkina Faso or from other impoverished areas, which would have a devastating negative impact on cotton producing communities and their families, including girls and boys. Regions where producers struggle against high levels of poverty and lack of stability are exactly where investment is most needed, which must be accompanied by strong community based monitoring and remediation systems integrated where possible within government action plans to eliminate child labour, rigorous detection methodologies to identify child labour and strong partnerships with NGOs to remediate them. We believe that Fairtrade is one such system.