By Daily Mail Reporter
Created 5:11 AM on 14th January 2012
The U.S. federal government is launching a probe into billion-dollar brand Victoria’s Secret after a report released last month claimed the fair trade cotton used in its bras and panties was harvested by child labour.
The lingerie’s parent company responded by saying it takes the matter ‘very seriously’ and ‘does not tolerate child labour.’
The initial inquiry will look into the Burkina Fasco program, which harvests organic, fair-trade cotton and will be done by the ICE Homeland Security Investigations division, a part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Limited Brands, the parent company of Victoria’s Secret, disputed the story of 13-year-old Clarisse Kambire, who, as Bloomberg reported, was forced to pick cotton.
They said their own inquiries revealed that Clarisse picks vegetables, not cotton, and is an adult. But Bloomberg revealed that the girl adopted her dead sister’s names, and her occupation was confirmed by several sources.
The department, according to Bloomberg, enforces a law banning the importation of goods produced by forced labour.
Far away from the glamorous catwalks of New York and London, children as young as 10 were allegedly discovered by investigators from Bloomberg News Agency working under appalling conditions.
In one tragic case a child apparently sneaked off to attend a nearby school, but her older cousin, the farmer for whom she is forced to work, hauled her home and forbade her to return to lessons.
The cotton in question is produced under the seemingly trustworthy Fair Trade programme, in desperately poor Burkina Faso, a land-locked country in West Africa, bordering Ghana, where child labour is known to be endemic.
According to the U.S. Department of Labour cotton is produced with child or forced labor in more countries than any other commodity with the exception of gold.
Burkina Faso recently ranked 181st out of 187 countries in the 2011 United Nations Human Development Index.
The Bloomberg News Agency team spent more than six weeks in the country interviewing child labourers as well as their families, neighbours and village elders.
Glamour: Miranda Kerr models a $2.5million dollar bra during the 2011 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show last November (left) and model Lily Aldridge shows off one of the firm’s recent lines
They discovered wide-spread child labour with scores of the youngsters being denied educations and forced to work as slaves.
In 2008 the country’s cotton producers’ union the Union Nationale des Producteurs de Coton du Burkina Faso, produced as study on the problem which raised concerns about the vulnerability of foster children being used in the cotton industry.
One such child is 13-year-old Clarisse Kambiré.
This year Clarisse helped dig by hand more than 500 rows of the crop because the farmer she works for cannot afford to buy an ox and plow.
Now she must help with the harvest. If she’s slow, the farmer whips her with a tree branch.
This harvest is her second. Cotton from the first went from her hands onto the trucks of Burkina Faso’s fair-trade program.
Its fiber 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 in the lingerie retailer’s Water Tower Place store on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.
For Valentine’s Day 2009 Victoria’s Secret produced a special lingerie line sold with the claim that each purchase improved lives in Burkina Faso.
An accompanying booklet boasted: ‘Good for women, good for the children who depend on them.’
A spokesman for the company said: ‘We take these allegations regarding cotton farming in Burkina Faso very seriously,as they describe behaviour contrary to our company’s values and the code of labour and sourcing standards we require all our suppliers to mee.
‘Our standards specifically prohibit child labour.
‘We are vigorously engaging with stakeholders to fully investigate this matter.’
Many of the children forced to work in Burkina Faso are related to the farmers. They are known locally as enfants confinés – a French term for foster children.
On small-plot farms researchers found that 57 per cent of the 89 producers surveyed had one or more foster children.
Across the country, it averaged about one per household. The problem was especially 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.
Victoria’s Secret was started in California, in 1977 by businessman Roy Raymond after he felt embarrassed shopping for lingerie for his wife.
By the early 1990s, it had become America’s largest lingerie retailer worth over one billion dollars.
There are now around 1,000 stores across North America, Canada and the Middle East.
It is owned by company Limited Brands, which also owns La Senza. Last year its sales were reportedly $5.9 billion.
Earlier this year the firm announced they intend to open a flagship store on London’s Bond Street and hope to launch outlets in shopping malls across the country.
‘IF I SLOW DOWN, HE BEATS ME’: CLARISSE KAMIBRÉ AGED 13
Clarisse was born to migrant worker parents in Cote d’Ivoire which neighbours Burkina Faso.
After her parents split when she was about four she was shuttled between her father’s relatives on either side of the border until the age of nine.
At that point an aunt took her to the village of Benvar in Burkina Faso and left her in the mud-walled hut of the her cousin Kamboule, a farmer, where she lives today.
Clarisse has no dolls, no photos, not even a toothbrush. ‘Nothing,’ she says
She is woken by Kamboule’s shouting before dawn each working day.
While he cycles to the fields she is forced to walk carrying her hoe, often through a blanket of humidity and heat approaching 100 degrees.
Describing the backbreaking work she is forced to carry out she said ‘It’s very, very hard. And he forces me to do it. ‘It’s painful,’
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 in her hands. The two of them dig for weeks to carve a plot stretching the length of about four American football fields.
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 work, rather than attend school. Strong and lean, the illiterate farmer seems to work endlessly, wearing the same pair of tattered shorts each day.