Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Bloomberg News Falsely Accuses Fairtrade of Child Labour

On December 15th, 2011, Bloomberg Markets Magazine published a story depicting the life of a 13-year-old girl, Clarisse, who is physically and mentally suffering under horrific conditions as a forced labourer on an organic cotton farm in Burkina Faso, a small landlocked and impoverished African nation. For the past two years this young girl worked under the whip to produce cotton sold to the famous lingerie brand, Victoria's Secret. The fact that forced labour occurs in fields across the world and is found in brand names of multinational corporations is not a surprise and this issue seriously needs to be addressed on a global scale. However, what makes Clarisse's case special is that she was supposedly labouring on a Fairtrade International certified farm. Radio Host, Michelle Block of National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States opened an interview with Cam Simpson, the Bloomberg reporter who uncovered the scandal:

"Fair Trade, we see those words a lot - when we buy coffee, food, even clothes. But what do they mean? Well, when Victoria's Secret began marketing underwear made from organic, fair-trade cotton, company executives assumed they were helping women farmers in the West African nation of Burkina Faso. But according to an in-depth investigation by Bloomberg News, in this case, fair trade meant children being kept from school and forced to labor long hours in the country's cotton fields." (

Clarisse Kambire, right, works with other child laborers to harvest
organic cotton grown in the fields of her farmer foster parent.
© Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
Simpson implies the abusive farmer in the story, Mr. Victorien Kamboule in the village of Benvar in Burkina Faso was part of a Helvetas organic and Fair Trade program which is committed to "to improve producers’ living conditions – especially those of women and small farmers – through a viable and sustainable mode of production. The story begins by describing the recurring nightmares of a 13-year-old girl named, Clarisse; only these terrors were reflective of her day-to-day reality: 

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...

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...

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. 

A telltale green flag, given to its growers
by local cooperatives, flies at the edge
of the field where Clarisse works.
Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

At this point I began to question, Who or What can verify that the farmer in question, Mr. Victorien Kamboule, is both an organic and Fair Trade certified grower, and in a Helvetas program? According to Simpson's story, his two primary sources of validation are a local cooperative leader and a green flag planted at the edge of the field. The story goes on to provide more information of her daily experience during the cotton growing season: 

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.”

The article continues to depict the perceptions of two other "organic and Fair Trade" certified cotton farmers, Mr. Louis Joseph Kambire and Baasolokoun “Bassole” Dabire, who according to Simpson is "president of the organic and fair-trade cooperative in the village of Yabogane". Also according to the Bloomberg reporter, the farmers receive no training on Fair Trade, nor on the use of child labour:

“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.

... 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. 

Clarisse carries her bushel to the home of a family where the
farmer she works for stores his cotton because it’s closer
to the pickup point for the organic and fair-trade program.
©Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

These accusations against Fairtrade International and Helvetas are both shocking and demand investigation if they are true. Immediately, I began my inquiry by contacting Tobias Meier of Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation. Mr. Meier who is cited in Simpson's story provided me with the press release from Helvetas, in which the organization pledges "All involved stakeholders - Victoria’s Secret, UNPCB, Helvetas and FLO – started investigations, and all are determined to initiate bold and sustainable measures if the claims are substantiated." For the sake of transparency, I have republished the Helvetas press release here:
Helvetas’ response to claims of child labor in organic cotton production in Burkina Faso

Although I was unable to solicit an email reply to my direct inquiry with Fairtrade International for this blog post, they did publish a response to the Bloomberg article ([tt_news]=264):

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...

In the aforementioned interview with Michelle Block of NPR, Simpson explained the certification is done by a national organization and not by FLO directly:

"Fair Trade International, they certify a national union, not the individual farms and not even the individual cooperatives that the individual farmers belong to. They're supposed to do surprise visits to places where child labor's endemic. And they're supposed to do surprise visits to places where clearly there are commodities grown with child labor, and that's also clearly cotton."

Clarisse Kambire, 13, a child laborer, left, and a fellow
child laborer carry wicker baskets full of hand-picked fair-trade
organic cotton back to the farmer's store house after a
day's labor in fields near Benvar, Burkina Faso.
©Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
In Burkina Faso that certifying organization is the National Federation of Burkina Cotton Producers (UNPBC - known by it's French abbreviation) mentioned in the Fairtrade International response. UNPBC ( certifies both organic crops and Fair Trade farmers. Again, Mr. Tobias Meier of Helvetas provided me with the press release from Mr. Karim Traore, President of the certifying union in question

In the UNPBC press release he clearly states that only one of the three farmers in the story, Louis Joseph Kambire is certified as an organic farmer, but not Fair Trade. The other two farmers in the story, Clarissa's tormentor Mr. Victorien Kamboule, nor the supposed president of an organic and Fair Trade, cooperative Mr. Baasolokoun “Bassole” Dabire are not certified as either organic or Fair Trade cotton growers with the UNPBC.  

As for the training received by the one certified organic cotton farmer in the story, according to the UNPBC Louis Joseph Kambire has attended trainings and awareness raising campaigns on the issue of Child Labour.

To allow for third party verification of whose farms are registered on as organic and / or Fair Trade, the President of UNPBC can independently verify his roster with ECOCERT ( has a copy of the UNPBC database. For transparency and accountability to the facts, I have published the UNPBC press release here:
UNPCB's Formal Declaration of Denial to Bloomberg's False Accusation

I emailed the reporter Cam Simpson and the Bloomberg editors Flynn McRoberts and Melissa Pozsgay in charge of this story to inquire of their sources. 

Did you verify with the National Union of Cotton Producers of Burkina Faso (UNPBC) that the three people you assert are organic and Fair Trade certified growers, Victorien Kamboule, Baasolokoun “Bassole” Dabire, and Louis Joseph Kambire are all certified as such?

The reply from Flynn McRoberts was direct and to the point, "Thank you for your interest, Mr. Mitch. Yes, we did and with multiple sources." To this I provided a copy of the UNPBC press release and replied,

Sources of verification in the story seem to be limited to a local leader and a green flag in the following sentences: "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."

Please do share further sources on the certification of these three farmers.

The Bloomberg Editor responded that they were aware of the UNPCB's statement, "We have reviewed the story and the reporting and we stand by our story."

Take Direct Action! 

The Bloomberg story is one of child labour in Burkina Faso, and this issue desperately needs to be addressed in both corporate board rooms and in corporate media. However, to link this abusive situation to Fair Trade is unfounded and proven to be untrue with the only national organization authorized to provide such certification.

However, don't just take my word for it. Having read the press release of UNPBC, I encourage you to read the story for yourself at

Furthermore, you can contact ECOCERT in Burkina Faso directly ( to independently inquire a third party of the status of those farmers quoted in the story: are Victorien Kamboule, Baasolokoun “Bassole” Dabire, and Louis Joseph Kambire on the UNPBC roster as Fair Trade certified growers, or not? 

Help bring Integrity to Corporate Media! 


Take Direct Action with corporate media! Contact the Bloomberg reporter Cam Simpson and his editors Flynn McRoberts and Melissa Pozsgay regarding their linkage of child labour and Fair Trade in this story. Their emails can be found at the bottom of the Bloomberg article.

Mitch Teberg, MA
Sustainable Development / Fair Trade
Researcher / Trainer / Consultant

To read more on the findings from the Fairtrade International investigation read Journey for Fair Trade:

Fairtrade International Investigation Leads to Questions of Bloomberg's
Journalistic Integrity

Raise your voice and be heard! Get involved and Take Direct Action on behalf of Fair Trade. Send an email, sign a petition or give Bloomberg's a call directly! Join the campaign and Click here to make a stand!:

Take Direct Action with Bloomberg Media!

Feel free to add your comments, thoughts or ideas below or catch me on facebook. For those who prefer reading black on white, here is the downloadable version of this post on pdf:

Bloomberg News Falsly Accuses Fairtrade of Child Labour


  1. What I would like to see happen in the world of corporate media, is one outlet checking the other outlet for misrepresentations, falsehoods, and potential lack of verifying sources. In other words, let dog eat dog.

  2. It should not be about I RIGHT and YOU WRONG here, in my opinion.
    It should be about How should FairTrade promote itself as the growing field FAIR and UNFAIR are so close to each other and why not turn the other UNFAIR field to FAIR as now everybody know about it?

  3. Fair Trade?
    Think About Craftsmen & Artisan............

  4. The idea that the many fair trade certification processes set up to make money for their organizers/sponsors can "certify" at basic production levels in rural areas never has been credible. To attack the messenger of truth reveals the selfishness of the stakeholders who profit from certification processes. Then when I read the "exceptions" that allow child labor under some "fair trade" situations my reaction is to further suspect a fraud perpetuated by major brand marketers to protect their profits. Sure, the media are responsible for misleading us all of the time. Sure the reporter here might have been careless or mislead. But to deny (or imply denial) the possibility that what was reported could occur and likely occurs commonly is to live in a fantasy world.

  5. I believe that Bill makes a good point.

    It wouldn't do the Fair Trade movement any harm to look more closely at itself.

  6. As a supporter of the fair trade movement, I too read the Bloomberg story with great interest, as well as Fairtrade International's response. And, while I appreciate that there are factual errors in the Bloomberg story, it is nevertheless true that the owners of fair trade marks and logos have been moving over the past few years toward a more corporate (for lack of a better word) business model. Witness the great divorce between Fairtrade International and Fair Trade USA that went into effect over the new year. Why? Because Fairtrade USA wants to lower standards even further than Fairtrade International will tolerate in an effort to broaden mainstream corporate participation.
    Meanwhile the focus on increasing brand recognition has drawn attention away from oversight of the certification process. To the point where, as you point out in your post, Fairtrade International had outsourced its certification to a third party, which may or may not have represented either Fairtrade's standards or producers' qualifications correctly. Either way, stories like this one could be mostly avoided and their damage minimized if the multinational corporations (for that is what they are now) that market Fairtrade were more careful about what they certify. And I hope, for the sake of the Fairtrade movement, that they will be.

  7. Readers may also be interested in the Fairtrade International response following its investigation.

    Specifically, it doesn't appear the person featured in the articles was a child, nor was she involved with cotton or any Fairtrade certifiable product.

    The response also raises concerns regarding the journalist's methods.

    In response to Caspar, certification is "outsourced" as a best practice to eliminate the potential conflict of interest between promotion and enforcement. It's a good thing.

  8. WoW! Thanks for posting. This post has even open my eyes wider to the process of Fair Trade!

  9. Bill--do you mean to say 'slavery on Fair Trade farms could occur so let's assume it does occur?'

    When we get evidence and not lies it occurs, and occurs because of a failing of the certification process that would be very relevant.

    It's such an incredibly misleading story in so many ways. First, it implies that the Fair Trade certification process is bogus by misrepresenting the specific facts that would indicate that this is true.

    I cannot understand how a reporter could misrepresent facts and get away with it except that it is in Africa and I think this lessens people's interest in specificity and veracity. How could Bloomberg not inquire and then fire this reporter or issue a retraction if all this evidence--which seems good--is correct?

    It is a very bad thing for people to lie in the press. That is a very bad thing. It is a worse thing when it is used to attack a mechanism for social justice.