Child Labor in Burkina Faso – Response to the Bloomberg report

By: Liesl Truscott; Director of Farm Engagement, Textile Exchange

A couple of days ago Cam Simpson, a reporter for Bloomberg News, introduced 13 year old Clarisse Kambire to the world. Clarisse’s heartbreaking story is one that could be told by many children - way too many children – residing in her home country Burkina Faso, or indeed other parts of the developing world. Clarisse’s story puts a human face to the bonded labor experienced in Burkina Faso, where over half of the population live under the poverty line and less than a third are literate. I asked TE’s Director for Africa what he thought of the Bloomberg account.

“Illegal child labor and child education are two sides of the same coin affecting children’s wellbeing in West Africa. Many non-governmental organizations (including organic and Fairtrade farming movements) and governmental and inter-governmental institutions have policies in place to combat illegal child labor. Policies on this issue are complex and have different connotations from one country to another in the West African sub region. The phenomenon is intensified in circumstances of poverty and armed conflicts, particularly with the recent armed conflict situation in the Cote d'Ivoire. Some farm workers or displaced people (including some children) may find working on a farm a temporary survival option. It is possible that an organic and Fairtrade farm in Burkina Faso can host these kinds of workers. But there are verification systems in place that are reinforced year after year to make sure children are not exploited.” 

Silvere Tovignan, Director for Africa, Textile Exchange

Exploitation of children is one of the most tragic manifestations of extreme poverty and feeds the downward cycle of poverty for a country and its people. There is no doubt that Clarisse’s story deserves to be told and we need to hear her voice. For this, we can be thankful for the journalistic efforts of Cam Simpson.

But we should also be appreciative of the efforts of organisations such as Helvetas for bravely offering support on the ground to people in rural Burkina Faso through introducing farming and trading systems designed to empower people through positive discrimination (as opposed to negative discrimination) and bring about change. Growing crops organically (offering safer, cheaper, and more sustainable alternatives to chemically enhanced farming) and using internationally accepted criteria for improving labour and trade conditions is a worthy start. So far, it’s the clearest and best proven way to break the poverty cycle. And we know it works. 

Last week topics such as ‘development’, ‘food security’ and ‘human rights’, were on the agenda at the 8th WTO Ministerial Conference in Geneva.  One of the big breakthroughs during the conference was the adoption of a waiver to permit the preferential treatment of LDCs (least-developed countries) to promote their trade. There’s still a long way to go in terms of addressing trade in African cotton, but surely giving preferential treatment to farmers offering added value in the market through organic certification, and a tangible agenda to improve livelihoods would make a good start?

As I write, the three NGOs supporting Organic-Fairtrade cotton production in Burkina Faso: the Swiss international development agency Helvetas, their local partners the UNPCB, and the certifying organisation Fairtrade International are investigating the allegations made by Bloomberg and finding inconsistencies with Cam Simpson’s account. From early conversations, and even clues we’ve picked up in the Bloomberg video (the farm simply does not look like an organic farm), the story is not quite stacking up. As Silvere Tovignan says:

 

“My first observation is that there are empty mineral fertilizer bags in view, not only prohibited in organic because these bags have contained mineral fertilizer, but also because they are made from polypropylene that contaminates the cotton. Organic cotton farmers in Burkina have a specific bag for harvesting that was not the one shown in the videos.

The second is that the farm shown with a green flag is not the one where the child was harvesting. The farm with the green flag, which is supposed to be the organic one, looks greener and more exuberant (demonstrating the true organic prominent productive capacity) than the one where the harvest was going on.”

Silvere Tovignan, Director for Africa, Textile Exchange

 

The reason I feel these discrepancies need to tentatively be raised (and once we know for certain we will share more) is that the accusations against the very organisations driven to address issues such as illegal child labor are so incredibly damaging, and can potentially knock progress back unnecessarily by destroying brand and consumer confidence. Accusing the organisations, farmers, and brands - that are ‘trying to do the right thing’ - of allowing this to happen, and even turning a blind eye, is simply not helpful, probably not true, and certainly not ‘fair’!

As with society at large, Textile Exchange wishes for nothing more than to see measurable progress and positive impact happening on the ground, particularly in marginalised regions where improvements are needed most. We believe fairly traded organically grown cotton is delivering social and environmental benefits, and support all persons wanting to make sustainable development a reality: including farmers, brands, NGOs, governments, and consumers. 

We applaud the farmers who are endeavouring to make farming fairer and ecologically sound; knowing it’s not going to be easy ‘to go against the grain’ and within a culture and history of poverty and civil unrest. 

We applaud the hard work that Helvetas and the UNPCB are doing on the ground to help marginalised and poverty stricken communities build autonomous sustainable agricultural businesses, and find links to responsible markets. 

We applaud brands such as Victoria’s Secret who are brave enough to connect at the farm level; wanting to make the world a better place for rural communities through positive trade agreements, and for actually knowing who their farmers are, something only a handful of companies are doing right now. Everyone else just hides behind the anonymity of the market.

And most of all we applaud the efforts and progress made through collaboration: bringing different cultures, backgrounds, ‘norms’, and expectations together on the Fairtrade organic platform is an enormous accomplishment, an enormous challenge. It’s not perfect... if it was we wouldn’t need to do what we do. I think we all acknowledge this imperfection, but we can’t let it stop us trying to make things better. 

Let’s celebrate what we have achieved whilst acknowledging the length of the journey ahead... and let’s not be put off by the reality that there is always more to do.

As a ‘community’ that wants only to improve lives for children such as Clarisse, I believe Cam Simpson’s report can indeed strengthen our resolve. We have the proven structure and the systems within Fairtrade and organic; let’s make it work for Clarisse, her community, and the next generation of Burkinabe’s children.

Thank you.

 

The Helvetas response to claims of child labor on organic farms can be found on their website (in German and French) and has been translated into English (available here in PDF).

The Fairtrade International response to the Bloomberg article can be read on their website here.

Please visit Textile Exchange Farm Hub Africa Region for more details on production and profiles.

 

Comment

AttachmentSize
Helvetas Response to claims of child labour in organic cotton production in Burkina Faso.pdf102.85 KB