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Bloomberg in Hot Water over Child Labor Piece

Malaysia boy waiter

222 million children work around the world

Just in time for the 2011  Christmas season, Bloomberg News published an expose purporting to catch Fair Trade/Organic Farms using child labor to gather material for products destined for issue-conscious consumers in the West. The website traveled to Burkina Faso several times to report the story.
The expose focused specifically on a farm that used children to pick cotton that eventually got woven into items sold at Victoria Secret stores. Now how Victoria Secret shoppers square with the Free Trade group is definitely a tale for politics makes strange bedfellows but that’s a story for another day.
Anyway, Bloomberg followed a young girl named Clarisse, who the reporter said was a 13-year-old girl who was beaten and denied school and suffered other atrocities as she was forced to work on a farm picking cotton all day to be stuffed into bras for Western women. The contrast to say the least was tragic.

Bloomberg’s story was the typical poverty porn that is so plentiful these days. Usually international development organizations engage in this type of sensational communications – think pictures of bloated babies with flies on cheeks, painfully thin children with large wobbly heads, unsmiling India children roving dirty and haphazardly around a local slum – in order to spur people to act. Occasionally, journalists indulge in such overwrought journalism. And the story on Clarisse is the premiere play from that playbook.

Complete with overwriting, overwrought prose such as…

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.

The Bloomberg piece pulled at all the heartstrings and delivered a hit piece that was devoid of context. Yet the piece also may have broached an awful ethical line by not exactly telling the truth.

A story about child labor wasn’t enough. The issue isn’t new. According to the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour more than 215 million children are involved in child labor world wide an 13% increase since 2004. Estimates are as high as 60 million in India.

So Bloomberg went a bit further. In its original reporting on cotton farmers in Burkina Faso it stumbled upon Clarisse who supposedly worked at a cotton farm that specifically pledged not to use child labor because they were designated as Organic/Fair Trade farms. GASP!!! This is where the outrage comes in.

Let’s pause parenthetically to explain what fair trade means. In reality it means nothing. It is not sanctioned by any legal rule, law, statute or official regulation. Fair Trade is a voluntary label that signals a conscious effort to pay farmers and producers in developing countries fairly for their products as well as prompting those farmers to labor with sustainability in mind. The designation is loosely monitored by numerous national and international fair trade organizations. Which one? Take your pick…there’s the:

  • Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International
  • World Fair Trade Organizations (once the International Fair Trade Association)
  • Network of European Worldshops
  • European Fair Trade Association
  • Fair Trade Federation
  • Fair Trade Action Network
So Bloomberg’s smoking gun was to do a story on a farm that was supposedly certified to be a fair trade farm in a world where that certification means about as much to the textile world as the “fat-free” label on rainbow sherbet means to dieting individuals. Feels good to see it but doesn’t really stop the consequences of consumption.

But wait. The story accused Victoria Secret of supporting child labor and instead of a pat on the back there was an uproar. Lo and behold, the World Fair Trade Organization (I’m still trying to figure out what they do from their convoluted press release striking back at Bloomberg) shot an arrow across Bloomberg’s bow saying, “Hey wait a minute! The child you interviewed doesn’t work on a fair trade farm and further more are you sure she is a child at all.”

In a lengthy, difficult-to-follow press release the World Fair Trade Organization questions whether the farm Bloomberg’s reporter Cam Simpson visited is really a certified organic and Fair Trade farm. They claim Bloomberg “falsely accused,” Victoria’s Secret and questioned the girl’s age and whether she worked on a truly certified fair trade farm. They produced a birth certificate of a girl named Clarisse who was 21 years old and not some teen-ager forced to work long hours on a farm.

This prompted Cam and Bloomberg to fire back with a “how I wrote my story,” story which explained what anyone who has reported in a developing country already knows – the truth isn’t always what it seems.

First Cam was forced to admit that he committed some sins of omission – he left out the confusing circumstances of Clarisse’s birth – the fact that she was born to a broken family which fled a civil war from Ivory Coast (which doesn’t exist it’s called Cote d’Ivorie now) and Clarisse through some intricate tale of shame, guilt and identity politics stole her older dead sister’s name in an attempt to reinvent herself.

Cam’s reasoning for not including this fact in his initial report is a bit weak. He states

An explanation as to how that happened was deemed unimportant, confusing for readers and got edited out of earlier drafts.

I find this a little insulting. Anyone who reports in the developing world knows that most countries do not have a national registry, they don’t have a social security administration that issues a unique numerical ID to every person born. This fact makes it incredibly easy for children to disappear into the underworld of exploitation because the only evidence of their identity is borne by the people who prey upon them – unfortunately often their own parents.
If he had thought a little bit more about it Cam and his editors could have used this fact to bolster their claims in the story.

Instead this lack of context about how it is to be a child born into the developing world – lack of identity, at the mercy of adults who prey upon you because of poverty and in some instances malice – made his story questionable, and ordinary.

One well-informed Burkinabe trained in journalism could have done a deeper, better and more contextual story than Cam ever could if you asked me and that’s why I’m trying to get World Media Now off the ground.

A person from Burkina Faso could have found a dozen Clarisses, cleared up the certified fair trade farmer question and added context purposefully left out of Cam’s story allowing readers to truly judge the story’s merit instead of having it reside under a cloud of suspicion because Cam and his editors decided we’re too dumb to understand that a child’s identity in the developing world is not as cut and dry as we imagine it should be.

And anyway, isn’t that the real issue? The value of children around the globe? They’re so without value that we don’t even bother to name them or mark their existence. Geez, Cam by chasing the fireworks you missed the boat.

Cam and Bloomberg were so busy chasing “the story,” that they completely missed it. The story isn’t that farmers use forced child labor on their farms. The story is why. Cam goes on to dig himself deeper by derisively talking about Clarisse’s mom and beginning with the premise that child labor is wrong.

Now I agree with that but this is a distinctive Western perspective, especially in cultures where families are so poor children are produced specifically for labor. When covering child labor issues such context needs to be explored. Why are children used for labor in countries like Burkina Faso? Why aren’t they pampered and fretted over like they are in the U.S.? That’s a story to read for sure.



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