Posted by: Dan Beucke on January 13, 2012 at 6:45 PM
It’s an uncomfortable fact of modern life that many iconic consumer products are built by people who could never afford to buy them. Yet there is great risk to these big, rich brands if they come to be seen as exploitative employers. Consider the case of Apple’s iPads and Victoria Secret’s panties.
For the past couple months, Bloomberg has been tracking the remarkable story of the children who are forced to pick fair-trade cotton in West Africa for a supplier to the fashionable clothing chain. The first story described the brutal life of 13-year-old Clarisse Kambire, who is beaten with a tree branch and must dig with a hoe because her employer can’t afford an ox and plow. The contradiction, of course, is that “fair trade” is supposed to certify that a product is free of these conditions. (For those who don’t have time to read 4,500 words, there’s a stunning multimedia treatment.) But as the article points out, the higher prices paid for fair trade serve as an incentive for exploitative employers:
In Burkina Faso, where child labor is endemic to the production of its chief crop export, paying lucrative premiums for organic and fair-trade cotton has — perversely — created fresh incentives for exploitation. The program has attracted subsistence farmers who say they don’t have the resources to grow fair-trade cotton without forcing other people’s children into their fields — violating a key principle of the movement.
Victoria’s Secret and its parent, Limited Brands, say they don’t tolerate child labor and are investigating. Now the U.S. government is, too.
Victoria’s Secret is just starting to contend with something that Apple has been facing for years. The company is greatly admired for its sleek products and management under late founder Steve Jobs, yet questions persist about the conditions under which those products are made — especially after worker suicides and threatened suicides at Chinese supplier Foxconn. What’s new today is that Apple released a list of its big suppliers and became the first big technology company to sign up with the Fair Labor Association, which monitors workplace conditions for companies such as Nike and Nestle. Apple detailed the labor violations it found in the course of its annual supplier audit. That included about 200 facilities that didn’t pay proper overtime or worked half or more of their employees more than 60 hours. Five factories were found to use underaged workers. Apple also detailed the actions it was taking to correct the problems.
Up to now Apple has closely guarded details of its suppliers, for competitive reasons. New Apple CEO Tim Cook must have decided that the risks to Apple’s global brand — the eighth most valuable, according to Interbrand — outweighed any additional costs of outside oversight or loss of supply-chain secrets.
Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg