Maybe Fair Trade Cotton Isn't Growth By Child Slaves After All

A blog about business and economics.
Jan. 9 2012 10:50 AM

Maybe Fair Trade Cotton Isn't Growth By Child Slaves After All

Back in December I flagged Cam Simpson's story about allegedly fair trade cotton being grown by child slaves in Burkina Faso. Given that, it's only fair to note that last week Fair Trade International published a report on their own inquiry into this and they say Simpson has it all wrong:

Most significantly, according to our information, the “girl” who featured prominently in the article is not 13 years old as reported. We have seen her birth certificate and corroborated her age with school records. She cannot accurately be described as a child as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (i.e., under 18 years old).
In addition, she is not involved in cotton growing and therefore is not participating in Fairtrade certified cotton production. Instead she works on a family-owned vegetable farm, growing locally consumed products for which there are no Fairtrade Standards nor Fairtrade certified producers in this region.

I find it, frankly, difficult to believe that Bloomberg made the error being alleged here but I think I'm going to have to let Simpson and Fairtrade fight that it. The point about the vegetable farm is, however, very interesting and highlights some of the limits of piecemeal efforts to improve labor standards. If you think about an agricultural economy centered around a cash crop for export—it could be cotton, coffee, or whatever else you like—then realistically locally focused food production is also going to be part of the picture. The cotton farmers need food after all. So you could easily have a situation in which a bunch of farmers are clustered in a village, partially growing vegetables for basically their own consumption and partially growing cotton. In the unfair trade paradigm, children and adults alike grow both cotton and vegetables. Then when you switch to a fair trade paradigm, what you get is labor market segmentation. Maybe children stop working in the export-oriented cotton fields, but now children are doing all the vegetable farming. The household- and village-level economies, however, are still dependent on child labor.

This is all just very tricky to deal with unless the country where it's happening has the state capacity to enact mandatory free public schooling rules and enforce them effectively as a matter of policy.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.



Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?


Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

I Am 25. I Don’t Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 11:40 AM The U.S. Has Spent $7 Billion Fighting the War on Drugs in Afghanistan. It Hasn’t Worked. 
Business Insider
Oct. 21 2014 11:27 AM There Is Now a Real-life Hoverboard You Can Preorder for $10,000
Oct. 21 2014 11:37 AM What Was It Like to Work at the Original Napster?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don’t Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Oct. 21 2014 12:05 PM Same-Sex Couples at Home With Themselves in 1980s America
Oct. 21 2014 10:43 AM Social Networking Didn’t Start at Harvard It really began at a girls’ reform school.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.