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.