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  • Writer's pictureLondon Catholic Worker

A Short Soft Look at Child Labour

A BBC investigation this week uncovered extensive child labour abuses in the supply chains of major beauty brands Lancôme and Aerin Beauty. Jasmine flowers used in their perfumes are sourced from Egypt, where children are regularly involved in the picking. This is due to the low wages which force families to include their children in the labour. The jasmine pickers, including children aged 5 to 15, work overnight under harsh conditions for minimal pay. In one highlighted case cited, a woman, Heba, and her four children together earnt a mere $1.50 for the 1.5kg of jasmine they managed to collect through the night.

The companies involved, L'Oréal and Estée Lauder, both claim to oppose child labour and offered statements saying that they will review their supply chains. But, as the BBC noted, the auditing systems meant to ensure ethical practices are deeply flawed, and completely miss the exploitation on smallholder farms. Factories like A Fakhry and Co, which supply jasmine oil to major fragrance houses, offer little oversight of the actual jasmine picking on these farms. Meanwhile, the large auditing firms, Sedex and UEBT, work hand in glove with the suppliers and manufacturers by rubber stamping these exploitative working environments with lax factory-restricted audits.

Whilst the BBC cites various industry insiders and human rights advocates who stress the need for better corporate accountability, the broader picture and root cause of the problem is obfuscated by the report. Child labour is not anomalous, nor is it the product of unfortunate gaps in otherwise functional supply chains, but rather it is built into the very logic of capitalism. Globally, one in ten children are forced to work, with almost one in four children forced to work in Africa. Meanwhile, one in four people globally live below the poverty line ($3.65 per day), with a majority of the populations of Africa, East Asia, and the Pacific living in extreme poverty. This is all a product of a predatory modern capitalism which exported the historic domestic slavery of the West to the global south in the form of a sanitised wage slavery. This has allowed us guilt-free westerners to continue to import a surfeit of cheap goods, without having to look at the terrifying human (and environmental) cost of our violently disordered consumption.

Whilst the plight of the jasmine pickers should serve to highlight the disconnect between the consumption of luxury perfumes and the harsh realities of their production, the BBC's technocratic framing repeatedly turns away from the contradiction. At the close of the article, the jasmine picker Heba cries: "I want the people using this perfume to see in it the pain of children." But the BBC immediately corrected Heba by following her cri de cœur with the absurd claim that "the responsibility does not lie with the consumer" since, in the words of lawyer Sarah Dadush, "this is not a problem that should be for us to solve", but rather a matter of "law" and "corporate accountability". Whilst we do, of course, need a global revolution in labour conditions, this can only be achieved if we collectively take a long hard look at ourselves and the people who bear the cost of our consumption. Whether it be changing our buying habits and/or upping our political engagement, this is very much a problem that should be for us to solve.

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