L'Oréal and Estée Lauder perfumes stink of exploitative child labor

L’Oréal and Estée Lauder perfumes stink of exploitative child labor

  • Published on
    May 28, 2024
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  • Category:
    Child Slavery
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Egypt produces about half of the world’s supply of jasmine, a major ingredient for the perfume industry. But a recent investigation by the BBC revealed that behind the enticing fragrance, jasmine pickers in Egypt often include children who work grueling long hours at night to pick the delicate flowers. And despite industry pledges to keep child labor out of their supply chain, little is being done to stop it.

The squeeze for more profits leads directly to child labor

Jasmine flowers are picked by hand at night due to their delicate and fragile qualities. Pickers in Egypt are paid by weight with a chunk of whatever they earn from picking going to the landowner. The handful of companies that own most of the luxury brands of perfume have been squeezing budgets hard, leading to very low pay for the pickers. To have any hope of earning enough to feed their families, pickers are forced to bring their children to work to pick with them. Undercover footage of Egyptian jasmine fields during picking season last year revealed the prevalence of the practice.

The UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Tomoya Obokata, said:

“On paper, they [the industry] are promising so many good things, like supply chain transparency and the fight against child labor, looking at this footage, they are not actually doing things that they promised to do.”

Pickers often live below the poverty line and rely on the income from gathering jasmine flowers. One mother filmed picking with her children, was only able to gather 1.5kg of jasmine flowers in a night. After paying a third of their earnings to the landowner, the family was left with roughly US $1.50. With inflation at an all-time high in Egypt, that paltry amount buys even less than ever before. This makes earning enough to feed their families a herculean task for many.

“The masters” want the cheapest oil possible in the fragrance bottle

While the fragrance houses exporting the jasmine oil control what the pickers are paid, the perfume companies above them, like L’Oréal and Estée Lauder, hold all the power. These companies are known as “the masters” and they set an extremely tight budget which flows in trickle-down pressure to the factories forcing them to set low payments to pickers to stay on budget. And it is the extremely low payments to the pickers that lead to exploitative child labor. If pickers were paid a living wage, they wouldn’t need to involve their children in the work just to put food on the table.

One jasmine picker, Gharbia said:

“People here are worth nothing, I don’t mind people using perfume, but I want the people using this perfume to see in it the pain of children. And to speak up.”

According to one independent perfume maker, there’s a big disconnect between the preciousness talked about in the perfume makers marketing and what is actually paid to the harvesters for this “precious” ingredient.

What about that commitment to “ethical sourcing”?

Perfume companies paint a beautiful picture of ethical sourcing in their supply chain and claim to have zero tolerance on child labor. In addition, every employer in their supply chain has signed a letter pledging to abide by UN guidelines around safe working practices and the elimination of child labor. So, what gives? According to the investigation, the auditing system in place is “deeply flawed”. Companies rely on the fragrance houses to ask third-party auditing companies to check for due diligence and that just isn’t working.

Lawyer Sarah Dadush, founder of the Responsible Contracting Project said the issue is:

“’the auditors are only auditing what they’re paid to audit’, and this might not include the price paid to the labor force – ‘a major root cause’ of child labor”

One of the reports seen by investigators from an independent auditing company gave the factory they visited a “glowing assessment”. But it was also clear from the report that the visit had been pre-announced and only the factory where the jasmine is processed was investigated. The smallholder farms it sourced jasmine from — where child labor is taking place — had not been visited. With such a clearly flawed system in place, it is easy to see how perfume companies can whitewash away the exploitative child labor issues and come out smelling like a rose while at the same time demanding abusively low budgets and ignoring that it’s children who are paying.

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d p tripathy
d p tripathy
19 days ago

I never used any perfume, no one in my family does. Child labor is criminal offence for me. We should care for their lives, especially as children

Thomas Morrow
Thomas Morrow
19 days ago

Children deserve respect and schooling and good nutrition-not to be abused by greedy people!

Kate Hughes
Kate Hughes
20 days ago

l no longer use perfume!!

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