Forbes, Fortune: Jobs Well Done

Bizpubs add to excellent work on overseas child, forced labor; Recalling Bloomberg Markets

In our recent perusing of the business magazines, two stories on child labor stuck out, one by Forbes and the other by Fortune. The pieces are notable for their departure from a general trend of the business press: a seeming aversion to labor issues. Given that the business press has not shown a sustained interest in such things, the almost simultaneous appearance of these two excellent stories piqued our interest.

We don’t have much of a theory on why they appeared now, or whether this represents an actual trend—we also think back to impressive investigative work on forced labor in Latin America, appearing in 2006 and 2007 in Bloomberg Markets. Is the business press-reading public really becoming more interested in who made those tchotchkes from Target? Maybe. We would like to think so. We would also like to think that the business press is willing to sate that curiosity.

Forbes published a cover story in its February 25 issue on child labor in India, and the Fortune Web site ran a mid-February piece on child labor in the Ivory Coast chocolate industry. We’re not sure why the piece didn’t make the magazine itself, but we were nonetheless glad to see it. Fine photos accompanied each story.

Let’s start in the cotton fields of India.

Monsanto has received much more coverage for its genetic engineering practices than for its use of child labor. But the Forbes article, by Megha Bahree, connects the two, telling us that in India children are doing the tedious work of cross-pollinating cotton plants genetically engineered to be pest-resistant.

Kids will work for next to nothing, Bahree explains, introducing us first to Jyothi Ramulla Naga, who “says she’s 15 but looks no older than 12.” We find Jyothi bent over the cotton plants in a Monsanto field, where she has been working since her father committed suicide five years earlier. He was, we learn, a cotton farmer who had incurred large debts.

Jyothi is hardly alone. She might work in a field labeled “Monsanto India Limited Child Labour Free Fields,” but fellow teen laborers are not unusual on local Monsanto farms.

And the problem doesn’t stop with Monsanto.

Last year 420,000 laborers under the age of 18 were employed in cottonseed farms in four states across India, estimates Glocal Research, a consultancy in Hyderabad that monitors agricultural labor conditions. Of that total 54% were under the age of 14 and illegally employed.

But that’s not the sum of it, either.

The article also addresses other industries, like carpet weaving and stonecutting, that regularly employ children whose U.S. or European counterparts are far more likely to be in school. And in return for a job like stonecutting, which doesn’t just take children away from school but also endangers their health, the children literally get pennies.

Despite efforts by government and nonprofits, and sometimes even companies themselves, millions of Indian children stock our shelves with all kinds of goods. The Indian government estimates that 12.6 million of the country’s children under the age of fourteen work. Nonprofits say 50 million.

And while the article focuses on India, the problem extends far beyond that country, Bahree tells us.

The UN International Labor Organization guesses that there are 218 million child laborers worldwide, 7 in 10 of them in agriculture, followed by service businesses (22%) and industry (9%).

Bahree gives us the human faces of a problem, then pulls back and gives us the context. One reason we are going out of our way to praise human-rights journalism is that it appeared on the cover of a major business magazine. Bahree is a staff reporter for Forbes and has done interesting labor reporting for that magazine in the past. But generally, we see far too little coverage of labor issues in the business press.

The same goes for the Fortune story, “Chocolate’s bittersweet economy,” by Christian Parenti, whose international reporting on subjects like the human toll of war typically appear in The Nation.

Here is his lead paragraph:

Outside the village of Sinikosson in southwestern Ivory Coast, along a trail tracing the edge of a muddy fishpond, Madi Ouedraogo sits on the ground picking up cocoa pods in one hand, hacking them open with a machete in the other and scooping the filmy white beans into plastic buckets. It is the middle of the school day, but Madi, who looks to be about 10, says his family can’t afford the fees to send him to the nearest school, five miles away. “I don’t like this work,” he says. “I would rather do something else. But I have to do this.”

From the beginning, we see that this works as a kind of companion piece to the Forbes story, with Jyothi and Madi sharing similar hardship, in different corners of the world.

As in India’s cotton fields, child labor persists in the Ivory Coast chocolate industry despite campaigns to stop it:

This type of child labor isn’t supposed to exist in Ivory Coast. Not only is it explicitly barred by law—the official working age in the country is 18—but since the issue first became public seven years ago, there has been an international campaign by the chocolate industry, governments and human rights organizations to eradicate the problem. Yet today child workers, many under the age of 10, are everywhere.

Parenti contextualizes the problem of child labor, telling us about the country’s recent civil war and economic turmoil. You have surely heard about “blood diamonds,” but have you heard about “blood chocolate?” “Like diamonds and timber,” explains Parenti, “cocoa became a so-called conflict resource.”

And as for the role of Big Chocolate:

The big cocoa exporters - Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM, Fortune 500), Barry Callebaut and Saf-Cacao - do not own plantations and do not directly employ child workers. Instead, they buy beans from Ivorian middlemen called pisteurs and treton. These middlemen own warehouses and fleets of flatbed trucks that travel deep into the jungle to buy cocoa from the small independent farmers who grow most of the crop. But labor and human rights activists charge that Big Chocolate has an obligation to improve working conditions on the farms where so many children toil.

Again, the idea that big corporations have human rights “obligations” is not exactly commonplace in the business press.

We asked Parenti how he had successfully pitched his article to Fortune, and he credited his girlfriend, Jessica Dimmock. Dimmock is a photographer who already had a working relationship with the magazine. She took the pictures for the piece on chocolate.

Parenti wasn’t sure why the business press might be interested in labor right now, but he did offer a general opinion on child-labor stories. These pieces have mass appeal, said Parenti, because they are “stark and simple.” Who, after all, supports the exploitation of children?

In fact, Parenti notes that his chocolate story is as much about the exploitation of parents as of their children—but that kind of angle doesn’t fly. Stories about laboring children, on the other hand, “have a perennial traction.”

Finally, here is Parenti on writing for a business magazine: writing for Fortune was pretty much like writing for a place like The Nation, Parenti says. “I expected it to be different.” He said he would pitch to Fortune again. “It’s not about where you write,” said Parenti, “It’s about what you get to write.”

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Elinore Longobardi is a Fellow and staff writer of The Audit, the business-press section of Columbia Journalism Review.