Luxury perfumes linked to child labour, BBC finds

Basmalla in the jasmine fields
Basmalla,10. and her siblings pick jasmine through the night to help their mother make ends meet [BBC]

Children have picked ingredients used by suppliers to two major beauty companies, the BBC can reveal.

A BBC investigation into last summer's perfume supply chains found jasmine used by Lancôme and Aerin Beauty's suppliers was picked by minors.

All the luxury perfume brands claim to have zero tolerance on child labour.

L'Oréal, Lancôme's owner, said it was committed to respecting human rights. Estée Lauder, Aerin Beauty's owner, said it had contacted its suppliers.

The jasmine used in Lancôme Idôle L'Intense - and Ikat Jasmine and Limone Di Sicilia for Aerin Beauty - comes from Egypt, which produces about half the world's supply of jasmine flowers - a key perfume ingredient.

Industry insiders told us the handful of companies that own many luxury brands are squeezing budgets, resulting in very low pay. Egyptian jasmine pickers say this forces them to involve their children.

And we have discovered the auditing systems the perfume industry uses to check on supply chains are deeply flawed.

The UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Tomoya Obokata, said he was disturbed by the World Service's evidence, which includes undercover filming in Egyptian jasmine fields during last year's picking season.

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

Heba - who lives in a village in the district of Gharbia, the heart of Egypt's jasmine region - wakes her family at 03:00 to begin picking the flowers before the sun's heat damages them.

Heba says she needs her four children - aged from 5 to 15 - to help. Like most jasmine pickers in Egypt, she is what is known as an "independent picker" and works on a smallholder farm. The more she and her children can pick, the more they earn.

On the night we filmed her, she and her children managed to pick 1.5kg of jasmine flowers. After paying a third of her earnings to the land owner, she was left with roughly US$1.5 [£1.18] for that night's work. This is worth less than ever before, given inflation in Egypt is at an all-time high, and pickers are often living below the poverty line.

Heba picking jasmine with a head torch
Heba's family share one head torch to try to see what they are doing [BBC]

Heba's 10-year-old daughter Basmalla has also been diagnosed with a severe eye allergy. At a medical consultation we attended with her, the doctor told her that her vision will be affected if she continues jasmine picking without treating the inflammation.

Once the jasmine has been picked and weighed, it is transferred via collection points to one of several local factories which extract oil from the flowers - the main three being A Fakhry and Co, Hashem Brothers and Machalico. Each year, it is the factories that set the price for the jasmine picked by people like Heba.

It is difficult to say exactly how many of the 30,000 people involved in Egypt's jasmine industry are children. But during the summer of 2023 the BBC filmed across this region and spoke to many residents who told us the low price for jasmine meant they needed to include their children in their work.

Montage of children harvesting perfume in Gharbia, Egypt
Children the BBC saw picking jasmine for perfume [BBC]

We witnessed that, at four different locations, a significant number of pickers working on smallholder farms - which supply the main factories - were children under the age of 15. Multiple sources also told us that there were children working on farms directly owned by the Machalico factory, so we went undercover to film there and found pickers who told us their ages ranged from 12 to 14.

It is illegal for anyone under the age of 15 to work in Egypt between the hours of 19:00 and 07:00.

The factories export the jasmine oil to international fragrance houses where the perfumes are created. Givaudan, based in Switzerland is one of the largest, and has a longstanding relationship with A Fakhry and Co.

Undercover filming of a child picking jasmine on a factory farm in Gharbia
A child we met during undercover filming on a farm belonging to the Machalico perfume factory [BBC]

But it is the perfume companies above them - which include L'Oréal and Estée Lauder - which hold all the power, according to independent perfumer Christophe Laudamiel and several other industry insiders.

Known as "the masters", they set the brief and a very tight budget for the fragrance houses, he said.

"The masters' interest is to have the cheapest oil possible to put in the fragrance bottle," and then to sell it at the highest possible price, said Mr Laudamiel, who spent years working inside one of the fragrance houses.

"They actually don't govern the salary or the wages of the harvesters, nor the actual price of jasmine, because they are beyond that," he explained.

But he said that because of the budget that they set, the pressure on wages "trickles down" - to the factories, and ultimately, the pickers.

"There's a big disconnect between the preciousness that is talked about in the marketing talk, and what is actually given to the harvesters," he added.

Christophe Laudamiel, independent perfumer
Christophe Laudamiel says budgets are being squeezed [BBC]

In their promotional material, the perfume companies and fragrance houses paint a picture of ethical sourcing practices. Every employer in the supply chain has also signed a letter of commitment to the UN, pledging to abide by its guidelines regarding safe working practices and eliminating child labour.

The issue, according to a senior executive with fragrance house Givaudan, is the lack of oversight the perfume companies have of their supply chains.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the executive said these companies relied on the fragrance houses to instruct third-party auditing companies to check for due diligence.

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The auditing firms most often mentioned by the conglomerates and fragrance houses on their websites, and in letters to the UN, are Sedex and UEBT. Their audit reports are not publicly available but by posing as a buyer looking for ethically sourced jasmine, we managed to get the factory A Fakhry and Co to send both of them to us.

The report from UEBT, based on a visit to the factory last year, shows there was an indication of a human rights issue, but it doesn't go into detail. Despite this, the company was given a "verification", which means it can say it offers "responsibly sourced jasmine oil".

UEBT, in its response to this, said: "One company has been issued a responsible sourcing attestation, subject to an action plan… valid till mid 2024, and will be withdrawn if… not implemented."

The Sedex report gave the factory a glowing assessment, but it was clear from its write-up that the visit had been pre-announced, and only the factory site itself had been audited, and not the smallholder farms it sourced jasmine from.

Sedex told us that it was "firmly against all forms of labour rights abuses. But no one tool alone can or should be relied on to uncover and remediate all environmental and human rights risks or impacts."

Lawyer Sarah Dadush, founder of the Responsible Contracting Project, which seeks to improve human rights in global supply chains, said the BBC's investigation "reveals… that those systems aren't working".

The issue, she said, is that "the auditors are only auditing what they're paid to audit", and this might not include the price paid to the labour force - "a major root cause" of child labour.

A Fakhry and Co told us that child labour is prohibited in both its farm and factory, but that the vast majority of its jasmine is sourced from independent collectors. "In 2018, under the monitoring of the UEBT, we commenced the Jasmine Plant Protection Products Mitigation Project, which imposes a prohibition on individuals under the age of 18 working on the farms." It added that "by any comparable standards in Egypt, jasmine picking is well-remunerated".

Machalico said it does not use pickers under the age of 18, and said it had increased the price it pays for jasmine for the past two years, and will do so again this year. Hashem Brothers said our report was "based on misleading information".

Basmalla on the way to a medical appointment
Basmalla on the way to a medical appointment for the eye allergy she has developed [BBC]

Givaudan, the fragrance house which makes Lancôme Idôle L'Intense, described our investigation as "deeply alarming", adding "it's incumbent upon us all to continue taking action to remove the risk of child labour entirely".

Firmenich, the fragrance house which makes Ikat Jasmine and Limone Di Sicilia for Aerin Beauty, and in summer 2023 sourced jasmine from Machalico, told us it was now using a new supplier in Egypt. It added that it will "support initiatives that seek to collectively address this issue with industry partners and local jasmine farmers".

We also put the findings of the investigation to the perfume masters.

L'Oréal said it was "actively committed to respecting the most protective internationally recognised human rights standards", adding that it "never request[s] Fragrance Houses to go lower than the market price for ingredients at the expense of farmers. Despite our strong commitments… we know that in certain parts of the world where L'Oréal suppliers operate there are risks to our commitments being upheld."

It added: "Whenever an issue arises, L'Oréal works proactively to identify the underlying causes and the way to resolve the issue. In January 2024, our partner performed an on-site human rights impact assessment to identify potential human rights violations and find ways to prevent and mitigate them, with a focus on the child labour risks."

Estée Lauder said: "We believe the rights of all children should be protected. And we have contacted our suppliers to investigate this very serious matter. We recognise the complex socio-economic environment surrounding the local jasmine supply chain, and we are taking action to gain better transparency and to work toward improving the livelihoods of sourcing communities."

Back in Gharbia, jasmine picker Heba was shocked when we told her the price perfume was selling for on the international market.

"People here are worth nothing," she said.

"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."

But lawyer Sarah Dadush said the responsibility does not lie with the consumer.

"This is not a problem that should be for us to solve. We need law… we need corporate accountability, and that cannot just be on the consumers."