A BBC Investigation reveals luxury perfume companies such as L’Oréal and Estée Lauder have been linked to child labour

It’s payday. You’ve been seduced by yet another advert, promising that all your problems will melt away with a miracle cream, or that the love of your life will gallop in on a noble steed with just one spritz of a luxurious perfume. You think, “Hey, why not?” and decide to treat yourself. What could possibly be the harm in that? But have you ever paused to consider the real price we’re paying for luxury?

An investigation by the BBC into last summer’s supply chains has uncovered the shocking truth about some of your favourite high-end perfume brands. Suppliers for Lancôme, Aerin Beauty, and many others have been found to use child labour for harvesting the jasmine used in their perfumes. A cycle that is becoming ever so familiar in high end retailers and luxury products; neglect, ignorance and swaying morals.

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These perfume giants, dubbed “the masters” by independent perfumer and BBC insider Christophe Laudamiel, are notorious for enforcing tight budgets on fragrance houses to secure the cheapest oils for their bottles. These masters include well-known brands Estée Lauder and L’Oréal, which are driven by the pursuit of profit and work with suppliers that exploit vulnerable populations to meet the demand for jasmine at the lowest possible cost. Low production costs paired with high retail prices ensure enormous profits, but this gain comes with compromised values. Laudamiel reveals that these companies see themselves as above regulatory salaries, and their stringent budgets trickle down to factories and, ultimately, the jasmine pickers.

The BBC’s findings introduce us to Heba, a mother of four who works at a smallholder farm in Egypt’s jasmine-rich Gharbia region as an “independent picker.” Every day, she wakes her children at 3 a.m. to begin the grueling task of picking jasmine. Her children, aged 5 to 15, toil tirelessly through the night, their small hands meticulously gathering the delicate flowers. Despite their exhaustive efforts, Heba receives only £1.15 for every 1.5 kilograms of jasmine they collect.

This paltry compensation barely covers her family’s basic needs. With wages at an all-time low in Egypt and urban inflation rates soaring from 8.5% to 24.39% between 2022 and 2023 (Statista), leaving many families like Heba’s in a cycle of living below the poverty line. The long hours and strenuous work take a significant toll on Heba and her children. Her 10-year-old daughter, Basmalla, has developed a severe eye allergy. A doctor warned that without treatment, her vision could be permanently affected if she continues picking jasmine. Yet, faced with limited choices and the low price of jasmine, they are forced into this labour, working side by side with their mother to make ends meet. Heba’s plight is not unique; numerous other sources report that many pickers on smallholder farms are no older than 14, despite Egyptian child labour laws prohibiting work between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.

The BBC asserts in its findings, “We have discovered the auditing systems the perfume industry uses to check on supply chains are deeply flawed”—a stark contradiction to the industry’s claims of ethical sourcing and transparency. Heba’s experience, along with those of other minors at four different smallholder farms, exemplifies the neglect within these major brands’ supply chains and their wilful blindness towards cheap labour to maintain vast profit margins.

These revelations about multi-billion-dollar industries expose the ethical breaches within the beauty sector. The stories of Heba and her four children, alongside other minors working in jasmine farms and factories, raise pressing questions about corporate responsibility and the true cost of luxury. The promises of high-end products are overshadowed by the harsh reality of child labour at their core, highlighting the urgent need to scrutinise the origins of the ingredients in these products. Until then, the allure of luxury perfumes remains tainted by the hidden suffering behind the fragrance.

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