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Child labour in the Caribbean

Lesley John, ACCA Caribbean Thursday, January 12 2017

Children have an important place in our society. Investing financial resources is crucial for ensuring children can reach their potential.

Childhood is a unique stage in our development. The quality of food, water, affection and education that children receive can impact on their subsequent lives and their potential to become engaged and productive citizens. This time presents a unique opportunity for governments and organisations to “level the playing field” for children from poorer backgrounds through investments.

Many businesses across the Caribbean recognise this and create opportunities to benefit millions of children across the region. Most recently, The Sandals Foundation, the non-profit arm of Sandals Resorts International, announced a new collaboration with School Specialty, Inc for the Pack for a Purpose program. This partnership will further assist travellers to Sandals Resorts and Beaches Resorts, who wish to bring along much-needed supplies for local schools across the Caribbean supported by the company. The partnership comes at a crucial time following the effects Hurricane Matthew which has caused many problems regionally.

Unfortunately, childhood can be robbed from children when they become involved in child labour. Child labour is work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity and that is harmful to their development. This includes work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous; work that is harmful to children; work that interferes with their schooling and engaging children in work who are under the minimum working age(s) set by national legislation or international standards.

Children often lack a public voice: they cannot vote or form trade unions; they cannot influence companies through the purchase of stocks and shares and attending shareholder meetings. As such, businesses have a responsibility to consider their impacts on children’s rights.

Children around the world remain vulnerable. They are still exploited. In 2012, statistics from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) say that in the Caribbean and Latin America, there are some 17,843 children in employment; 12,505 are in child labour, and 9,638 undertaking hazardous work.

Globally, it is estimated that 168 million children work as child labourers, and 85 million children are involved in hazardous work. With so many children at risk of child labour, there’s still a long way to go to eradicate it from Caribbean society.

Perhaps the most infamous cases of child labour exploitation are linked to the retail industry, in particular clothing. Retailers sourcing goods and raw materials from around the world face numerous challenges in relation to children’s rights, especially as production is often based in developing economies where there is a high risk that child labour will be involved at one or more points in the supply chain. Other sectors at risk of child labour include agriculture and the services sector, including hotel work, manufacturing and restaurants, motor vehicle repair and maintenance.

The financial services sector is also not immune to the impacts of child labour, not for its impact through the direct employment of children, but for its financing of businesses and activities that could be involved in child labour or the abuse of young workers. Financial institutions can find themselves under pressure to perform proper due diligence on potential investments. This is perhaps an effect of globalisation, where supply chains lengthen and control and oversight lessen.

Finance directors and their accounting teams need to be aware of this important issue because it is of direct relevance to them. It has repercussions for corporate risk, corporate governance and corporate reporting. Demands for audit, measurement and transparency will only increase when it comes to child rights.

The boardroom is instrumental in defining a company’s policy and its direction. Board members need to be mindful that implementing policies on children’s rights can bring many advantages, especially at a time when leading companies are looking to enhance their business models by integrating long-term planning into their core business strategy. It is fundamental for company boards to look deep into their supply chains and implement immediate solutions where rights are violated.

Even where companies have in place policies and procedures designed to minimise the risk of being involved in child labour, cases can and do still arise. Legal action, negative media coverage, reputational damage, loss of business and reduced investor support are just some of the consequences.

Businesses have increasing opportunities to work with NGOs and charitable organisations, and to join forces with other corporate entities in sector-wide initiatives. The accounting profession needs to be aware and be prepared, especially as globalisation extends supply chains and operations across borders. This expansion increases risks of a business’s association with potential violations of children’s rights.

Protecting children’s rights is fundamental to good business. The reality is that if business and finance leaders fail to take account of children’s rights, they run ethical, reputational and legal risks that affect the bottom line.

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