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January 25, 2021 05:50 PM

Accounting for Modern Slavery: What are we waiting for?

Posted by Charles Cho

A blog by Charles Cho and Michael Rogerson

Modern slavery has come to cover a range of labour abuses incorporating issues such as debt bondage and child labour as well as the United Nations’ ‘Decent Work’ goal (Sustainability Development Goal #8). The scale of the problem is estimated in the tens of millions of cases. Stakeholders, including legislators, are paying growing attention to this significant issue, particularly by demanding transparency from large firms which are positioned as focal firms in supply chains, hence presumably have a perceived influence to dictate social responsibility to their suppliers. Since the Transparency in Supply Chains Act came into force in California in 2012, the UK (2015) and Australia (2018) have followed suit in mandating disclosure from large companies.

To date, however, academic research (and teaching) in the fields of accounting and management has been limited (Caruana et al., 2020, refer to a “sad and sorry state of a non-field”). In fact, there remains a preponderance for a business case on CSR activities generally, in the case of modern slavery regardless of the human costs of a lack of responsible action. Researchers appear not to know where the subject should lie, with supply chain journals lacking labour supply chain papers, human resources researchers apparently unable to see that there is a relevant angle for them, and accounting scholars following their slow uptake of environmental accounting by largely ignoring modern slavery as a social accounting issue (Caruana et al., 2020). But the limited research that has been conducted largely echoes wider perceptions that these pieces of legislation lack teeth and have induced neither the organizational change envisaged by legislators nor genuine transparency from respondent firms. Over five years after the mandated disclosure in the UK (Modern Slavery 2015), around 20% of firms in scope of the legislation have failed to publish a single statement and only 30% of respondent companies have fully complied even with its light-touch expectations.

Research on responses to modern slavery legislation so far suggests the need for a catalyst for the study of issues from current reporting practice to gender implications to cultural factors underpinning the practice. As guest co-editors Christ, Burritt, and Schaltegger had suggested in their call for papers of the now published special section “Accounting for Modern Slavery, Employees and Work Conditions in Business” in Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, “Adaptation through reporting and transparency is currently the favoured approach for dealing with issues relating to modern slavery, employees and work conditions.” While work has begun on this aspect, however, little is known for how organizations account for modern slavery in their operations. Accounting scholars have largely taken a broader approach than the legislation (Christ et al., 2020), studying the boundaries of reporting on supply chain risks (Antonini et al., 2020), auditing supply chains (Siddiqui et al., 2020), and accounting for issues around health and safety (Passetti et al., 2020) and pay (Yang et al., 2020). However, little attention has been paid to the problem in the context of public organizations. This is important because the public sector spends hundreds of billions of euros every year and therefore potentially wields a great deal of influence over supply chains. Therefore, whereas the leverage that the public sector exerts can be a key tool in efforts to address modern slavery (Martin-Ortega, 2018), public organizations have proven no better than private firms at disclosing meaningful information in response to the Modern Slavery Act 2015 so far (Martin-Ortega, 2017). In our study (Rogerson et al., 2020, also part of the special section), we sought to extend this emerging literature to UK higher education, which spends over £15bn annually. Through interviews with key personnel, we found that universities comply with the legislation to a higher degree than the overall average. However, we discovered a lack of engagement at Council (i.e. Board) level; that prior legislation and the structure of higher education procurement mean that universities do not possess the supply chain management expertise to tackle modern slavery; and that these structures, designed to create economies of scale in the sector, mean that universities have responded collectively to the legislation and therefore against the spirit of the Act.

In 2020 The British Accounting Review offered scholars an opportunity to enrich the accounting literature regarding modern slavery with a special issue on “Modern Slavery and the Accounting Profession” (the deadline was December 15, 2020). Regardless of its output, there will remain significant gaps in our knowledge of how the accounting profession is responding to modern slavery legislation from a disclosure standpoint; how organizations are accounting for modern slavery risks in their operations; how those two areas meet at the juncture of accountability. Modern slavery is an organizational risk—but above all it remains a web of millions of human tragedies. There is no time to waste and we call on accounting academics to investigate the issue and those around it with the urgency they require. Our paper shows that the legislation favoured by governments in tackling modern slavery has failed. As an academic field, we are collectively in danger of following suit.

References

Antonini, C., Beck, C. and Larrinaga, C. (2020). Subpolitics and sustainability reporting boundaries. The case of working conditions in global supply chains. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 33(7), 1535-1567.

Caruana, R., Crane, A., Gold, S. and LeBaron, G. (2020). Modern slavery in business: The sad and sorry state of a non-field. Business & Society, 60(2), 251-287.

Christ, K.L., Burritt, R.L. and Schaltegger, S. (2020). Accounting for work conditions from modern slavery to decent work. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 33(7), 1481-1504.

Martin-Ortega, O. (2017). Human rights risks in global supply chains: Applying the UK Modern Slavery Act to the public sector. Global Policy, 8(4), 512-521.

Martin-Ortega, O. (2018). Due diligence, reporting and transparency in supply chains: The United Kingdom Modern Slavery Act. In: Bonfanti, A. (ed.) Business and Human Rights in Europe: International Law Challenges. Transnational Law and Governance. Routledge: London.

Passetti, E., Battaglia, M., Testa, F. and Heras-Saizarbitoria, I. (2020). Multiple control mechanisms for employee health and safety integration: effects and complementarity. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 33(7), 1595-1626.

Rogerson, M., Crane, A., Soundararajan, V., Grosvold, J. and Cho, C.H. (2020). Organisational responses to mandatory modern slavery disclosure legislation: A failure of experimentalist governance? Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 33(7), 1505-1534.

Siddiqui, J., McPhail, K. and Rahman, S.S. (2020). Private governance responsibilisation in global supply chains: the case of Rana Plaza. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 33(7), 1569-1594.

Yang, D., Dumay, J. and Tweedie, D. (2020). Accounting for the ‘uncounted’ workers: a dialectical view of accounting through Rancière. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 33(7), 1627-1655.

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About Charles Cho

YORK UNIVERSITY
Professor of Accounting and Erivan K. Haub Chair in Business & Sustainability

Charles H. Cho is Professor of Accounting and Erivan K. Haub Chair in Business & Sustainability at the Schulich School of Business, York University Canada. See full profile here: http://schulich.yorku.ca/faculty/charles-cho/

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