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4 ways management accountants can help prevent modern slavery

By Michael Rogerson, ACMA CGMA, is a Ph.D. student based at the Centre for Business, Organisations and Society in the School of Management at the University of Bath, UK

There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and goal No. 8 is to “promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”. This goal is rapidly growing in importance and attention as the extent of a worldwide “decent work” crisis becomes clear. Whilst it might be tempting to think of modern slavery as something that happens far away, recent documentaries and corporate scandals highlight that this is a problem everywhere, regardless of a country’s level of economic development. 

Supply chain management has been left to make decisions about ethical sourcing and conduct suitable supplier checks. But we have known for years that siloing important work limits the scope of efforts, isolates those carrying out the work and excludes key skills. Significant risks have been identified at various stages of the supply chains of products as diverse as our clothing, electronics and food. Those of us in product industries make these and other problematic products; those of us in the service sector buy them.  

It is time for accountants to play a greater — potentially a leading - role in delivering decent work for all to promote inclusive, sustainable growth. Here is where we can start: 

  1. Become the business partner your organisation needs

    The days of sitting in an isolated office, writing reports for departments we rarely see are over. Management accountants have become, officially or otherwise, business partners and advisers. Our data-centric opinions are trusted. That provides a great opportunity to be a catalyst for good. We can work with our commercial, procurement and supply chain management teams on the pricing contracts to identify red flags in supplier tenders. If something looks too good to be true, it just might be. 

  2. Look a little closer to home

    Those supply chains can be long, complex and opaque. But there are at-risk categories closer to home. The essential staff we might not see but certainly rely upon — cleaners, security guards and other contractors — can be vulnerable in some cases to exploitation by third parties. Work with HR on checking the status and contracts of the staff. Check costings by carrying out a basic cost analysis — can the contracting firm make adequate profits from the minimum wage, National Insurance or other tax contributions, assumed administration costs and profit margin you calculate? 

  3. Be the critical eye

    Be more broadly critical of the costs and sources of inputs for your organisation and its suppliers. The recent Boohoo scandal in the UK and others may have shown that there are risks in developed economies, but not all risks are created equal. Bangladeshi workers, in particular, have been pushed to the edge of starvation by corporate practices that better advice might have realigned during the COVID-19 shutdown.  

  4. Get involved directly

    There is an increasing amount of legislation on human rights and modern slavery. Much of that legislation is around disclosure, a subject that should need no introduction to management accountants. My research has found that those “leading” on this often do so because it has fallen to them rather than them having specific passion or expertise. Get involved in your own organisation’s reporting — critically. If your organisation hasn’t published one (whether obliged to or not), be the champion. There are resources out there to help you from sources such as Marks and Spencer and the Ethical Trading Initiative

No one should have to endure a lack of decent work. There are significant risks to individuals and therefore to our organisations from these issues. These risks are likely to grow as legislative and regulatory efforts to force corporate responsibility expand. As management accountants, we can make a difference here while becoming more visible within our organisations and adding to our skills. 

About the author:

Michael Rogerson, ACMA CGMA, is a Ph.D. student based at the Centre for Business, Organisations and Society in the School of Management at the University of Bath, UK. His research interests include accountability, disclosure and transparency on issues of social and environmental sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR), in particular around modern slavery. Before undertaking his Ph.D., Michael worked as financial controller for a multinational construction firm.