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Accounting and Human Rights: Javed Siddiqui

Javed Siddiqui explains how accounting is now playing a key role in the fields of sustainability and human rights.

Tell us about your area of research?
I particularly look at developing economies and issues around sustainability, accounting, auditing and corporate governance. This is a very fast changing area with global institutions such as UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development), the World Bank and the IFAC (International Federation of Accountants) playing a key role in moving these issues higher up the global business and political agenda.

How are these themes reflected in your own teaching?
Extensively. For instance we recently started running a new masters course on corporate governance in an accounting context which specifically looks at how corporate governance and the auditing regulatory landscape is changing in countries such as India and China.

I thought accounting was just about the study of numbers?
Absolutely not! As accounting academics we have been talking about numbers for a very long time, but numbers do not always tell the whole story. For instance, businesses have a clear responsibility for human rights, and that means – by extension – that there is a significant impact on the accounting and finance profession in terms of ensuring greater accountability and transparency.

Give us an example of the kind of research you are involved with?
These issues are perfectly illustrated by the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in 2013 in which more than 1,000 people died when a garments factory collapsed. I have been particularly studying the aftermath of the tragedy and new labour laws that were subsequently introduced by the government. I have also been looking at the success of various new accords and agreements that Western companies which produce goods in Bangladesh have signed up to.

How successful have the government measures been?
I think it is mixed. For instance there is now a requirement to have labour unions in Bangladeshi factories, but so far only a few carefully selected people have been able to join such unions. Meanwhile, in terms of the health and safety regulations that the government has introduced, there are concerns that this is something of a procedural tick-box exercise which still ignores the fundamental rights of workers. Sometimes the regulations imposed by Western settings are not going to work unless the right institutional environment is created.

What about the response of Western companies?
They have promised a lot, but whether they are truly delivering on those promises remains open to question. The agreements they have signed are often very specific in terms of their aims – such as fully auditing fire safety and building safety regulations which is obviously to be welcomed. But I feel the wider debate still has some way to go. Are we as Western consumers still happy paying £5 for a pair of jeans? These are the fundamental questions we need to ask. Rana provided a real jolt to this whole debate, but that doesn’t mean the debate is settled.

You are originally from Bangladesh yourself. How does this help in your research?
I was a lecturer in Bangladesh and came to Manchester in 2002 because of the Business School’s excellent reputation to do my masters and then PhD. If I had returned to Bangladesh I don’t think I would have been able to achieve what I have done in terms of my research and teaching. From my standpoint here in Manchester and the West I feel I can better contribute to these complex global issues.

Do you regularly visit Bangladesh?
Yes, and because I can speak the language that can be a great help not just when I am carrying out my own field research, but for other academics who want an introduction to the country. However these areas of study are not just about Bangladesh, but about other emerging nations too such as Vietnam, India, Pakistan and China. Looking ahead, my plan is very much to extend my research into these other emerging nations in the future.

Javed Siddiqui is senior lecturer in accounting at Alliance Manchester Business School.