Coalition calls on SASB to tighten human rights requirements as investors celebrate modern slavery successes at UK firms

Move comes as SASB looks to update its human capital management framework

The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) has been urged to strengthen disclosure on workers’ collective bargaining rights and the risk of forced labour by a coalition including Oxfam, As You Sow and Domini Impact Investments.

SASB – the influential sustainability disclosure standard for companies – has just closed a consultation on how it addresses human capital management.

Human capital disclosure topics, such as human rights, safety and diversity, are currently present in 50 out of 77 industries (65%) covered by SASB. It started the Human Capital Research Project to help it more adequately address evolving and emerging human capital issues.

In a preliminary human capital framework, SASB highlighted issues such as labour conditions in supply chains, the “alternative workforce”, mental health and wellbeing, workplace culture and race and gender.  

Disclosure requirements from SASB are industry-specific and focus on areas considered financially material. The consultation finds some issues such as labour conditions in supply chains have evidence of being material due to drivers such as regulation, whereas other themes such as mental health would benefit from additional evidence demonstrating a clearer connection to financial materiality.  

In response to the consultation, a coalition including Oxfam, Rights CoLab and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, welcomed SASB’s work, saying understanding how all workers are treated is “critical to understanding the whole company” and that it will bring SASB in step with emerging law on mandatory human rights due diligence. 

However, the coalition also says that SASB should go further, recommending that it identifies and develops metrics around issues such as the denial of right to unionise and the risk of forced labour, rather than focusing on certificates and audits, which “risk yielding lagging indicators focused on harm after it has occurred”.

“Well-crafted metrics could reveal underlying conditions likely to yield negative impacts that would be of more value to investors,” the group says, suggesting metrics developed by the Workforce Disclosure Initiative (part of the coalition), and the Human Capital Management Coalition could be a useful resource. 

They also say additional research could demonstrate the financial materiality of a wider range of human capital issues than currently contemplated. Rights CoLab is working with Columbia University on generating this evidence. 

The move comes as human and labour rights climb the responsible investment agenda. Today, a group of 20 investors hailed the success of its efforts to improve modern slavery disclosure and management at UK companies, after securing commitments from 20 listed firms. 

The Votes Against Slavery (VAS) initiative was convened last year by Rathbones, via the Principles for Responsible Investment’s Collaboration Platform, and represents investors with £3.2trn of assets under management, including Legal & General, Man Group, Brunel Pension Partnership and USS.

It has worked with 22 FTSE350 companies to encourage them to comply with existing reporting requirements under the UK Modern Slavery Act of 2015, which include monitoring and reporting on modern slavery in their supply chains. 

Rathbones said that compliance with the requirements has so far been “patchy and lacking in depth”, and that a “vacuum of enforcement” resulted in a need for investors to step in. 

The only two companies not to have adequately improved as a result of the engagement are Pollen Street Lending and Sports Direct International, according to VAS. Improvements have been made by the remaining 20 firms: Centrica, Dechra Pharmaceuticals, Greggs, TI Fluid Systems, Carnival, AJ Bell, Cairn Energy, Spirent Communications, Plus500, IWG, Mitchells & Butlers, Polymetal International, 888 Holdings, Aggreko, Premier Oil, RHI Magnesita, BBGI Sicav, Brewin Dolphin, Grainger and Safestore Holdings.

Coalition members were said to be prepared to “use their strongest power of censure – voting against the report and accounts” if adequate commitments are not made.

“We are only scratching the surface of the pervasive problem of forced labour and human trafficking,” said Matt Crossman, Stewardship Director at Rathbones. “Investors are stepping up to play their role; we expect companies to go further and faster in their fight against slavery. Compliance with the Act is only the beginning.”

These results follow a study led by Dame Sara Thornton, the UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, and in partnership with Themis and the TRIBE Freedom Foundation, which found that almost half of senior managers in the UK financial services sector are unaware of forced labour and exploitation. Many said they viewed modern slavery statements as “nothing but a tick box exercise”. Dame Thornton has written to the CEOs of the 50 major financial institutions and a follow-up report is due in May.

Last week RI also reported that Norges Bank Investment Management had come out in support of plans by the EU to introduce tighter rules on how companies monitor human rights and environmental risks.