Classification is a quintessential characteristic of accounting. However, as many critical studies assert, it is not value-free. Particularly evident in times of global transformation, it can transcend a narrow business purpose to reveal socio-cultural implications. As the focus of this project, the interface of race and accounting within global sugar supply chains during the Interwar years is a contested subject (Fleischman & Tyson, 2000; 2002; Burrows, 2002).
This project explored previously untapped archival accounting, operations and occupational health records of the Hawaiian Sugar Plantations Association (HSPA) and the Hamakua Milling Company from 1921 to 1939 to shed further light on the ‘dark side of accounting’. The focus of the project was on attempts by plantation management and public health officials to measure and “improve” the productivity and occupational health of a migrant workforce. We find evidence of the control of worker movement, productivity and health based on racialised classifications, abetted by US colonial immigration and state public health policies. Archival materials suggest that plantation managers were aware of the distinct economic and social motivations of individual Filipino workers, the profiles of whom served as inputs into decisions to reduce worker turnover and make human ‘assets’ more ‘productive’. Here, categorisation and medicalisation of migrant workers were identified as social controls with the potential to increase labour productivity in an internationally competitive business environment that experienced labour shortages over an extended period.
Despite this, business imperatives also accommodated the job mobility aspirations of many Filipino migrant workers. The HSPA recognised differences in the ethnic backgrounds of migrant workers and the need to be sensitive to different cultural requirements within the broader Filipino migrant worker community. These findings are consistent with a business environment that is more interested in the mundane world of economic viability and the management of scarce resources than suppression of the economic aspirations of specific racial groups.