Switzerland at the polls for “responsible multinationals”

Posted on Nov 28, 2020 at 10:31 AM

Sunday, November 29, the Swiss population is called to the polls to vote on the initiative “for responsible companies”. If the latter is passed, large groups domiciled in Switzerland will have to ensure very seriously that human rights and the environment are respected in their activities abroad. If a violation were committed by one of its branches outside Swiss borders, the firm that oversees it would be held responsible – unless it can show that it has exercised due diligence to prevent the damage. The initiative opens up the possibility for injured parties abroad to initiate civil proceedings in Switzerland to obtain reparations.

Support from 130 NGOs

The initiative collected 120,418 signatures to be brought before voters. Within civil society, it has the support of more than 130 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) active in the fields of human rights, the environment and development, that of the Conference of Bishops and the Reformed Evangelical Church of Switzerland and that of a Committee of Entrepreneurs. At the political level, the text is defended by the Socialist Party, the Greens, and the Evangelical Party.

For decades, scandals denounced by NGOs have shown that voluntary measures by companies are not enough to prevent human rights violations and environmental damage. Among the examples highlighted, a pesticide from Sygenta which poisons farmers in India or a large LafargeHolcim cement plant near the village of Ewekoro, in Nigeria, which creates a lot of dust and whose harmful particles fall into the water that the population drinks and uses for cooking. According to the doctors, the inhabitants of this village suffer from irreversible damage to the liver, lungs and spleen.

“Contaminated drinking water, poisoned child, responsible multinational”

The initiative was the subject of a large poster campaign across the country. A poster shows a little girl in front of the Cerro de Pasco mine in Peru, operated by a Glencore subsidiary. Air and water are poisoned with heavy metals. “Water contaminated drinking, poisoned child, multinational held responsible “, can we read on the poster.

Opponents of the initiative are employers’ organizations, such as Economiesuisse, and the majority of cantonal chambers of commerce. Several associations and federations of specific branches are also opposed to it, such as those of cosmetics and detergents or pharmaceutical companies.

Parliament and the Federal Council (government) consider that this initiative “Goes too far”. They recommended that voters vote against. No European country has such strict rules. France adopted in 2017 a law on the duty of vigilance which forces large companies to prevent social, environmental and governance risks related to their operations abroad. The Netherlands adopted a text against child labor in supply chains.

Counter productive

In reality, argue its opponents, the text could be counterproductive if Swiss groups like Glencore, faced with the increased risk of complaints, decide to leave countries where they invest and create jobs. Parliament has therefore drawn up a counter-project which pursues the same objectives but with rules “Co-ordinated at international level”. It will be activated if voters reject the initiative.

This popular initiative comes at a time when Europe wants to draft a directive next year aimed at increasing the responsibility of companies and their managers (in particular that of members of boards of directors) in terms of creating sustainable value.

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