Swiss voters will decide on Sunday whether to impose the world’s strictest corporate responsibility rules, holding multinational companies based in the country responsible for abusive business practices around the world.
Recent polls show that a small majority supports the initiative to amend the Swiss constitution and compels the companies to ensure they and their suppliers respect strict human rights and environmental protection standards.
The initiative was launched by an alliance of 130 non-governmental organizations as part of the Swiss direct democracy system, and has the support of trade unions, church groups and actors across the political spectrum.
But that was opposed by the government and parliament, which have warned that despite good intentions, the law “went too far”.
They have submitted counter-proposals that also require companies to report rights, environmental protection and corruption issues – without taking responsibility for violations.
Supporters have stuck to Swiss cities with posters highlighting environmental degradation and human suffering caused by Swiss companies.
One of them shows an image of a sad looking girl in front of a Peruvian mine owned by mining giant Glencore, which has been blamed for polluting the local population with lead and other heavy metals.
Campaigners also underlined how long-banned pesticides in Switzerland are still being sold by agrochemical giant Syngenta in developing countries, and lamented the tiny particle pollution spewed from LafargeHolcim’s cement plant in Nigeria.
These and other multinational companies are important drivers of the Swiss economy, which at the end of 2018 counted nearly 29,000 such companies, accounting for more than a quarter of all jobs in the country, according to official statistics.
But while supporters of Sunday’s initiative acknowledge that most companies respect environmental rights and protections, they insist voluntary action isn’t enough to bring the rest in line.
“It’s clearly an illusion to say that the company will do everything on its own,” Chantal Peyer, spokesman for the Responsible Business initiative, told AFP.
“There are responsible companies that respect human rights, but unscrupulous companies don’t change.”
The Swiss business community, along with the government and parliament, argue that constitutional amendments could hurt all Swiss companies, not just badly behaved companies.
The campaign, according to Vincent Simon of the Swiss employers’ association, EconomieSuisse, has “done a lot of damage overall to our economy.”
That is especially true of companies named by name, he told AFP.
Simon said: “In general, we have tarnished our economic reputation even though we believe … that Swiss companies are quite exemplary as a whole.”
Swiss businesses and employers’ organizations hope the initiative will fail, which will automatically activate the government’s counter-proposals.
They have raised particular concerns over provisions that would hold Swiss-based businesses liable for violations by a subsidiary unless they can prove they have performed the required due diligence.
The company will be held “guilty until proven not guilty”, Nestle President Paul Bulcke warned in an interview with public broadcaster RTS.
Glencore chief Ivan Glasenberg agreed, warning in a recent interview with the newspaper Neue Zurcher Zeitung that “anyone can then come to Switzerland to try their case in court”, and benefit from “reversing the burden of proof”.
But he insisted that although Glencore “may have to hire more lawyers, nothing has changed in the way we operate our mines”.
He also dismissed suggestions that passing the initiative would encourage large multinational companies like Glencore to pack up and leave Switzerland.
But he warned that “companies active in developing countries will think twice before moving their headquarters to Switzerland.”
Jean-Daniel Pasche, head of the Swiss Watch Industry Federation, warned that even if the companies prove in court they acted in good faith, “there could be reputational damage”.
Such damage, he told AFP, was difficult to repair.
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