Company legal rights or human legal rights? Swiss vote shines spotlight on companies

ZURICH (Reuters) – A billboard of a runny-nosed, dour-faced girl framed by Glencore’s sprawling zinc mine in Peru greets commuters at Zurich’s major educate station with an ominous slogan: “Water contaminated. Baby poisoned. Commodities business liable.”

A banner looking through: “Accountable Small business Initiative – Of course on November 29” is observed beside a highway around Stallikon, Switzerland November 23, 2020. Photo taken November 23, 2020. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

As the only big mining business based mostly in Switzerland, Glencore has turn out to be the unwilling poster youngster of a marketing campaign to alter the structure so Swiss corporations are liable at household for human rights abuses or environmental hurt they induce abroad.

Voters will now choose in a referendum on Sunday in between the new proposals and a milder authorities model that would force corporations to action up checks on their abroad operations and offer chains but stops limited of extending liability to Swiss courts.

In a marketing campaign that has polarized the nation, the authorities and multinationals say the Responsible Company Initiative goes way too considerably, even though activists, spiritual teams and many political factions say Switzerland challenges falling guiding other nations in tackling progressive social and economic issues with out it.

Glencore for just one suggests the accusations levelled towards it by the marketing campaign are misplaced, and incorrect.

Because using a the greater part stake in 2017 in the Cerro de Pasco mine pictured in the billboard, Glencore reported it experienced performed much to tackle considerations about pollution from the site which occurred right before it took about.

“It hurts us to see these accusations,” Glencore Chief Government Ivan Glasenberg instructed Swiss newspaper NZZ.

SwissHoldings, which represents Swiss multinationals such as pharmaceutical giants Novartis and Roche, foodstuff company Nestle, and Glencore, says it is self-obvious the problems lifted by the initiative need to be tackled.

But it states the proposed measures could press up compliance charges and authorized risks for corporations to the stage wherever they shun some components of the earth, most likely leaving companies in the hands of firms that may well not just take the identical precautions.

“The worst that could take place would be that folks like us who are at the forefront of sustainability … are forced to shift out of certain geographies since of a legislation that has a excellent reason but is improperly executed,” stated Antoine de Saint-Affrique, chief executive of Swiss chocolate maker Barry Callebaut.

“You wouldn’t address the problem, you would make the problem greater,” he informed reporters.


House to some of the world’s most significant providers and a key hub for finance and commodities investing, Switzerland has turn into a person of the world’s leading professional centres many thanks to its small business-pleasant legislation, rules and lower taxes as perfectly as its record of political neutrality and economic security.

But with 3 times to go, polls advise the providers and the government are getting rid of the argument. A study by Swiss broadcaster SRF confirmed 57% of those polled backed the dependable business enterprise initiative around the govt proposal.

The authorities claims it supports the ethos of the initiative but that its version is in line with worldwide criteria as it leaves overseas subsidiaries and suppliers economically managed by multinationals liable for their very own damage, typically in foreign courts.

But for Florian Wettstein, a company ethics professor at the University of St. Gallen and co-organiser of the Accountable Business enterprise Initiative, it’s also about Switzerland preserving up with international progress on sustainable organization practices.

“Switzerland tends to drop more to the base of the pack, not just in terms of human rights but also on socially economically progressive problems. The educate is heading quite fast and, without the need of the initiative, we danger missing it as soon as once more,” Wettstein informed Reuters.

A European Union proposal could deliver in even extra stringent legal responsibility legal guidelines for businesses in the bloc even though nations these types of as France, Britain and Canada have currently enacted legislation targeting liability on all or some human legal rights in company concerns.

In Switzerland, the initiative could lead to sharper scrutiny of the country’s commodities hub and the institutions that finance it, traders and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Switzerland and abroad told Reuters.

Besides Glencore, rival commodities traders Vitol, Gunvor and Mercuria all have head places of work in Switzerland and Trafigura has a important buying and selling operation there.

Anneke Van Woudenberg, government director of RAID, an NGO in London which exposes company wrongdoing, mentioned the Swiss initiative could also have a preventive effect, by offering companies incentives to take more care.

RAID submitted a grievance to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Enhancement in September against Glencore.

The complaint states a spill at an oilfield in Chad owned by PetroChad Mangara Ltd, a Glencore subsidiary, brought on accidents and environmental injury. Glencore denies wrongdoing.

Below the Swiss initiative, Glencore would have to exhibit that it took all vital steps to ease the spill and any damage induced, if a lawsuit were being filed in Switzerland.

“That would be important to any defence if Chadian citizens arrived forward claiming human rights harms,” Van Woudenberg stated.

Incorrect Instruments?

Each sides have poured money into the marketing campaign and foremost Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger has estimated it will be the most costly voting campaign of all time in a place that retains far more referendums than any other country.

If the initiative is handed, huge organizations and these in substantial-threat organizations would have to check that things to do during their offer chains complied with internationally recognised human rights and environmental requirements.

Much more critically, they would also be liable in Swiss courts if victims can demonstrate problems was caused by companies they handle.

The initiative would be a lot more progressive than equivalent regulations in France as it places additional burden on companies to demonstrate they took actions via their because of diligence to stay clear of harm – fairly than victims owning to establish they did not.

Denise Laufer, head of economics at SwissHoldings, reported its members get the job done with up to 400,000 immediate suppliers and a million downstream suppliers globally, and the initiative could increase compliance expenses and lawful hazards by 20% and 25% respectively.

“We plainly assist the determination to defend and strengthen human rights and the ecosystem alongside the offer chain of our corporations,” she stated. “But these instruments are the wrong types.”

It is not just the commodities sector that is shelling out heed.

This thirty day period, the chairmen of 16 of Switzerland’s largest industrial, financial and customer goods corporations signed a complete-page letter in 1 of the country’s major dailies, expressing worries about the initiative.

Credit score Suisse, the country’s next-major financial institution, then took out a number of additional commercials against the proposal.

“It will be touching on provider (obligations) which will be not possible or incredibly challenging to fulfil,” the bank’s chief govt, Thomas Gottstein, instructed reporters. “It’s a proposal which, in my perspective, is quite bad for Switzerland.”

Reporting by Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi Further reporting by Silke Koltrowitz in Zurich, Helen Reid in Johannesburg, Emma Farge in Geneva, Julia Payne and Matthew Inexperienced in London Editing by David Clarke