Small business rights or human legal rights? Swiss vote shines highlight on businesses

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

A smaller banner studying: “Responsible Business Initiative – Yes on November 29” is mounted to the body of a bicycle in Zurich, Switzerland November 23, 2020. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

As the only huge mining agency dependent in Switzerland, Glencore has become the unwilling poster boy or girl of a marketing campaign to alter the structure so Swiss providers are liable at residence for human legal rights abuses or environmental damage they cause abroad.

Voters will now pick out in a referendum on Sunday involving the new proposals and a milder federal government variation that would force firms to stage up checks on their abroad functions and source chains but stops limited of extending liability to Swiss courts.

In a campaign that has polarized the nation, the authorities and multinationals say the Liable Business enterprise Initiative goes way too far, though activists, religious groups and several political factions say Switzerland pitfalls slipping driving other international locations in tackling progressive social and economic troubles without having it.

Glencore for a single claims the accusations levelled versus it by the campaign are misplaced, and mistaken.

Because having a the greater part stake in 2017 in the Cerro de Pasco mine pictured in the billboard, Glencore stated it experienced accomplished considerably to tackle worries about air pollution from the site which occurred in advance of it took over.

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

SwissHoldings, which signifies Swiss multinationals these as pharmaceutical giants Novartis and Roche, food stuff corporation Nestle, and Glencore, claims it is self-obvious the problems lifted by the initiative need to have to be tackled.

But it suggests the proposed steps could drive up compliance fees and lawful threats for corporations to the stage where they shun some components of the world, possibly leaving organizations in the palms of corporations that could not get the same safeguards.

“The worst that could occur would be that people like us who are at the forefront of sustainability … are compelled to go out of specific geographies mainly because of a regulation that has a very good objective but is inadequately executed,” explained Antoine de Saint-Affrique, main govt of Swiss chocolate maker Barry Callebaut.

“You wouldn’t solve the challenge, you would make the challenge greater,” he instructed reporters.


Property to some of the world’s most significant organizations and a major hub for finance and commodities buying and selling, Switzerland has turn into a single of the world’s top business centres thanks to its company-pleasant legal guidelines, restrictions and reduced taxes as nicely as its history of political neutrality and economic steadiness.

But with 3 times to go, polls recommend the corporations and the govt are shedding the argument. A survey by Swiss broadcaster SRF confirmed 57% of those polled backed the dependable organization initiative about the authorities proposal.

The governing administration suggests it supports the ethos of the initiative but that its variation is in line with intercontinental benchmarks as it leaves foreign subsidiaries and suppliers economically controlled by multinationals liable for their own injury, ordinarily in international courts.

But for Florian Wettstein, a enterprise ethics professor at the College of St. Gallen and co-organiser of the Dependable Enterprise Initiative, it is also about Switzerland maintaining up with world-wide progress on sustainable business procedures.

“Switzerland tends to drop additional toward the bottom of the pack, not just in conditions of human rights but also on socially economically progressive troubles. The train is likely incredibly rapid and, without having the initiative, we danger missing it as soon as once more,” Wettstein advised Reuters.

A European Union proposal could bring in even far more stringent liability guidelines for organizations in the bloc when international locations these kinds of as France, Britain and Canada have presently enacted laws targeting liability on all or some human legal rights in enterprise considerations.

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

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

Anneke Van Woudenberg, govt director of RAID, an NGO in London which exposes company wrongdoing, reported the Swiss initiative could also have a preventive impact, by giving organizations incentives to consider additional treatment.

RAID submitted a criticism to the Organisation for Financial Co-procedure and Enhancement in September versus Glencore.

The criticism suggests a spill at an oilfield in Chad owned by PetroChad Mangara Ltd, a Glencore subsidiary, prompted accidents and environmental harm. Glencore denies wrongdoing.

Below the Swiss initiative, Glencore would have to display that it took all needed steps to relieve the spill and any damage induced, if a lawsuit had been submitted in Switzerland.

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

Erroneous Devices?

Both of those sides have poured money into the marketing campaign and main Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger has estimated it will be the most pricey voting marketing campaign of all time in a region that retains extra referendums than any other nation.

If the initiative is passed, massive providers and those in superior-hazard businesses would have to look at that actions all over their provide chains complied with internationally recognised human rights and environmental criteria.

Extra critically, they would also be liable in Swiss courts if victims can show damage was induced by firms they manage.

The initiative would be more progressive than very similar policies in France as it locations far more load on businesses to show they took steps by their due diligence to stay clear of damage – alternatively than victims obtaining to demonstrate they did not.

Denise Laufer, head of economics at SwissHoldings, claimed its members function with up to 400,000 immediate suppliers and a million downstream suppliers globally, and the initiative could raise compliance charges and authorized challenges by 20% and 25% respectively.

“We plainly support the motivation to guard and improve human rights and the natural environment along the provide chain of our businesses,” she stated. “But these instruments are the wrong types.”

It’s not just the commodities sector that is spending heed.

This month, the chairmen of 16 of Switzerland’s biggest industrial, fiscal and customer goods corporations signed a total-page letter in a person of the country’s major dailies, expressing fears about the initiative.

Credit history Suisse, the country’s second-greatest bank, then took out many more ads against the proposal.

“It will be touching on supplier (obligations) which will be not possible or incredibly challenging to fulfil,” the bank’s main government, Thomas Gottstein, instructed reporters. “It’s a proposal which, in my look at, is really terrible for Switzerland.”

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