Switzerland will hold on 29 November a nationwide referendum on the Responsible Business Initiative. A vote in favor of the initiative will make companies headquartered in Switzerland legally responsible for what happens in their supply chains.
The initiative is part of a growing slew of similar legislation being proposed in other countries, based on the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Wider adoption has vast implications for automakers.
The Swiss political system is a direct democracy that eschews party politics. Major policy issues are decided in referenda held several times a year. A popular initiative allows Swiss citizens to request an amendment to the Federal Constitution. Supporters of an initiative have 18 months to collect 100,000 signatures before a vote can be held. To succeed, a majority of voters and of cantons need to vote in favor of the initiative.
The Responsible Business Initiative was created by the Swiss Coalition for Corporate Justice, made up of Swiss human rights and environmental organizations, religious groups and trade unions, including IndustriALL Global Union affiliates Syna and Unia.
The initiative appears to have broad support, including from 120 NGOs and all the country’s churches. The coalition collected 120,000 signatures in less than a year, and submitted them to Parliament for the subsequent stages.
The initiative targets the activity of companies based in Switzerland, including multinational corporations that IndustriALL engages with, such as Glencore and LafargeHolcim. If the initiative succeeds, these companies, and all Swiss-based firms, will be legally responsible for human rights abuses and environmental violations anywhere in the world, caused by companies under their control. Victims of human rights violations and environmental damage will be able to seek redress in Switzerland.
“For too long, multinational corporations have been able to hide their abuses behind a veneer of respectability, using plausible deniability whenever bad behavior is highlighted. The Responsible Business Initiative is part of a global movement by unions and civil society organizations to hold companies responsible for their behavior,” said IndustriALL general secretary Valter Sanches. “Our message is this: we are coming for you. There is nowhere to hide. We will hold you accountable.”
Almost five years of continuous campaigning have brought the initiative to the vote. Corporate lobbies are fighting against the initiative, saying it will make Swiss companies “guilty until proven innocent” for abuses anywhere in their supply chains, and open the door to “blackmail” by activists. Fearing that the initiative would impose crippling legal liabilities that will make businesses non-competitive, the government initially recommended that the initiative be rejected, before developing a weakened counter-proposal.