On Sunday, Swiss citizens will vote in the Responsible Business Initiative referendum. If adopted, the initiative will mean that companies headquartered in Switzerland will be legally responsible for what happens in throughout their global operations including their value chains. It is an important step to hold multinationals accountable for violations, regardless of in which country they occur; there will be nowhere hide.
Win or lose, the fight to hold multinational companies accountable has taken a huge step forward representing hope for workers globally.
For too long, multinational companies have been able to hide their abuses behind a veneer of respectability, using plausible deniability whenever bad behaviour is exposed. How the world views corporate responsibility is shifting. The Responsible Business Initiative is part of a global push by unions and civil society organizations to hold companies responsible for their unethical behaviour.
And our message is clear: we are coming for you, we will hold you accountable.
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. The initiative targets the activity of companies based in Switzerland, including multinational corporations that global unions engage with, such as Glencore and LafargeHolcim and Nestlé.
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 or their influence.
In a major step forward, victims of human rights violations and environmental damage will be able to seek redress in Switzerland.
When a company can credibly demonstrate to the Court that it carried out adequate due diligence and that it took all necessary measures to prevent the violations, it will be exempted from liability. The initiative therefore has a preventive effect as it provides companies with an actual incentive to comply with their obligations.
This will also allow Switzerland and France, with its similar 2017 due diligence law, to increase pressure on multinationals by joining forces on the issue of human rights and the environment. As the draft European directive expected in 2021 continues to be debated even during the pandemic, there is clearly growing consensus around the need for accountability across Europe.
The pandemic can only reinforce the need for multinationals to be strongly regulated as it is unacceptable that they take advantage of the crisis to increase their profit at the expense of workers’ rights.
As global unions, it is our role to ensure that workers’ rights are respected on a global level.
With this initiative, multinational companies headquartered in Switzerland can no longer hide behind flawed legislation in a production country on the other side of the world; they are legally accountable for the entire supply chain. The wrongdoing may be committed abroad, but recourse can be sought in a Swiss court.