Corporate responsibility: “The Swiss vote is a disappointment”

The cross : A majority of Swiss cantons rejected the “Responsible Companies” initiative, which provided for the strengthening of the responsibility of large companies for human rights or environmental violations committed by their subsidiaries and suppliers. Are you disappointed with this result?

Nayla Ajaltouni: This is of course a great disappointment given the stakes and the energy deployed by the broad coalition created by Swiss NGOs for several years. The victory of the “yes” would have been a big step in a country which is seen as an El Dorado for business, and which is home to the headquarters of companies like Nestlé and Glencore, which operate in sectors that are very at risk in terms of violations. fundamental rights.

In France, it took five years to develop, convince and lead to the vote of the law on the duty of vigilance in 2017. Our Swiss friends had to fight against the same fallacious arguments of the employers’ representatives, which scared small and medium-sized businesses. companies by pretending they were threatened by the proposal.

However, the rejection by a majority of cantons is counterbalanced by the fact that a majority of the popular vote (50.7%) was in favor of the initiative. This represents a victory for civil society, whose work of influence is gradually bearing fruit all over the world. The idea of ​​making multinationals accountable for the social and environmental impacts of their activities is progressing.

The popular initiative proposed to allow people injured by a subsidiary or supplier of a multinational to take legal action in Switzerland for redress. Is this compatible with the sovereignty of States?

N / A : This respect for sovereignty is a false argument. Like the French law on the duty of vigilance, the Swiss initiative aimed to ensure that the legal reality catch up with the economic reality of actors who no longer act, for a long time, in a single territory. By considering the transnational nature of a company’s activities, it is a question of making up for a legal backlog. Self-regulation of companies is not enough, we must impose laws with sanctions.

One of the arguments of opponents to the text was that of the risk of a loss of competitiveness for Switzerland. Can a single country play the role of precursor in a globalized economy?

N / A : It is time to reverse the burden of proof: for years, civil society has documented the recurring social and environmental dramas linked to the impact of the economic activity of multinationals, but the business world has been unable to demonstrate a link between regulation and loss of competitiveness.

We must obviously act more globally, by fighting, at European level, against powerful economic lobbies which hamper attempts at regulation. Europe is not an abstract body, it is made up of States which must initiate virtuous dynamics. When France, with its political and economic weight, votes, under pressure from civil society, the law on the duty of vigilance, and it receives the reinforcement of initiatives in other countries, then we have weight to negotiate, at European and international level, the strengthening of laws.

What conclusions can we draw from the law on the duty of vigilance, three years after its adoption?

N / A : It established the fundamental principle of being able to engage the responsibility of the parent company for violations committed, including by suppliers abroad. The Swiss initiative was all the more interesting since it retained a turnover criterion, broader than that of a workforce of 5,000 employees chosen by France to determine whether a company is subject to the duty of vigilance.

The French State does not publish the list of companies affected by the law and has not set up a body responsible for monitoring its implementation. In 2019, NGOs analyzed the vigilance plans published by several sectors, including banks and the agrifood industry: they were far from the requirements of the law, and lacking in risk mapping, which is essential.

The French government cannot shirk its responsibility while work is underway at European level and an ambitious directive on the duty of vigilance of multinationals is awaited. The next step is the adoption, in January 2021, of the report on the duty of vigilance presented by the Dutch MEP Lara Wolters. European civil society is very active in ensuring that multinationals are really held accountable in court for violations of fundamental rights.


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