Update: 20.04.2016

Study: Swiss multinationals and human rights

A study by Bread for All and the Swiss Catholic Lenten Fund published on 4 April 2016 revealed some alarming facts: most of the 200 biggest multinationals based in Switzerland do not consider the effect of their international activities on human rights to be relevant. Even the 14 companies whose corporate policies explicitly include certain human rights targets do not have satisfactory transparency and implementation standards.

No role for human rights

The first part of the study assesses the number of major Swiss companies who have their own policy on human rights risks that include their subsidiaries and suppliers abroad. The first quantitative part of the study focuses on this issue, covering both the 100 top-performing listed and non-listed Swiss corporations.

  • 61.5% of corporations do not follow their own human rights policies. There are no references to due diligence assessments on human rights, nor are there codes of conduct providing human rights standards for subsidiaries and suppliers.
  • 27.5% of corporations have a code of conduct which includes business relations with important suppliers.
  • 11% of corporations follow the “UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”

Qualitative survey

The 11% that actually has their own human rights policies consists mostly of listed companies and most of them were recently under increased public pressure for their involvement in alleged human rights violations. These companies are all among Switzerland’s 100 biggest companies.

14 of the 22 companies in this group have registered headquarters in Switzerland. The second, qualitative part to the study assessed these companies, including ABB, Adecco, Crédit Suisse, Firmenich, Glencore, Holcim, Kuoni, Roche, Trafigura, Nestlé, Société générale de surveillance, Syngenta, UBS and Zurich Financial Services. The study wanted to find out whether these companies meet the criteria set out in the “UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”

The study showed mixed results for the companies that have started pilot projects to implement the UN Guidelines. Although innovative approaches due diligence exist (for example, interviewing exposed groups of population), the media coverage of identified risks and the success of counter-measures are generally too vague and imprecise. The importance of this branch of the business is secondary. One exception in the study is the company Kuoni that has developed an exemplary practice with regard to transparency.

Legal guidelines needed

The study concludes that Swiss companies are still paying too little attention to the human rights effects of their activities, especially with regard to due diligence with their subsidiaries and supply chains. Voluntary initiatives have therefore reached their limit and are no longer effective.

As a result, legal requirements need to be set for all multinational companies to force all the passive companies to introduce adequate human rights policies, and standardise human rights conditions for all companies based in Switzerland. This is the aim of the Responsible Business Initiative.

Insights into due diligence

A study recently published by the German Network of the Global Compact and the German Institute for Human Rights provides insight into the practice of human rights due diligence of five internationally active companies in Germany.

The study shows that the methodology of these risk assessments is still experimental and is still undergoing different redesigns. The makes the presentation of concrete proposals and problems even more important. With this in mind, the German study provides a valuable supplement to the findings from Switzerland.

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