Update: 31.05.2017

Child labour – the responsibility of Swiss companies

Occasionally cases surface in which Swiss corporations are involved in child labour. Recently, the LafargeHolcim Group, was found to be working with companies from Uganda that employ children. A number of NGOs have demanded that Switzerland establishes legal provisions to ensure corporations uphold their moral duties.

LafargeHolcim – not an isolated case

A study published in May 2017 by Bread for All shows that the LafargeHolcim Group has profited from child labour for more than a decade. During this time, LafargeHolcim and its suppliers bought raw materials from small quarries in Uganda that employ children and teenagers. After the scandal became public, the group switched to suppliers that exploit resources without using child labour. But according to both Bread for All and the Swiss Catholic Lenten Fund, LafargeHolcim has not lived up to its responsibility to facilitate the return to school or vocational training of the formerly employed children and teenagers.

Other transnational companies based in Switzerland sometimes profit from child labour. A good example is the chocolate industry, which has repeatedly been associated with child labour in cocoa plantations. Although some steps have been taken by chocolate companies to improve the situation over the past decade, the amount of progress made has been disputed.

Responsibilities of Switzerland

In January 2017, the Federal Council published a report on the Swiss commitment to prevent child labour. The Confederation stated that transnational companies based in Switzerland are responsible for taking action against child labour. In contrast to the NGOs, the Confederation is focused on non-binding recommendations and awareness-raising measures. However, it has not established any clear legal provisions on child labour in foreign subsidiaries or supplier companies for the corporations.

In their media release on the LafargeHolcim case, Bread for All and the Swiss Catholic Lenten Fund specifically called for these kind of provisions. In their view, transnational companies must check their whole supply chain to make sure the prohibition on exploitative child labour is upheld in the future. Basically, the duty of care must be regulated by law as defined in the Responsible Business Initiative (see article).

In February 2017, France was one of the first countries worldwide to pass a law regulating the duties of care of transnational corporations. According to Bread for All and the Swiss Catholic Lenten Fund, this could serve as an example for Switzerland.

Commentary by humanrights.ch

The Federal Council media release in January 2017 provided a good overview of Swiss foreign policy commitments and of individual commitments made by Swiss corporations regarding child labour. What is missing is an analysis of the effectiveness and loopholes of these measures. Since the Federal Council is only addressing the issue from a legally non-binding corporate social responsibility perspective, the report does not address legal regulations for transnational corporations.

However, specialised NGOs have long recognised that voluntary action alone is not enough. Binding regulations are needed to ensure transnational corporations take their duty of care seriously among other areas in the field of child labour.

France’s new legislation shows that binding regulations are possible. Similar developments can also be seen in other countries, such as the Netherlands.

In Switzerland, the Government must take appropriate action due to the Responsible Business Initiative. Although the Federal Council dismissed the initiative without offering a counter-proposal, voters will have the last word on the issue.

© humanrights.ch / MERS - Hallerstr. 23 - CH-3012 Bern - Tel. +41 31 302 01 61