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Companies clarify position on Swiss mandatory human rights due diligence initiative

The Swiss Responsible Business Initiative (RBI) - a popular political initiative launched by an NGO coalition in 2015 seeking to introduce mandatory human rights due diligence requirements for Swiss companies - has been making its way through the Swiss parliament for the past two years (further information on the RBI is available here). Last year, the Swiss National Council (lower house) adopted a bill ("counter-proposal") which, despite including important concessions on liability and the number of companies covered, meets the initiative's key demands. For the bill to become law, it still needs the approval of the Council of States (upper house), whose decision on a counter-proposal is due in the coming autumn parliamentary session.

In this context, a group of 19 large Swiss companies in a letter addressed to the Legal Affairs Committee of the Council of States on 8 August 2019 expressed concern that the RBI and the counter-proposal are unprecented in their scope and application when compared to other jurisdictions and would therefore expose Swiss companies to high legal risks. Swiss media reports criticised the letter for actively advocating against the political compromise the Swiss parliament has been striving to develop over the past two years. Business & Human Rights Resource Centre contacted the 19 companies that signed the letter asking them to clarify their position. 

Economiesuisse, the umbrella organisation of Swiss business, and SwissHoldings, the federation representing Swiss-based multinational enterprises from the manufacturing and service sector, sent us a joint response, available below, stating it should be regarded as the official reply of the companies they represent. Nestlé and Lafarge Holcim nevertheless sent us full individual responses, also available below. NovartisSonova and Swiss Re referred us to the response from economiesuisse and SwissHoldings and provided additional information. Bucher, ClariantCredit Suisse, Geberit, Rieter, Roche, Schindler, SyngentaUBSVifor Pharma and Zurich referred us to the response from economiesuisse and SwissHoldings. We will indicate if Bühler, Lonza and Sika respond in the near future.

Professor John Ruggie, the author of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), responded to the associations' letter, clarifying the role of legislative measures. His letter is available below. Along with John Ruggie, focusright - a Swiss consultancy who co-authored a 2018 study referenced in the associations' response - and the Global Business Initiative on Human Rights (GBI) also sent us letters in response to the associations' letter, available below.

See also our list of large businesses and associations with statements in support of human rights due diligence regulation, including from Switzerland.

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Company response
18 September 2019

Response by Syngenta

Author: Syngenta

Thank you for your email. We would like to inform you that you will receive a response to your below request from SwissHoldings. The joint response is on behalf of the companies that signed the letter you are referencing in your email, including Syngenta.

Company response
18 September 2019

Response by Vifor Pharma

Author: Vifor Pharma

Thank you for having given us the opportunity to comment. For our official response, we would like to refer to the consolidated response from SwissHoldings and economiesuisse, which you have received on September 13, 2019.

Company response
18 September 2019

Response by Zurich

Author: Zurich

As a company we continue to refer to the joint response coordinated by Swiss Holdings.

Company response
17 September 2019

Response by Schindler

Author: Schindler

Schindler kindly refers to the consolidated response from SwissHoldings and economiesuisse, which you have received on 13 September 2019.

Company response
13 September 2019

Response by Bucher Industries

Author: Bucher Industries

Bucher Industries is a member of SwissHoldings. The Federation represents the interests of Swiss-based multinational enterprises from the manufacturing and service sector including Bucher Industries. Please confirm the receipt of the enclosed consolidated letter from SwissHoldings and accept it as the response from Bucher Industries.

13 September 2019

Response by Credit Suisse

Author: Credit Suisse

Credit Suisse refers to the response provided jointly by economiesuisse (Swiss Business Federation) and SwissHoldings (Federation of Industrial and Service Groups in Switzerland).

Company response
13 September 2019

Response by Lafarge Holcim

Author: Lafarge Holcim

Thank you for your email and the invitation to respond.

LafargeHolcim is committed to respecting international human rights standards, including the principles contained within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and the International Labour Organization (ILO) Core Conventions on Standards. Additionally, LafargeHolcim is signatory of the United Nations (UN) Global Compact.

LafargeHolcim proactively manages human rights through its Human Rights Management Approach, supported by an internal Human Rights Directive which outlines the mandatory requirements for all LafargeHolcim country operations. Our group-wide human rights management approach is risk based and fully aligned with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (Ruggie Principles). This is complemented with a robust compliance program implemented throughout the Group.

The letter you refer to reflects the position of a large number of major Swiss companies, including LafargeHolcim, regarding some specific aspects contained in Swiss Responsible Business Initiative counter proposal. 

The objective of such initiatives is to drive accountability on Human Rights. While more accountability is to be supported, the effectiveness of achieving this goal through the legal measures proposed by the Responsible Business Initiative and related Parliamentary Initiative can be debated. LafargeHolcim believes that the preferred  forum to address human rights issues is that which has a collaborative environment and spirit.

If regulatory measures are to be introduced, to ensure a level playing field, LafargeHolcim advocates for a step by step approach whereby legal measures are gradually implemented, tested for effectiveness and refined. We thus favour a coordinated approach in collaboration with other major global jurisdictions, which respects the sovereignty of states and their legal systems, over unilateral action by Switzerland. 

With regard to our  perspective on the “Loi sur le devoir de vigilance” in France and the Child Labour Due Diligence law in the Netherlands,and other regulations such as the Modern Slavery Act in the UK, we respect and adhere to all laws and regulatory requirements and have taken steps to ensure full compliance.

13 September 2019

Response by Sonova

Author: Sonova

We would like to thank you for your interest and for the opportunity to explain the purpose of the letter addressed to Members of the Swiss Parliament. For a clarification of the positioning in regards to the Swiss Responsible Business Initiative, we would like to refer to the consolidated statement prepared by economiesuisse and SwissHoldings which was sent out to the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre today.

We would like to stress, that we are aware of our duty as a leading hearing care company to act responsibly. Sonova respects human rights and we consider it our responsibility to foster compliance with human rights not just in our own business across the globe, but also in the whole supply chain.

This commitment is reflected in particular in our Code of Conduct and Group Supplier Principles (SGSP) and embedded in the company culture. Sonova is a signatory to the UN Global Compact since 2016, endorsing its ten principles in the areas of human rights, labor, the environment and anti-corruption. All Sonova employees and business partners are expected to comply with the UN Global Compact's principles.

Sonova takes a systematic approach to managing corporate responsibility, both in its supply chain and in its own operations. Identifying and mitigating human rights risks is already an integral part of our strategic risk management process, and it is reviewed and assessed regularly, together with all other business risks. Sonova is committed to ensuring that its operations and supply chain are free from any slavery practices, including child labor, forced and bonded labor, and human trafficking. Sonova has already been proactively implementing due diligence processes of our third parties and partners and has enhanced public reporting transparency. As a global company, we are committed to further advance and continuously improve policies and processes across our own operations and supply chain.

In line with industry best practices, Sonova operates a robust compliance program and proactively promotes the reporting of concerns, including through the use of a hotline managed through a dedicated third-party provider. Employees and external stakeholders are encouraged to report any concerns of wrongdoing, including human rights violations. All reports are tracked, investigated and appropriate action is taken as required. 

Sonova values transparency. We regularly publish a Corporate Responsibility Report according to internationally recognized guidelines such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Standards and UN Global Compact. Sonova has also aligned reporting with international regulations on disclosure of non-financial information, such as the Directive 2014/95/EU and closely follow best practices. Our reporting contains regular updates on our due diligence efforts and how we promote responsible business practices in our own business and among our suppliers and business partners. Sonova considers transparent reporting an important tool in engaging with our stakeholders and create and sustain trust.

More information on Sonova’s policies, principles, and approach regarding human rights and labor practices and human rights due diligence can be found in our annual public reporting: Sonova Corporate Responsibility Report 2018/19.

Company response
13 September 2019

Response by UBS

Author: UBS

Thank you for having given us the opportunity to comment. For our official response, please refer to the consolidated response from SwissHoldings and economiesuisse, which you have received earlier today.

Company response
11 September 2019

Response by Geberit

Author: Geberit

Thank you for your email. Regarding your questions, please refer to the statement/letter of Swiss Holdings which is aligned with our view.