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Commentary: The lobby by VNO-NCW against legislation on corporate accountability

For a long time, VNO-NCW, the national employers’ federation in the Netherlands, has been a fierce opponent of legislation that obliges companies to address human rights abuses and environmental damage taking place in their value chains. Now that the introduction of such legislation appears inevitable, VNO-NCW, together with its European umbrella organisation BusinessEurope, is trying to limit and weaken the substance of these new rules, as new research from SOMO on the lobbying tactics of both organisations reveals.

For years, civil society organisations and trade unions have been calling for the introduction of legislation on corporate accountability. Such legislation would make companies responsible for preventing and mitigating abuses in their value chains. Voluntary initiatives, such as the Responsible Business Conduct (RBC) Agreements in the Netherlands or philanthropic projects, have failed to prevent structural human rights violations and environmental damage – such as child labour, deforestation, and exploitation – taking place in global value chains. In 2020, responding to several critical policy evaluations , the Dutch government, the European Parliament, and the European Commission finally decided to introduce legislation that addresses corporate accountability...

...For years, VNO-NCW was a fierce opponent of the introduction of corporate accountability legislation. While the business association did consider it important to comply with international standards for RBC, it also asserted that binding rules were not the way to enforce such standards...

...Assuming that regulations will be introduced, BusinessEurope and VNO-NCW intend to use the argument of ‘workability’ to water them down . They argue , for example, that regulation should only contain obligations of means, rather than obligations of results and that climate change related impacts in value chains should not be considered as environmental damage under the law. Moreover, VNO-NCW suggests that the rules should apply only to companies who employ more than 3,000, or even 5,000, people...

...VNO-NCW’s lobbying strategy is clear; the business group has wanted, for a long time, to prevent legislation, and now this approach has failed, it is pleading for European legislation as a way of delaying and weakening policy developments. This move appears to be strategic. By favouring legislation – although only at a European level – the organisation appears constructive, while ensuring that the Dutch government does not move towards national legislation. Meanwhile, VNO-NCW and BusinessEurope take a very different tone in Brussels, preventing or weakening that very same European legislation. While BusinessEurope is clearly opposed to legislation (asking, for example, for parliamentary votes to be postponed), VNO-NCW argues in favour of weakening future regulations, under the guise of ‘workability’. This two-faced lobby demonstrates that little has changed in VNO-NCW’s position. As far as the employers’ organisation is concerned, businesses must be hindered as little as possible, and human rights and the environment are secondary concerns...

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