June 4, 2020 / 2:25 PM / 2 months ago

Swiss to vote on companies' global liability for rights abuses

ZURICH (Reuters) - Swiss voters look set to get the final say on whether Swiss-based companies should be liable for human rights abuses and environmental violations in operations even outside Switzerland.

As consumers care increasingly about whether products they buy harm the environment or exploit child labour, Swiss politicians are under pressure to find an economically viable counterproposal to a far-reaching constitutional amendment put forward by the Responsible Business Initiative campaign.

An opinion poll here showed growing support for the initiative that was launched in 2016 under the Swiss system of direct democracy.

On Thursday, a parliamentary committee trying to iron out differences in legislation approved by the upper and lower houses chose a more business-friendly solution rejected by the initiative’s organisers, who called it a mere “fig leaf”.

“Companies like Glencore (GLEN.L) and Syngenta will not be held accountable for the damages they cause, but will just have to publish a glossy brochure once a year,” it said.

Both chambers of parliament still have to vote on the compromise next week. If one of the chambers rejects it, voters will decide on the initiative, likely in November, without any counterproposal.

Proponents of the initiative want Swiss companies to apply mandatory due diligence to identify risks to people and the environment in all their business, even involving suppliers abroad, and let victims seek redress in Switzerland.

Many businesses reject the changes, saying they would lead to a flood of legal cases.

"The extreme liability raises the risks for companies operating from Switzerland," Zurich businessman Ruedi Noser, a member of the upper house who represents the Liberals, says on a website here dedicated to fighting the initiative.

Under Switzerland’s direct democracy, supporters can force a binding referendum if they gather 100,000 voter signatures.

Reporting by Silke Koltrowitz; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise

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