British Parliament applies pressure

Demonstration «Walk for Freedom», held on 15 October 2016 in Berne (Switzerland) against forced labour, human trafficking and slavery.
Article AS news
The implementation of the UN Guiding Principles is also gaining traction in the United Kingdom. One report calls for much the same things as the Responsible Business Initiative.

In 2013 the United Kingdom became the first country to adopt a National Action Plan (NAP) for the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights – three years earlier than Switzerland. In May 2016, the British plan was reviewed, prompting the Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights to adopt a report[1] in March 2017, which merits the greatest attention in Switzerland too for its exemplary quality and depth of analysis. In particular, the report contains numerous verbatim quotations from statements by representatives of business and the authorities, from academia and from NGOs, all of which provide a varied overall picture.

First, the report expresses the parliamentary Committee's disappointment at the lack of ambition shown in revising the NAP last year; the main criticism has been the absence of a baseline study. The Committee is calling on the Government to consult with a broad range of interested parties, to develop more ambitious goals and to introduce measures to assess these goals. These demands are similar to those formulated by Swiss NGOs after the publication of the Swiss Action Plan.[2]

Supported by numerous testimonies, the report stresses the particular vulnerability of children,[3] women and girls, all of whom are subject to certain human rights violations by business. This is the case especially in mining, in industrial-scale agriculture and in the textile industry. Key issues are freedom of assembly, health and safety violations, low wages and excessive working hours, human trafficking, forced labour as well as child labour. The latter is widespread in the worldwide tobacco industry, which, it must be noted, is strongly represented in Switzerland. The report calls for the introduction of due diligence when entering into government procurement contracts and for the exclusion of firms from government contracts if they fail to meet this condition, including locally. This demand should also encompass export credit and other financial incentives for activities abroad.[4] The exclusion would also apply to enterprises previously found guilty of human rights violations, whether by a court or the OECD National Contact Point.

The report is especially clear in the section on access to legal remedies for victims of human rights violations. After listing currently existing obstacles in the way of victims and analysing the latest legislative amendments in the USA, France and the Netherlands, the report recommends  the introduction of a law prescribing due diligence for all enterprises – this should apply to parent companies, their subsidiaries and the entire value chain, so as to  prevent human rights violations.

A company that has neglected to take the necessary action against human rights violations should stand trial before civil and criminal courts, as stipulated in the 2010 Bribery Act. To go unpunished, businesses must prove that they have complied with the due diligence requirement. As such it is a package of measures which – apart from the introduction of criminal law – is in line with the demands of the Responsible Business Initiative. As is well known, the Federal Council rejected the popular request on 11 January through a decision in principle, with no counter-proposal. Did you say "missed opportunity"?

 

[1] House of Lords and House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights. Human Rights and Business 2017: Promoting responsibility and ensuring accountability. Sixth Report of Session 2016–17.

[2] National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights: Analysis and Comments by the Swiss Coalition for Corporate Justice, December 2016: http://bit.ly/2hXhdbO

[3] According to the ILO there are 168 million working children worldwide, more than half of them in dangerous professions.

[4] Public procurement amounts to EUR 1000 billion per year. On average this corresponds to 12% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in OECD countries.