Covid-19 has encouraged the Responsible Business Initiative

The Federal Assembly had difficulty in reaching a consensus on a counter-proposal to the responsible multinational initiative.| Keystone/Peter Schneider

The Enterprise for Society Center (E4S) of University of Lausanne (UNIL), International Institute for Management Development (IMD) and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) measured the development of Swiss sentiment towards the initiative on responsible multinationals, on which they are expected to vote at the end of November. Their survey, conducted in January and again in May, shows that the sense of legitimacy of this initiative has increased in the wake of the pandemic crisis.

Why are we talking about it? The pandemic crisis has given rise to ambivalent feelings about the economy. On the one hand, public opinion seems more ready for the energy transition and a more local and inclusive economy, while on the other, many people want a rapid return to normalcy and worry for their jobs. The initiative calls for Swiss companies to be held civilly responsible for human rights violations and environmental damage caused by their subsidiaries in other countries. The outcome of the vote will be an indication of the willingness of the Swiss to maintain the status quo or to embark on a path of economic reform.

The study. With the help of the Swiss market institute intervista, E4S researchers recruited 130 supporters of the initiative and 136 opponents for their study. All of them participated in both waves of the online survey. They indicated their perception of the legitimacy of the initiative and the arguments for and against the initiative.

The results. In general, the opinion on the legitimacy of the initiative has become more favourable during the pandemic. Co-author of the study, Anna Jasinenko notes:

"This finding indicates that corporate social and environmental demands for responsability have increased as a result of the crisis."

  • The positive effect was mainly due to changes in the attitudes of those who oppose the initiative.

  • On the contrary, the initial supporters of the initiative now have a less favourable perception of the initiative's legitimacy.

  • The negative effect was much smaller than the positive effect of the change in attitude of the opponents. Overall, opinions are less polarised than at the beginning of the pandemic.

  • The change in the opinions of those who oppose was reflected in the choice of arguments. During the pandemic, they chose far fewer negative arguments, such as the idea that the initiative would endanger the Swiss economy, than before the pandemic.

According to Anna Jasinenko:

"The pandemic highlighted a number of economic problems such as offshoring, inequality or meat production. As people have become more aware of these problems, they seem to be adopting values of solidarity."

To verify this, the researchers are planning a new phase of their investigation in the coming weeks.

The initiative. The Responsible Business Initiative is led by a coalition of 114 organisations from the fields of self-help (e.g. Bread for All), human rights (Amnesty International), environmental protection (Bruno Manser Fund), shareholder unions (Ethos), the rights of women as well as of churches, trade unions, and cooperatives. It concerns about 1500 multinational companies with their headquarters in Switzerland. SMEs with fewer than 250 employees are not included in its scope.

  • It demands that these companies ensure that the activities of their subsidiaries respect human rights and environmental standards. To ensure that non-compliance with these standards has consequences, victims could seek redress before the Swiss courts in a simplified civil procedure.

  • In her speech on 1 August, the Minister of Justice PLR Karin-Keller-Sutter spoke out against this initiative.

  • After much delay, the Federal Chambers have reached a counter-proposal which provides for the obligation of multinationals to report annually on their human rights policies and for a duty of care in relation to child labour and the exploitation of natural resources in countries at war.