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Corporate responsibility Paradise Papers fuel Swiss better business initiative - for now

Enfants dans une plantation de café

The initiative wants to prevent child labour, be it in a factory in Asia, a cacao plantation in Africa or collecting coffee in South America

(Keystone/EPA/John Jairo Bonilla)

The "Paradise Papers", which have shed light on the offshore dealings of some of the world’s richest people and biggest companies, are increasing conversations around a people’s initiative, on which Swiss citizens are set to vote in the next couple of years. 

In Switzerland, a coalition of 85 non-governmental organisations and trade unions are backing an initiative called “responsible business”. It aims to make Swiss companies comply with human rights and environmental standards when they operate abroad – or be brought to account before Swiss courts. It has already gathered 120,000 signatures to force a nationwide vote on the issue. 

The initiative text is currently being examined in Bern. For the government, the initiative goes too far. It fears that extra regulations could hurt Swiss businesses, which may simply move abroad, and that existing rules suffice. 

The Federal Council said it does not plan to issue a counter-proposal to the campaigners’ text, but a Senate commission announced on Tuesday that it wants one. 

If the House of Representatives’ legal commistee makes a similar request, parliament will be forced to draw up a counter-proposal. This seems to suggest that senators are more open than cabinet ministers to the campaigners’ demands and that, in theory, some of those demands could be incorporated in a counter-proposal. 

Beatrix Niser, coordinator for the initiative in French-speaking Switzerland, welcomes the Senate commission’s decision, which came just days after the Paradise Papers' first revelations. But she fails to see any direct link between the two. 

"There are major concerns about this issue among the population,” she said. “Last week, we released the results of a survey conducted before the Paradise Papers came out. It showed that 77% of Swiss people, and up to 91% of French-speaking Swiss, would vote in favour of our initiative.” 

Nationwide vote

However, a nationwide vote will take place in a year at the earliest, according to the coalition of activists. And experience shows that support for initiatives tends to decline over the various stages: examination by both houses of parliament, recommendations by political parties and groups and the actual vote campaign. 

Nevertheless, the Paradise Papers and earlier revelations are bound to provide suitable ammunition to campaigners urging more ethical behaviour. 

The Paradise Papers is a trove of leaked financial documents mostly from law firm Appleby that exposed dealings with tax havens by top public figures and companies, ranging from Britain's Queen Elizabeth to the Swiss-based commodities trader Glencore. They were obtained by Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and some media outlets and published at the beginning of November. 

They follow earlier revelations on widespread tax dodging, reported in the so-called Panama Papers and Luxembourg Leaks.

Translated from French by Simon Bradley

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