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eye on the multinationals Which Swiss companies made headlines in 2019?

gold bars

Stories about the shady past and present of Switzerland’s role in the gold trade grabbed the top spot.

(Keystone / Martin Ruetschi)

Our analysis of what the biggest global companies in Switzerland are up to. This week: our top multinationals stories of 2019.

The most expensive drug ever, mysterious vaping illnesses, and Switzerland’s shady gold origins: the biggest companies in Switzerland made plenty of headlines in 2019.

And they keep coming. In the past week, Novartis backed down in a patent dispute over its big ticket leukemia therapy Kymriah and Nestlé released its latest cocoa report revealing that some 18,000 children are still doing unacceptable tasks in its supply chain. The company won kudos for transparency but stunned many with the sheer scale of the child labour problem in West Africa.

The next phase in the saga around the Swiss Responsible Business Initiativeexternal link also came to a dramatic, albeit anticlimactic close for the year. The Senate voted against a legal liability clause in the proposal, sending the debate back to the House of Representatives next year.

And we still have two weeks left in 2019.

Here is a recap of our top 10 multinationals stories in 2019:

1.       From Nazis to refineries: How Switzerland has handled the world’s gold – Our interview with anti-corruption expert Mark Pieth about the shady past and present of Switzerland’s role in the gold trade grabbed the top spot. Also making golden headlines were the use of technology by Swiss refiners to stay ahead of forgers and the controversial decision by Metalor to distance itself from artisanal miners in Peru.

2.       Philip Morris International on a mission to convince the skepticsexternal link – Our inside look at what it’s like to work at the Big Tobacco company as it tries to remake its image and “unsmoke the world” was one of our top stories among Japanese and Arabic readers. The tobacco industry had no shortage of press this year, from a new tobacco advertising law to vaping illnesses. For French speakers, we also republished an investigation into how cigarettes produced in Switzerland and sold in Africa are more toxicexternal link than those smoked in Europe.

3.       Swatch inaugurates wooden headquarters– Fans of architect Shigeru Ban helped make this story one of the most-read, especially in Japanese, but the transformation in the traditional watch industry provided a steady stream of headlines in 2019. We looked at the start-up scene, the rise and fall of Milus, and the influence of Hong Kong pro-democracy protests.

4.       Nestlé criticised over migrant palm oil workers in Malaysia – We covered various developments in the palm oil industry: among others, scandals, satellites, and with 2020 just around the corner, why Nestlé won’t be able to achieve its zero-deforestation pledge.

5.       Roche takes on the tech sector – The tech race is heating up in the pharmaceutical industry with many older, established companies like Roche and Novartis putting on a fresh face to attract talent in an age where real-world data and digitalisation are becoming more important for the next breakthrough treatment. Earlier in the year, we looked at the revolution in personalised medicine and the proliferation of AI start-ups in Switzerland.

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6.       Switzerland losing attractiveness for multinationals – In 2019, a series of reports looked at how attractive Switzerland remains for multinationals. The outlook is mixed: in April, one study reported that the latest tax reform vote helped Switzerland lure more than 280 foreign companies, but another warned that the country is losing out to neighbours such as the Netherlands. Scandals didn’t help the country’s reputation either. One thing is for sure: restructuring is in the air, including job cuts at Japan Tobacco International and General Electric.

7.       Chinese firms steal sensitive data from Swiss-based competitor– Switzerland has found itself in the middle of a tug of war between China and the US, both of which are major trading partners. Several headlines questioned Switzerland’s friendly ties with China including Huawei and cybersecurity as well as the largescale detention of the Uighur Muslim minority.

8.      Vitol overtakes Glencore as biggest company in Switzerland– Commodity traders topped the ranks of the largest companies in Switzerland by turnover. But with size comes responsibility as Geneva-based trading company Gunvor learned when the Swiss attorney general ordered it to pay a whopping CHF94 million over bribery allegations in Africa. The scrutiny continues with more investigations underway related to traders’ ties to the Car Wash scandal in Brazil, something Portuguese readers are following closely.

We also took a deeper look at how Glencore does its homework and heard from communities in Peru about how the company’s copper mineexternal link is affecting their way of life.

9.       How can a drug cost $2.1 million? – 2019 will surely go down as the year that the world “got woke” on drug pricing. Once considered a topic for the developing world, healthcare systems more widely are now feeling the squeeze as big breakthroughs in gene therapies come on the market. As we reported, pressure is growing on companies to unlock the black box on R&D costs and how prices are set.

10.   Pesticide companies ‘seriously deficient’ on human rights, says UN expert– With two popular initiatives launched on pesticides, and studies identifying toxins in local water supply, the Swiss public were on high alert over how the government is managing pesticide sales inside and outside the country. NGOs took to the streets pointing the finger at Basel-based Syngenta.

Are there any stories you think we missed? Are there any stories we should have our eye on in 2020? Send me a message: jessica.davis@swissinfo.ch

What’s coming up? We’ll be taking a break for the holidays and coming back with stories on gold and infant nutrition.

We’ll also be gearing up for the World Economic Forum at the end of January so send us your questions.

Thanks for reading and have a happy holidays,

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