Switzerland: Popular Initiative On Responsible Enterprises: Switzerland's Long Arm On Subject Enterprises

Last Updated: 10 June 2019
Article by Thomas U. Reutter and Annette Weber

Most Read Contributor in Switzerland, July 2019

Although its fate and timing are very unclear, the popular initiative "for responsible enterprises – for the protection of human rights and environment" (initiative on responsible enterprises; Konzernverantwortungsinitiative; Initiative Multinationales Responsables; "Initiative") is not only hotly debated among the many Swiss based international companies that would be affected by it, but also among lawmakers in Berne. In short, the Initiative, which is expected to be voted upon by the Swiss people, proposes that enterprises shall be held liable before a Swiss court if one of its controlled enterprises violates human rights or environmental standards abroad. These enterprises will have additional duties and will have to monitor and report on the compliance with these duties.

The Initiative raises a bundle of legal questions of which we focused on one: Its scope of applicability. As we will see, a far reaching concept is proposed to ensure that a large number of enterprises is subject to the Initiative.

1) "Enterprises"

The Initiative is applicable to enterprises (Unternehmen) having their registered office, central administration (Hauptverwaltung) or principal place of business (Hauptniederlassung) in Switzerland ("subject enterprises"). The term "enterprise" shall ensure that all kinds of undertakings are captured, irrespectively of their legal form.

Although not stated in the proposal, the explanatory notes of the sponsors (the "Explanation") add that only private enterprises (privat tätige Unternehmen) fall under the scope of applicability. Hence, it seems that the intention is to exempt any enterprises which fulfil sovereign tasks. Enterprises controlled by a government are therefore not exempted if they act as private players.

2) Registered Office/Central Administration/Principal Place of Business in Switzerland

The Initiative provides an interesting mix of economic and legal concepts to ensure that not only businesses incorporated in Switzerland but also those managed out of Switzerland are captured: An enterprise must have either (i) its registered office, (ii) central administration (Hauptverwaltung) or (iii) principal place of business (Hauptniederlassung) in Switzerland. The registered office of an enterprise is the seat set out in the articles of incorporation. "Central administration" refers to the place at which the decision making or the management of an enterprise is made. The main activities (for example the main production of an enterprise's goods) define the principal place of an enterprise. The three places are meant to apply alternatively, i.e., it is sufficient if one of them is met. The concept was taken from the Lugano Convention on Jurisdiction and the Enforcement of Judgments in Civil and Commercial Matters. The sponsors thus follow the concept of an international treaty applicable to European countries rather than Swiss international private law in order to provide a maximum of fora legally possible.

3) Business Abroad

The Initiative limits its application indirectly by imposing duties which subject enterprises and their controlled enterprises (see below for a definition of "controlled enterprises") shall fulfil abroad. Enterprises (or their controlled enterprises) which do not have a business outside of Switzerland obviously do not have to adhere to the duties and are not subject to the liability regime set out in the Initiative.

The Initiative does not limit the application to specific foreign jurisdictions, for example, to jurisdictions which do not have similar human rights or environmental standards as Switzerland. As a result, enterprises with businesses, for example, in Germany, will be subject to the duties and the liability regime in principle, although in practice, the focus will be on enterprises with businesses in countries lacking a fully developed judicial system and rule of law.

4) Controlled Enterprises

Subject enterprises do not only have to ensure that they themselves comply with the duties set out in the Initiative but also the enterprises they control. The Initiative does not provide a definition of "control". Instead it states that the actual circumstances are decisive and that control may also be exercised by using economic power

The term "control" as proposed by the Initiative appears to go beyond the usual concepts used in financial reporting and to again combine the relevant legal and economic concepts – to extend its reach or to avoid abuses – depending on the point of view. "Controlled enterprises" include therefore subsidiaries but may also extend to companies that are not consolidated into the relevant group of companies in case there is factual control over such outside enterprises. For example, a supplier which delivers exclusively to and is accordingly fully dependent on a subject enterprise (or one of its controlled subsidiaries) may be regarded as a "controlled enterprise".

However, a different reading of "factual control" may also lead to a narrower interpretation: The mere majority ownership of shares in a company, even though trigging financial consolidation requirements under most accounting standards, does not mean factual control. Accounting standards typically require the ability to exercise control by holding a majority stake in a company whereas the actual exercise of control is required for factual control which is a higher standard. For example, a passive majority shareholder – in the extreme a financial investor who is not represented on the board of its subsidiary which runs local operations by local management independently – will hardly have factual control. "Factual control", i.e. some form of subordination expressed by the power to give binding instructions, is also required for the concept of liability of a principal vis-à-vis its agent (Geschäftsherrenhaftung) which provides the model for liability under the Initiative. Although hardly intended by the sponsors, one may not exclude that the concept of "factual control" may in certain cases lead to a scope of companies narrower than under most relevant financial reporting standards. In practice, the exercise of (factual) control (vs. the mere ability to exercise control) will be difficult to assess without further guidance in the transposing statute.

In the context of a group of companies, the Initiative does not require that the subject enterprise is the ultimate holding company of a group of companies. It therefore targets subsidiaries as well. International operating groups of companies will therefore have to carefully analyze whether one of its group companies fall under the scope of the Initiative.

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