A pioneering analysis of Swiss agricultural traders – responses from firms lack substance

In the first comprehensive analysis of the agricultural trading sector, Public Eye investigated 16 of the world’s largest agricultural traders, all of which operate out of Switzerland. For once a spotlight was shone on these discreet companies – which were unable to come up with compelling counter arguments.

For years, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has collected reports and accounts of human rights violations in our globalised economy. Our latest report on Swiss agricultural traders was published in this database. Off the back of that, the Resource Centre contacted the companies we had investigated for their comments. 11 of the 16 agricultural traders responded to the request for comment. Most answers were not however specific statements responding to the alleged human rights abuses and neither did they credibly refute the accusations levied in our report.

Companies' responses lack substanc

Over half of the companies failed to address the report or the sector or company-specific information discussed in it, which is disappointing. Some of the companies tried to use generic statements such as ‘we have a human rights policy’ or ‘we do more than others’ to distance themselves from the specific issues and thereby shun any responsibility. For neither companies’ own guidelines nor a cross reference with the competition protects traders from violations of human rights or environmental standards – as our report illustrates. One company even highlighted a typo rather than addressing the specific grievances outlined against the global agricultural trade. We see this as a clear admission that there is something wrong in the sector.

Even firms that issued detailed responses to our report failed to provide much substance. They restricted themselves to simply pointing out missing data points. The gaps in our data are due to the opacity of the sector. Without credible, up-to-date information, we had to rely on publicly available data – for example regarding appropriate redress in cases of misconduct. In most cases the data available suggests that agricultural traders do not necessarily act in an honourable manner.

Recognised instruments exist – but are not used

Many companies do indeed admit that there remains much to be done to tackle the problems in this sector. Yet they satisfy themselves by selectively supporting philanthropic projects rather than working to ensure that they systematically live up to their responsibility to protect human rights. They claim that there are already enough relevant instruments for this, such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP) or the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP), concluded in December 2018.

It has now been eight years since the UNGP were adopted by the UN Human Rights Council. They have since become a reference framework for companies when it comes to human rights and the environment. At the end of 2018, on this basis special guidance for the Swiss commodities sector was published to provide guidance to traders on living up to their responsibility. According to the Swiss Trading and Shipping Association (STSA) these guidelines are already being implemented and simply codify existing practice. This statement is astounding to say the least. Only a few companies referred to the guidelines in their responses to our report. The rest of the traders did not consider them worth mentioning.

The agricultural traders did not mention the UNDROP in their answers either. Based on internationally recognised instruments on the protection of human rights, this declaration specifies fundamental rights such as the right to a reasonable standard of living. In addition, key rights such as the right to seeds, to land and to biodiversity are also outlined. At the UN General Assembly of December 2018, Switzerland voiced support for the UNDROP. Yet Switzerland appears to do little to raise awareness about this key instrument in ensuring that human rights are protected in the agricultural supply chain. As a result, companies do not refer to it as a relevant instrument and pay little heed to it.

Binding measures are needed

Our key findings have not been contested by any of the companies – the argument is simply that they apply to others but not the firm itself. As we lay out in our Public Eye rejoinder to company reactions, we stand by our argument that after decades of failed attempts at self-regulation by companies, binding measures to resolve the problems associated with this sector are long overdue. Nonetheless, we cannot expect much from companies in the foreseeable future.