Proposed law provides no protection for whistleblowers
The proposed whistleblowing law adopted by the Swiss Conseil des Etats, the upper house of parliament, will effectively silence employees who are best placed to report wrongdoing and threats to the public interest. The law, which focuses on whistleblowing procedures rather than on the public interest value in the information, offers no protection for those who speak out. It also prohibits the disclosure of information to the press, except when the regulatory authorities do not reply within two weeks. The proposed law now will be considered by the Conseil National, the parliament’s lower house.
The law’s restrictions on public disclosures and lack of protection leave whistleblowers at the mercy of both their employers, who often retaliate against them, and the justice system, where the deck is stacked against them. In the case of multinational corporations, the army of lawyers and deep-pocketed financial resources at their disposal give them immense advantage over an individual who may have just lost her job, or is under threat of such.
This being the reality, it’s not surprising that the modus operandi of corporations is to fire whistleblowers and offer six months’ severance pay. This is also what a whistleblower can expect from the judicial system, even if he or she is successful in proving employer retaliation. For the offending corporation, it’s merely the cost of doing business.
But six months’ salary is of little help to a whistleblower who will likely find it difficult to obtain new employment and suffer untold financial and emotional distress. Nor is it a substitute for justice.
Perhaps the most important loser in a process that fails to ensure disclosure about criminal acts and wrongdoing is the general public. While whistleblowers take the initial hit, often sacrificing their careers and social stability, in the long term it is ordinary people who will pay the price if food is not safe, financial institutions aren’t sound, or privacy disappears. And with the globalization of virtually every aspect of our lives, risk knows no border. Likewise, supporting whistleblowers shouldn’t either. This is not just a Swiss issue; it is also an issue requiring international attention.
The Swiss law should be strengthened to provide judicial protection mechanisms that support whistleblowers who suffer retaliation. It should also ensure public accountability for employers and regulators, as well as apply penalties strong enough to dissuade employers from hitting back at their employees. It is only with such action that Switzerland, and indeed all countries, will signal to its citizens that corruption, fraud and threats to the public well- being will not be tolerated.
Dr Yasmine Motarjemi is a former senior scientist at the Food Safety Programme, World Health Organisation, and former Corporate Food Safety Manager with Nestle, Switzerland.
Alison Glick is WIN Coordinator at the Government Accountability Project, Washington, DC, United States of America