Every year, the federal government, cantons and municipalities purchase goods and services worth 40 billion Swiss francs: uniforms for the army, computers for the cantonal administration, curbs for the village square, and more. These francs are then distributed among thousands of suppliers and service providers in Switzerland and abroad. In many developing countries, however, work is done under precarious conditions. Following the collapse of Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza textile factory in April 2013, the general public has been aware of the often inadequate protection of workers in many developing and emerging countries.
Good federal law, poor implementation
On January 1, 2021, the new "Federal Law on Public Procurement" (BöB) came into effect. The law, which was passed by parliament in summer 2019 after several years of negotiations, represents a true paradigm shift in public procurement; sustainability is now valued over price dumping, not only in environmental matters, but also in economic and social terms. According to the new law, municipalities, cantons and federal agencies are explicitly allowed to demand more stringent labor standards and require corresponding evidence. As a member of the NGO coalition Public Procurement (Bread for All, Swiss Catholic Lenten Fund, Max Havelaar, Public Eye, Solidar, Swiss Fair Trade), Helvetas has been campaigning for years on this topic in the Swiss government—with success.
But now there is a hitch in implementation. While the cantons are implementing the paradigm shift for more sustainability, which is enshrined in the law word for word, the responsible federal office has again drastically restricted compliance with more far-reaching labor standards in the revision of the corresponding federal ordinance—thus ignoring the will of parliament. The federal government is again excluding central issues such as safety at work or regulated working hours; this exclusion continues to favor providers who depress prices at the expense of their employees. At the same time, all employers who take their social responsibility seriously, whether abroad or in Switzerland, are disadvantaged.
Contradictory development and procurement policies
Through these practices, the federal government is also undermining its own development cooperation, through which it promotes better working conditions and sustainable value chains in developing and emerging countries. After all, it makes no sense to award contracts worth millions to companies in developing and emerging countries that do not care about the health of their employees and who pay wages that are barely enough to live on.
As a member of the NGO Coalition for Public Procurement, Helvetas therefore continues to be committed to sustainable public procurement at the federal level.