Swiss vote to severely curb executive pay

March 4, 2013 at 2:30 AM
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ZURICH, Switzerland, March 4 (UPI) -- Swiss voters overwhelmingly imposed one of the world's most severe checks on executive pay, with jail terms for board members who violate the new rules.

Some 68 percent of voters backed the plan, one of the highest approval rates ever for a popular referendum in Switzerland, the government said Monday.

The plan, fiercely opposed by the country's business community, gives shareholders of companies listed on Switzerland's two stock exchanges a binding say on the overall pay packages for executives and directors.

The 24-item Minder Initiative -- named for the independent Swiss member of Parliament behind the measure but dubbed the "rip-off" and "fat cat" initiative by the country's media -- also makes pension funds owning shares of companies obligated to vote on compensation packages and bars companies from giving bonuses to executives joining or leaving a business, or to executives when their company is taken over.

Violations could result in fines equal to up to six years of salary and a prison sentence of up to three years.

"I am very proud of the Swiss people who have sent a very strong signal to the establishment," Thomas Minder, who is also an entrepreneur, told Radio Television Suisse.

He called on lawmakers to swiftly enact the law.

Proponents said the plan could go into effect next year, but opponents said parliamentary procedures and legal issues could delay its implementation until 2015 or even later, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The Swiss government and the parliamentary upper house, the Council of States, joined business lobbies in opposing the initiative, warning it could spark a big-business exodus.

Minder rejected this, telling Swiss daily Le Temps the level of alarm over executive pay and bonuses in other countries meant his initiative could become Switzerland's "best export product."

Switzerland has a direct democracy, also known as pure democracy, which lets people vote on policy initiatives directly. In a representative democracy such as in the United States, people generally vote for representatives who then vote on policy initiatives.

The U.S. Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act has given shareholders a non-binding say-on-pay vote since in 2011.

Non-binding shareholder votes on executive pay also have been introduced in other European countries, in part as a response to Occupy Wall Street and other movements that have attacked the corporate excesses and abuses that fueled the world financial crisis, The New York Times said.

The European Parliament Thursday agreed to limit bonuses of bankers to equal their regular salaries without shareholder approval and to twice their salaries with shareholder approval.

The EU move helped persuade Swiss voters to support the referendum, Minder Initiative Secretary Claudio Kuster told the Journal.

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