Why the Swiss immigration vote is a huge setback

On 9 February 2014 a narrow majority of Swiss voters voted in favour of an initiative by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) calling for the reintroduction of quotas for immigrants from the European Union.

This decision is a huge setback for immigrants to Switzerland, for trade unions and for all progressive forces. Unavoidably, it also leads Switzerland down a blind alley. 

Switzerland has been a country of immigration since the beginning of the 20th century. As early as the 1970s, people with other passports accounted for more than 20 per cent of the population.

At that time, immigration was governed by a system of quotas and special statuses which left migrants completely without rights: seasonal workers were only entitled to fixed-term residence permits which, in addition, were valid only for a specific employer.

Moreover, migrants’ families were not permitted to join them under any circumstances.

In the late 1980s, however, the statute governing seasonal workers came under increased pressure from Swiss trade unions, which had been successful in organising large numbers of migrant workers.

In 1992, 50.3 per cent of Swiss voters voted against Switzerland’s accession to the European Economic Area (EEA)..

One of the main reasons behind this was the desire of national conservative right-wing parties to keep their distance from the European Community.

And while unions supported the EEA, blue- and white-collar workers also feared that the free movement of workers would undermine Swiss wages and labour standards.

The government responded by launching negotiations on bilateral accords with the EU. It was then prepared to negotiate with trade unions on flanking measures on free movement of people in order to protect wages and working conditions.

Among other things, this resulted in a Posted Workers Act obliging foreign companies providing services in Switzerland to respect at least the minimum Swiss working conditions and wage levels, the legal extension of collective bargaining contracts, a legal minimum wage for domestic workers, the installation of tripartite committees to monitor labour market developments, the legal responsibility of main contractors that all their subcontractors respect the Swiss labour market regulations and the publication of a list of employers that violated these obligations.

In 2000, 67.2 per cent of the population voted in favour of the package of bilateral accords with the EU, accompanied by flanking measures, which is still applicable.

In the following years the flanking measures were implemented but both foreign and Swiss employers repeatedly exploited loopholes in the legislation.

The unions succeeded on several occasions to close several loopholes in negotiations with the government and employer associations ahead of the extension of the bilateral accords to the EU’s new member states.

In the 2005 referendum on extending free movement of people to the new EU member states (enlargement to the East), 56 per cent of voters voted “yes”, contrary to the SVP’s position.

In the 2009 referendum on extending free movement to Bulgaria and Romania, that number was 59.6 per cent.


February’s referendum

In 2011, the right-wing, anti-foreigner SVP decided to launch a new people’s initiative essentially opposing free movement of people and thus immigration.

The initiative clearly opposed the flanking measures which, in the SVP’s opinion, strengthen the trade unions.

The bilateral accords with the EU were not directly attacked – the SVP claimed that free movement of people could be questioned without risking the bilateral agreements, and it was only a matter of negotiating effectively with the EU.

Despite warnings from the trade unions, employers and authorities baulked at any further tightening of the flanking measures even though this was urgently needed.

The trade unions, as well as the Social Democratic and Green parties, came out strongly against the SVP initiative: because it ran roughshod over the rights of migrants; because it weakened measures to protect wages and employment conditions; and because it essentially cast doubt on the bilateral accords with the EU.

In keeping with this the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions (SGB) and Switzerland’s inter-professional trade union Unia have been waging a campaign against the SVP initiative in recent months – regrettably without success.

So why did a narrow majority of voters (50.3 per cent, as in 1992!) vote “yes” to the SVP initiative, unlike earlier referenda on enlargement to the East?

The Swiss employment market has enjoyed robust growth since 2010: within only four years it has grown by around 2 per cent per year. Three-quarters of this growth is due to recruiting foreign workers. This has fuelled a growth-averse discussion.

The new wave of immigrants increased the proportion of foreigners in the resident population to 23 per cent. This proved fertile ground for the anti-foreigner debates which repeatedly flare up in Switzerland.

More and more highly skilled individuals have been recruited from abroad since 2002. This explains that the willingness of middle-income groups to vote in favour of the SVP initiative.

While increased immigration has not generally resulted in lower salaries (the trade unions have been able to negotiate real wage rises of approximately 1 per cent per year in recent years), wages for new hires have come under extreme pressure in sectors such as the IT sector, journalism and home care workers.

Moreover, cases of out-and-out wage dumping are on the increase, particularly in the construction sector.

This trend has largely been driven not by immigrants who have simply moved to Switzerland to seek work but by employers in Switzerland seeking to exploit the large and cheap supply of labour in Europe..

The SVP initiative skilfully exploited this situation, fuelling anti-foreigner sentiments and conservative attitudes to growth, rekindling middle-class anxieties, and blaming immigration on everything from rising rents to overcrowded trains.


What next?

The outcome of the vote cuts deep. The consequences will be far-reaching.

The Swiss Constitution now dictates that immigration shall be "restricted by limits on numbers and by quotas".

The SVP wants Switzerland to revert to the former limits and caps on permits, which are for a fixed term only and do not permit families to follow.

Some SVP politicians openly demand the reintroduction of the statute on seasonal workers. At the same time, if the SVP has its way the flanking measures introduced to control salary and employment conditions will be abolished.

All of this is a slap in the face for the more than one million EU citizens currently living in Switzerland, and ushers in massive discrimination against all who enter Switzerland in the future.

It is a blow for the trade unions, which had gradually enjoyed greater influence on the job market through the flanking measures.

And, needless to say, it also represents a threat to the economy since free movement of people is connected to other EU accords.

Clearly the trade unions are opposed to all these setbacks.

We will campaign against all discriminatory legislation on residence permits. We will use all our powers to advocate the rights of migrants. The new forms of discrimination necessitate new laws, which we will oppose with all our might.

As always where immigration is regulated, salaries and employment conditions need to be protected in keeping with the principle of equal pay for equal work at the same location. This protection must be strengthened, not weakened. We will therefore continue to fight for these protective measures.

We will oppose any risk to the bilateral accords and any measures that threaten to push Switzerland into total isolation. The bilateral accords are the minimum expression of a comprehensive set of agreements with Europe, reflecting our proximity with our neighbours and our most important partners for trading, knowledge and culture.

For us it is absolutely clear that the EU cannot allow Switzerland to abandon free movement for people yet hold onto all the other accords that work to our advantage.

The referendum has created a chaotic situation for Swiss policy and ultimately led it down a blind alley. It will not be the last people’s referendum on the issue. Despite this setback, Swiss trade unions will continue to fight for the rights of workers – with or without a Swiss passport – and campaign against all forms of discrimination.

The Swiss Federation of Trade Unions sees itself as part of the European trade union movement, which is committed to social progress rather than regression. One important joint battle in this war is the campaign to implement the principle of "equal pay for equal work at the same location" throughout Europe.


The original version of this article appeared on the Global Labour Column website.