Discrimination is not just a Swiss phenomenon but statistics as well as anecdotal evidence suggest it is common in Switzerland’s job market. It can also be hard to prove.
Foreigners and second-generation immigrants tend to have more problems finding work than Swiss do, men earn more than women, and older workers are less desirable to employers. These are some of the ways in which discrimination is perceived.
A recent conference at Bern University of Applied Sciences got to grips with the issue, bringing together academics and Swiss policy makers to address gender and anti-migrant bias on the labour market and how to combat it.
One of the clearest ways in which discrimination is seen is in the differing wage levels of men and women in Switzerland.
Wage inequality may result from the fact that women take time out from their careers to have children, or work part-time as their children grow up, affecting their career development.
Panellist Christa Markwalder, a Liberal Party MP and National Council first vice-president, says there is a difference of 21 percent in the pay levels of men and women.
“Some of this difference is explained by maternity leave but a gap of nearly nine percent is unexplained,” the politician says, adding that even on first entering the labour market women are being paid at a lower level than men.
This applies to the better educated too. Federal Statistical Office data from 2011 shows that as early as one year after graduation women were earning less than men.
While there is evidence that the gender pay gap starts with the first job, it widens as employees take on more responsibility and move up the professional ladder, says Sylvie Durrer, director of the Federal Office of Gender Equality.
No wage transparency
Wage inequality persists into the 21st century in Switzerland partly because it is frowned upon to talk about what you earn, unlike in Israel, for instance, where people discuss salaries openly, one panellist commented.
“There is no tradition of talking about salary in Switzerland,” Markwalder agrees.
Durrer says that the lack of wage transparency in Switzerland meant it was very hard to know if the wage offered was compliant with the law on equal pay for equal work.
And employers are not helping in this respect.
“Many companies never make checks on wage equality,” says Durrer, whose Federal Office of Gender Equality has developed a tool for companies to ensure they treat staff equally.
“It’s very important that companies make the analysis,” she says.
But there is no obligation under law for them to do so.
While a political debate is taking place over instruments to ensure equality on the labour market, Markwalder argues that government regulation should be kept to the minimum.
“The liberal labour market is one of Switzerland’s assets,” she says, urging caution in introducing new instruments.
Instead, the onus should be on firms to take responsibility for treating employees equally, the Liberal MP says.
Problems of migrants
But discrimination may begin even earlier, at the job application stage.
Sascha O. Becker, professor of economics at the University of Warwick in the UK, says a study shows that youth with a migration background are less successful when it comes to applying for jobs.
The 2006 study involved sending fictitious CVs from equally qualified people of different ethnic backgrounds in response to job ads. While Portuguese in French-speaking Switzerland suffered a low level of discrimination, Albanian-speaking Yugoslavs were discriminated against in 59 percent of cases in the German part of Switzerland.
Foreigners also run a higher risk of joblessness in Switzerland, the study shows.
“Unemployment rates are much lower for Swiss citizens across the board. It seems to be harder for foreigners to find a job,” Becker says.
Felix Mbakaya, sitting in the audience, provides a perfect example of the problems experienced by young migrant workers in the Swiss labour market.
Despite having Swiss citizenship, the business administration student at Bern University of Applied Sciences has found it impossible to find suitable work.
Even offers to work for free in return for job experience have drawn a blank.
“I can’t prove it’s discrimination, but maybe my colour has something to do with it,” he tells The Local.
Mbakaya has lived in Switzerland for nine years, has had his Kenyan credentials accredited and speaks German. He says that all he wants is a chance to prove himself.
The panellists stress the importance of migrant workers for the Swiss economy, and suggest that their key to success on the labour market is a high level of education or completed apprenticeship.
Policy suggestions include a voluntary programme whereby job applicants from a migration background with a completed apprenticeship would receive two years employment by a company if they agree to pay back one month’s salary per year of employment over a five-year period.
Mbakaya responds that companies should be free to employ who they want, but that they should be prepared to give migrant workers a chance.
“If someone is educated and wants to make a career here, why not give them a chance even if they don’t have a Swiss background?”