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June 5th referendum
Swiss basic income vote: what you need to know
Could Switzerland give everyone 2,500 francs a month? Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

Swiss basic income vote: what you need to know

Caroline Bishop · 10 May 2016, 10:14

Published: 10 May 2016 10:14 GMT+02:00
Updated: 10 May 2016 10:14 GMT+02:00

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What is it?

Launched by a group of private citizens, the popular initiative asks the Swiss government to give people an unconditional basic income (UBI)  to allow everyone, whatever their circumstances, the ability to “lead a dignified existence and participate in public life”.

What’s the point?

A UBI would guarantee everyone – whether you work or not – enough money to live a decent life, “whatever happens”, says the Swiss branch of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), therefore eradicating poverty and dependence on welfare and ensuring people’s self-worth isn’t tied to their job.

Backers say a UBI is necessary in the face of increasing automation in the workplace. With the UBI as a cushion, people would have the freedom to undertake unpaid volunteer work, retrain or spend more time with their children.

A guaranteed income would also release people from the demeaning requirement to prove their lack of income in order to get benefits, said Gabriel Barta, vice-president of BIEN.

“These people are not actually being guaranteed a life of dignity in the way the constitution says,” he told The Local.

A UBI could also boost motivation and give people more freedom to choose their job because they want to do it not because they have to.

“We need a basic income to allow each person to be his or her own entrepreneur, to choose what work he or she does,” said Barta.

What would a yes vote mean?

Let’s be clear, on June 5th the Swiss people are voting on the principle only. Exactly how much the UBI would be, who it would apply to, and how it would be financed and implemented would all have to be debated by parliament in a process that could take more than 10 years, estimates Barta.

But that doesn’t stop me wondering...

...how much?

While the text of the initiative doesn’t specify the amount, supporters suggest it should be 2,500 francs for every adult and 625 francs for every child up to the age of 18, from birth until death.

...as an expat, would I get it?

Though open to interpretation, the text of the initiative says it would apply to “all the population”.  

Barta told The Local it must apply to any resident – not just citizens – but predicts parliament would require foreigners to have been a resident for three to four years before they get it.

That would allay fears that the UBI could entice more immigrants here. Even former government spokesman Oswald Sigg – who backs the UBI – said in the press recently that he doubted it could be implemented “if we were the only country to do it”.

Still, as far as the principle is concerned, “our idea is very clearly that those and only those who are recognized by the Swiss authorities as being resident in Switzerland get the basic income,” said Barta.

Great. So if I already work, will I get that money on top of my salary?

“That question has no single answer from the group of people who are actively supporting basic income,” Barta told The Local.

The principle follows that the UBI would be unconditional, regardless of salary, fortune or other income streams. However, the most affordable way for the government to cover the cost of a UBI would be to simply reclassify the money you earn.

The suggested model is that the first 2,500 francs of your salary would be classified as unconditional, so you’d still get it if you lost your job. In other words, you would get that money as part of your regular salary rather than on top.

The only people who would see their income rise would be those who currently earn less than 2,500 francs a month.

Oh. That seems unfair.

Indeed for Barta – and many others – that funding model wouldn’t work. “If somebody who is on the breadline at 3,500 francs in a large town in Switzerland today gets absolutely no more when the basic income is introduced, then the whole thing is a complete waste of time,” he told The Local.

But he reminds us that, even if that were the chosen model, the acceptance of the UBI principle would still be a huge step forward.

“People will no longer identify their worth as a human being with their position or their job which is the case today. I think that change is the most important single change that’s necessary and it can’t come without making the basic part of your income unconditional.”

Hang on, I work part-time and earn 2,000 francs a month. I could just give up my job and get 2,500 francs for free, right?

Yes. Opponents – including the government – worry that this model could lead to many people dropping out of the labour market, especially part-timers, secondary earners or those on low wages.

“For those people who are not earning 2,500 francs and they maybe even don’t want to earn more because they are mothers and want to work part time, it’s an incentive to stay at home. The question is, is that something our modern society wants or not?” Michael Gerfin, an economist at the University of Bern, told The Local.

That could also result in a sense of injustice from those who do work towards those who choose not to.

“The majority of the middle class and lower upper class will say why should we pay taxes to finance those guys who are too lazy to work?”

However BIEN argues that “laziness is not registered in the human genome” and that most people would continue to work because no one wants to live on just the minimum.

Who’s picking up the bill?

The estimated cost of an unconditional basic income for all is 208 billion francs a year. Most of that would be (under the model stated above) covered by simply reclassifying the first 2,500 francs of a salary as ‘unconditional’.

A further chunk would be transferred from existing welfare spending including child benefit, unemployment benefit and state pension, all of which would be replaced (at least, up to 2,500 francs) by the UBI.

Story continues below…

But the government would still have to find a 25 billion franc shortfall from other sources.

What do the politicians think?

The government is against the idea. The lower house of parliament rejected the initiative by a huge majority, and the federal council also rejected it, saying in a statement that the proposal would have “major negative consequences on the Swiss economy and welfare system” and lead to severe spending cuts or tax hikes to cover that shortfall.

The Green Party is officially supporting the UBI, saying in its official literature that it would “allow us to totally rethink our relationship to work and to value unpaid volunteer jobs that are essential to social cohesion” as well as counter increased automation in the workplace.

What do the people think?

According to the latest surveys, most will reject the proposal. An April survey by Tamedia found that 57 percent would vote against it.

“It’s an intriguing idea and something worth thinking about,” concludes Gerfin.

“But I doubt it’s going to work. As a scientist I would like to see this experiment but as a citizen of this country I don’t think I want to see it.”

Even supporter Barta doesn’t think it will pass – this time.

BIEN’s own opinion poll has predicted a “very likely no,” he said, though it also found that many young adults believed “sooner or later we will have a basic income”.

“I’m absolutely convinced too that there’s no way round it,” added Barta. “I think the next vote we will win.”

So whatever happens on June 5th, this is an issue that will keep rolling on.

For more news from Switzerland, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Caroline Bishop (news@thelocal.ch)

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