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WORK

The pros and cons of working in Switzerland

Just arrived in Switzerland? Here’s what’s great – and not so great – about being an employee here.

The pros and cons of working in Switzerland
Photo: Rawpixel/Depositphotos
Pro: Salaries are high
 
There is no federal minimum wage in Switzerland – the Swiss rejected the idea in 2014 – though several cantons have mulled it over, with Neuchâtel likely to be the first canton to introduce it (at 20 francs an hour). 
 
Nevertheless salaries are generally high. According to figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in 2016 Switzerland’s average wage was $60,124, the third highest of OECD countries after Luxembourg and the US. 
 
High salaries are necessary, however, given Switzerland is one of the most expensive places in Europe in which to live. 
 
 
 
Con: A significant gender pay gap
 
If you’re a woman in Switzerland, don’t expect to earn the same as your male colleagues. The country has one of the largest gender pay gaps in Europe, with female employees earning 19.3 percent less than their male colleagues according to recent Eurostat figures.
 
“I started getting the impression that not everyone is paid the same so I asked around,” one expat teacher in Switzerland told The Local anonymously. “It’s pretty obvious that women are paid less.”
 
Foreign women get an even worse deal than Swiss women, she adds. “I’m paid less than my [female] Swiss colleague even though we have the same qualifications and experience. It’s frustrating.”
 
 
Pro: Decent statutory holiday 
 
All employees are entitled to at least 20 days (four weeks) holiday a year, on top of public holidays, which makes Switzerland about average for holiday entitlement in Europe, but far better than in the US, where there is no statutory holiday allowance at all (most US employers, however, grant at least ten days).
 
What’s more, some Swiss companies offer more generous holiday allowance than the statutory, meaning in 2016 the average working person took 5.12 weeks holiday, according to the Swiss statistics office.
 
In terms of public holidays, only August 1st (Swiss National Day) is observed in all cantons. Other public holidays vary from canton to canton, though most also observe Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter Monday and Ascension Day.
 
However if a public holiday falls on a weekend then it’s just tough luck – your day off doesn’t carry over to the Monday. 
 
Pro: A good work/life balance
 
By law, the maximum a Swiss company can ask you to work is 45 hours a week (apart from some manual jobs which allow 50). According to the Swiss statistics office in 2016 the average was 41 hours and ten minutes (down 13 minutes on the previous year). That’s relatively high compared to other countries, with France on 35 hours (at least, by law) and the UK on 36.5 hours, according to the World Economic Forum
 
However workers in Switzerland are generally considered to have a good work/life balance. According to the OECD’s Better Life survey the share of employees in Switzerland working very long hours is lower than the OECD average. And Swiss cities are regularly ranked as having among the best quality of life in the world
 
Writing for Vox about her experience of working in Switzerland, US author Chantal Panozzo hailed the country’s adherence to “sacred” lunchbreaks, the culture of part-time work and the high salaries as things that contributed to a good work-life balance.
 
“In Switzerland, you don’t arrive to a meeting late, but you also don’t leave for your lunch break a second past noon. If it’s summer, jumping into the lake to swim with the swans is an acceptable way to spend your lunch hour. If you eat a sandwich at your desk, people will scold you.”
 
 
Employees must have a minimum of 11 hours off between shifts/days, according to the Swiss economics secretariat (SECO). You can be asked to work an extra 170 hours a year but must be paid 25 percent extra or compensated in lieu. 
 
Con: Lack of job security
 
Photo: Goodluz/Depositphotos
 
Compared with elsewhere in Europe, employers in Switzerland are fairly free to fire employees as they see fit, provided discrimination laws are complied with. So if you find yourself turfed out without what you see as a valid reason, you may have little recourse. 
 
According to Swiss workers union Unia, “in principle an employer can fire a worker at any time, providing they allow for the correct notice period”.
 
Firing someone would be considered illegal/abusive if the reason is related to their gender or a personal characteristic (religion, nationality, age, disability, sexual orientation). There is also protection for people absent through illness or injury. 
 
Pregnant women or those on maternity leave can’t be fired either, however that doesn’t stop some employers firing women the day they get back from maternity leave
 
It’s a good thing unemployment benefit is so good then… 
 
Pro: Generous unemployment benefit
 
If you’ve been working in Switzerland for at least a year and then become unemployed, don’t fret immediately: Switzerland has an extremely generous unemployment benefit system. 
 
Most people – including foreigners with a valid work permit – are entitled to 80 percent of their last salary for 18 months. Those receiving unemployment benefit are under certain obligations, including frequent meetings with the job centre and pressure to apply for jobs. But you might also be offered certain other benefits, such as language courses paid for by the job centre. 
 
If you’re self-employed, however, then you can’t claim anything.
 
 
Pro: Good employee benefits
 
If you have a contract with a Switzerland-based company for more than eight hours a week then they must pay your accident insurance. This means that if you have an accident – whether at work, on the ski slopes or elsewhere out and about – the medical costs will be covered if you declare it to your employer and fill in the right forms. 
 
If your accident means you’re off work for a spell, your employer must also pay you 80 percent of your wages during your sick leave. The length of time that lasts is unspecified by the law but is likely to be a minimum of three weeks, according to Swiss government site ch.ch. 
 
Some larger companies may also pay your monthly basic health insurance (LaMal) premiums, and/or offer a GA rail card – benefits which effectively add thousands to your salary.  
 
Con: Poor maternity and paternity leave
 
Photo: gstockstudio/Depositphotos
 
Women in Switzerland are entitled to a maximum of 14 weeks paid maternity leave at 80 percent of salary, up to 196 francs a day. That’s a poor showing when compared to the much more generous policies of many other European countries (although, if you’re from the US where there’s no statutory paid maternity leave you may think differently). 
 
As for fathers, Switzerland offers no statutory paternity leave at all, with most new dads only allowed to take one ‘family day’ for the birth of their child – though some companies are more generous. 
 
The issue of introducing statutory paternity leave or bringing in shared parental leave has been rebuffed by parliament many times in recent years, though the Swiss may finally get to have their say if a popular initiative on the subject goes to a referendum
 
 
Con: Expensive childcare
 
If you’ve got children, working in Switzerland comes with a hefty financial burden given the cost of childcare. A full-time nursery place in Geneva and Zurich costs between 13 to 20 percent of a family’s income, compared with just 4-6 percent in neighbouring countries. 
 
However the federal government has been looking into ways to change this, last year suggesting a 100 million franc pot to help cantons provide childcare subsidies to parents.
For members

OFFBEAT

Is Switzerland’s male-only mandatory military service ‘discriminatory’?

Under Swiss law, all men must serve at least one year in compulsory national service. But is this discriminatory?

Swiss military members walk across a road carrying guns
A new lawsuit seeks to challenge Switzerland's male-only military service requirement. Is this discriminatory? FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

All men aged between the ages of 18 and 30 are required to complete compulsory military service in Switzerland. 

A lawsuit which worked its way through the Swiss courts has now ended up in the European Court of Human Rights, where the judges will decide if Switzerland’s male-only conscription requirement violates anti-discrimination rules. 

Switzerland’s NZZ newspaper wrote on Monday the case has “explosive potential” and has “what it takes to cause a tremor” to a policy which was first laid out in Switzerland’s 1848 and 1874 Federal Constitutions. 

What is Switzerland’s compulsory military service? 

Article 59 of the Federal Constitution of Switzerland says “Every man with Swiss citizenship is liable for military service. Alternative civilian service shall be provided for by law.”

Recruits must generally do 18 weeks of boot camp (longer in some cases). 

They are then required to spend several weeks in the army every year until they have completed a minimum 245 days of service.

Military service is compulsory for Swiss men aged 18 and over. Women can chose to do military service but this is rare.

What about national rather than military service? 

Introduced in 1996, this is an alternative to the army, originally intended for those who objected to military service on moral grounds. 

READ MORE: The Swiss army’s growing problem with civilian service

Service is longer there than in the army, from the age of 20 to 40. 

This must be for 340 days in total, longer than the military service requirement. 

What about foreigners and dual nationals? 

Once you become a Swiss citizen and are between the ages of 18 and 30, you can expect to be conscripted. 

READ MORE: Do naturalised Swiss citizens have to do military service?

In general, having another citizenship in addition to the Swiss one is not going to exempt you from military service in Switzerland.

However, there is one exception: the obligation to serve will be waved, provided you can show that you have fulfilled your military duties in your other home country.

If you are a Swiss (naturalised or not) who lives abroad, you are not required to serve in the military in Switzerland, though you can voluntarily enlist. 

How do Swiss people feel about military and national service? 

Generally, the obligation is viewed relatively positively, both by the general public and by those who take part in compulsory service. 

While several other European countries have gotten rid of mandatory service, a 2013 referendum which attempted to abolish conscription was rejected by 73 percent of Swiss voters. 

What is the court case and what does it say? 

Martin D. Küng, the lawyer from the Swiss canton of Bern who has driven the case through the courts, has a personal interest in its success. 

He was found unfit for service but is still required to pay an annual bill to the Swiss government, which was 1662CHF for the last year he was required to pay it. 

While the 36-year-old no longer has to pay the amount – the obligation only lasts between the ages of 18 and 30 – Küng is bring the case on principle. 

So far, Küng has had little success in the Swiss courts, with his appeal rejected by the cantonal administrative court and later by the Swiss Federal Supreme Court. 

Previous Supreme Court cases, when hearing objections to men-only military service, said that women are less suitable for conscription due to “physiological and biological differences”.

In Küng’s case, the judges avoided this justification, saying instead that the matter was a constitutional issue. 

‘No objective reason why only men have to do military service’

He has now appealed the decision to the European level. 

While men have previously tried and failed when taking their case to the Supreme Court, no Swiss man has ever brought the matter to the European Court of Human Rights. 

Küng told the NZZ that he considered the rule to be unjust and said the Supreme Court’s decision is based on political considerations. 

“I would have expected the Federal Supreme Court to have the courage to clearly state the obvious in my case and not to decide on political grounds,” Küng said. 

“There is no objective reason why only men have to do military service or pay replacement taxes. On average, women may not be as physically productive as men, but that is not a criterion for excluding them from compulsory military service. 

There are quite a few men who cannot keep up with women in terms of stamina. Gender is simply the wrong demarcation criterion for deciding on compulsory service. If so, then one would have to focus on physical performance.”

Is it likely to pass? 

Küng is optimistic that the Strasbourg court will find in his favour, pointing to a successful appeal by a German man who complained about a fire brigade tax, which was only imposed on men. 

“This question has not yet been conclusively answered by the court” Küng said. 

The impact of a decision in his favour could be considerable, with European law technically taking precedence over Swiss law.

It would set Switzerland on a collision course with the bloc, particularly given the popularity of the conscription provision. 

Küng clarified that political outcomes and repercussions don’t concern him. 

“My only concern is for a court to determine that the current regulation is legally wrong.”

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