Long before there was a Schengen zone and the free movement of people, Switzerland suffered from labour shortage. The Swiss government signed a recruitment contract with Italy in 1948 to provide workforce to fill the gap.
But there was a caveat: these migrant workers could stay in Switzerland no longer than nine months, they were not allowed to claim social benefits, and they were prohibited from bringing their families with them.
They were considered to be marginal members of society and often lived in makeshift barracks.
The tough regulations were put in place to prevent these workers from getting too comfortable in Switzerland and becoming permanent residents.
In 1970, foreigners made up one-sixth of Switzerland’s 6.3-million population, with Italians accounting for more than half.
But even though they were making a significant contribution to Switzerland’s economy, right-wingers considered them a threat to Swiss culture.
As their numbers grew — reaching about 600,000 in 1970— their presence on Swiss soil sparked resentment among the populist groups, eventually paving the way to xenophobic initiatives.
This is where the historic referendum came in.
The man behind this controversial vote was a right-wing politician James Schwarzenbach, whose notorious proposal to limit Italians to 10 percent of the population in each canton — which would result in the expulsion of 300,000 workers from Switzerland — was brought to the ballot box on June 7th, 1970.
However, the proposal, which became known as the ‘Schwarzenbach initiative’, was defeated by 54 percent of voters and the majority of cantons. The participation rate of nearly 75 percent remains one of the highest to this day.
Seasonal workers continued to come to Switzerland for another 32 years. In 2002, the recruitment program was ended, following the introduction of the free movement of people between Switzerland and the European Union.
But even though the scheme was abolished, xenophobic sentiments have not. This is especially true among the populist groups like the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which has sponsored a number of anti-immigration referendums over the years.
The next one is scheduled for September 27, when the Swiss will vote on the SVP-sponsored initiative seeking to curb EU immigration into Switzerland and allowing Switzerland to set its own migration quotas.