SHARE
COPY LINK
For members

EMPLOYMENT

Everything foreigners need to know about trade unions in Switzerland

On May 1st, Switzerland, like many other nations around Europe, will celebrate Labour Day. This is a good occasion to get to know more about the country's unions — what they are and what their mission is.

Everything foreigners need to know about trade unions in Switzerland
United Nations staff demonstrated in Geneva in 2018 for higher wages. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

If you work in Switzerland, earn a decent salary, enjoy good working conditions and benefits, you probably feel no need to join a labour union. 

In fact, with only about one in five employees belonging to a trade union, Switzerland’s ‘unionisation rate’ is among the lowest in Europe. As a comparison, union memberships range from around 70 percent in Finland, Sweden and Denmark, to 8 percent in France.

A bit of history…

In most countries, labour unions grew during the Industrial Revolution out of the need for better wages, benefits, working conditions, and overall protection for the labour force, which was often underpaid and treated unfairly by the employers.

Switzerland was no different: it was not always a wealthy country it is today, and collective agreements between companies and employees did not come into existence until the 20th century (see below).

READ MORE: Swiss history: The country was once so poor, people had to go abroad to survive

The first Swiss trade unions emerged in the second half of the 19th century, mostly in the printing trade, as well as construction, timber, metal, watchmaking and textile industries. 

By the 1960s, almost a quarter of Switzerland’s workforce belonged to a union, but numbers began to decline in the following decades, with only one in 10 workers still unionised by the end of the 1990s.

Today, two main labour unions are active in Switzerland: the largest is The Swiss Federation of Trade Unions (UNIA), the umbrella group for 16 unions in the areas of industry and construction. A second umbrella organisation is Travail Suisse, with 13 member unions. 

Should you join a union?

While in certain countries, companies (perhaps most notably the giant retailer Walmart in the United States) actively discourage employees from joining a union at the risk of losing their jobs, Switzerland’s Constitution guarantees the “freedom of association”, including the right to join or not join a trade union. Nobody has the right to dissuade you from joining, if this is what you want.

On the employers’ side, the Swiss Employers Association is the umbrella body for about 80 organisations, “committed to ensuring the most favourable economic and employer policy framework conditions”.

Along with the Swiss Business Federation (Economiesuisse) and the Swiss Association of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises, the three associations form Switzerland’s leading bodies representing business and economic interests. 

Do the two sides — unions and employers’ associations — butt heads?

Sometimes, divergence of opinions does happen, but this being Switzerland, things are usually resolved in a calm and pragmatic manner.

That’s because both sides have concluded a collective employment agreement, which defines wages and other conditions which must be complied with in various sectors of the industry.

Additionally, there are company-specific collective employment agreements, as well as agreements which only apply to specific employers in certain regions.

All this is intended to ensure that employees’ welfare and rights are being respected and to avoid labour strikes.

This system works to preserve workers’ rights relatively effectively, for instance in relation to minimum wage. 

Switzerland maintains high wages despite not having a federal minimum wage, while only a handful of cantons have put in place a minimum standard. 

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about minimum wage in Switzerland

Do strikes happen in Switzerland nevertheless?

The Swiss do demonstrate — against Covid vaccines or in favour of climate – but unlike in France and other countries throughout Europe, Swiss workers rarely go on strike.

A climate strike in Bern on October 22, 2021. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

It is not only because the Swiss don’t like confrontation, but they also believe that most contentious issues can be solved through negotiation and collective bargaining.

Only when conflicts can’t be resolved at a bargaining table — which is rare — do unions organise strikes.

However, both sides try to avoid such drastic actions so as not to disrupt the smooth running of the economy; according to Encyclopedia Britannica, “by European standards, Switzerland’s trade unions are a pretty mild bunch”.

As The Local reported in 2018 (and the situation has not changed since then), “The country has a long tradition of avoiding industrial conflict through negotiations. Many sectors are governed by collective bargaining agreements which set conditions for employees. That tradition is deeply rooted and also seen in the country’s politics, where compromise is important. Some also argue that the fact people can voice their opinions through regular referendums reduces the potential for conflict in the workplace”.

You can find out more about strikes in Switzerland here:

Why are strikes so rare in Switzerland?

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

EMPLOYMENT

What is a Swiss collective bargaining agreement — and how could it benefit you?

If you are employed in one of Switzerland’s large or medium-sized companies, chances are your salary and work conditions are determined by a collective agreement. What exactly is this?

What is a Swiss collective bargaining agreement — and how could it benefit you?

Switzerland’s labour law is quite comprehensive, encompassing working conditions, employees’ rights, annual leave and other time off, protection from discrimination, and gender equality, among other aspects of employment.

In addition to the basic rules and conditions outlined in this legislation, many employees are also covered by the collective bargaining agreement (CLA), a kind of contract that is negotiated between Switzerland’s trade unions and employers or employer organisations. 

It is estimated that roughly half of Switzerland’s workforce of about 5 million people are covered by a CLA.

In fact, the strength of Switzerland’s CLAs means that there is no federal minimum wage, as minimum standards are often included in your bargaining agreement. 

A handful of Swiss cantons have put in place a minimum wage, mostly in the French and Italian-speaking parts of the country. 

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about minimum wage in Switzerland

What do these agreements include?

Generally speaking, they cover a minimum wage for each type of work; regulations relating to work hours; payment of wages in the event of illness or maternity; vacation and days off; and protection against dismissal.

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about annual leave in Switzerland

Other important employment-related matters are also subject to negotiations — for instance, pension fund regulations, early retirement, conflict resolution procedures, and funding of training.

CLAs are sector-specific; in other words, they take into account the particular aspects of each branch. As an example, Switzerland’s largest labour union, The Swiss Federation of Trade Unions (UNIA), maintains 265 collective agreements in the areas of industry and construction.

Collective agreements can also be company-specific — for instance, Coop, Migros, or SWISS airline — or specific to a certain region.

READ MORE: Everything foreigners need to know about trade unions in Switzerland

It is therefore clear that CLAs benefit employees in a number of ways, not the least of which is knowing what to expect from the company you work for and being sure that your rights are protected and not subject to the employer’s whimsy.

What if your company has not concluded a CLA?

In this case, you are still protected by the above-mentioned labour legislation, which ensures that your welfare and rights are being respected.

You will also sign an employment contract with your company, which outlines your salary, rights and obligations, as well as everything your employer can and cannot do, or expect from you.

READ MORE: Which jobs are in demand in Switzerland right now – and how much can you earn?

According to a government site, “in professional sectors that do not have a collective employment agreement, the federal or cantonal authorities can establish a standard employment contract …The employer can only modify these conditions to offer better terms for employees”.

The system seems to be working well, as evidenced by a survey carried out by EY consultants, which found that 87 percent of workers in Switzerland are happy with their jobs.

Strikes are rare in Switzerland

Another proof of employee satisfaction is that Swiss workers rarely go on strike.

Switzerland has a long tradition of avoiding industrial conflict through negotiations. Many sectors are governed by collective bargaining agreements which set conditions for employees.

That tradition is deeply rooted and also seen in the country’s politics, where compromise is important.

Some also argue that the fact people can voice their opinions through regular referendums reduces the potential for conflict in the workplace. 

READ MORE: Why strikes are rare in Switzerland

SHOW COMMENTS