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OPINION: Switzerland is a better place than 20 years ago, but much can still improve

Clare O'Dea
Clare O'Dea - [email protected]
OPINION: Switzerland is a better place than 20 years ago, but much can still improve
How has Switzerland changed in the last 20 years? Illustration Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP)

From attitudes towards foreigners and improvements in work-life balance, Clare O'Dea examines how Switzerland has changed over the last 20 years and how it hasn't ('the Swiss still don't know how to queue'). Her new book All About Switzerland is now available - details below.

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In the 20 years that I’ve been writing about Switzerland, I’ve tended to focus on one part of the picture at a time. Standing back from the canvas, I can see that there has been a pretty positive evolution in the country over that time.

The change has happened in measurable ways – an extra 1.6 million inhabitants, for one thing – but also in ways that are difficult to define. What I notice is more tolerance, more questioning of the norm, and more focus on fairness.

Some of this has come about through facing up to the wrongs of the past, whether that’s the historical abuse of children in the care system, the denial of the vote to women for so long (until 1971!), or the seizing of dictators’ assets.

Although it takes a painfully long time, mistakes and injustices do eventually come to light and there has been an appropriate reaction of self-recrimination and reflection towards these wrongs, and a willingness to make amends. All this has made Switzerland a better place.

READ ALSO: Are foreigners to blame if they find the Swiss unfriendly?

The foreign factor

When it comes to foreigners, there has definitely been in a positive change in attitudes towards immigrants from the countries of the former Yugoslavia. I detected very strong prejudice against this group in my early years in Switzerland. The second generation has now grown up here and found their place in all walks of Swiss life.

Unfortunately, asylum seekers have borne the brunt of xenophobia in recent years, with the notable exception of Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s war of aggression, who were granted special treatment. Switzerland has welcomed more than 80,000 Ukrainians since 2022, about a quarter of whom have since left the country.

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Several cantons, notably Neuchâtel, have led the way in extending more rights to foreign residents and making it easier for them to integrate or obtain Swiss nationality. But naturalisation rates are still low, which is a pity for the Swiss, if only they would realise that.

When I first came to live in Switzerland from Ireland, I benefitted from the newly-valid agreement on the free movement of persons with the EU and EFTA countries. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Swiss and EU/EFTA nationals have been free to move countries for work, adventure, love or retirement.

Those immigrant workers have been a boon to the Swiss economy, which has one of the highest levels of GDP per capita in the world. Travel wise, Switzerland is well and truly integrated into Europe, joining the Schengen Area in 2008.

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Family matters

Just this week, my twin daughters, who are Swiss citizens, received their first ever ballots for the next federal and cantonal votes on June 9th. Apart from reminding me of the fact that foreigners in Switzerland are largely excluded from the democratic process, this landmark also reminds me of how times have changed in relation to maternity rights.

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It is hard to believe that Swiss women did not have statutory paid maternity leave until 2005. Voters had rejected the notion that women should have guaranteed paid leave after giving birth on four previous occasions – 1974, 1984, 1987 and again in 1999.

For all those years, maternity benefits were left up to employers to dictate, which was clearly not enough protection for all mothers. Today, new mothers are entitled to 14 weeks statutory leave but most employers offer more than that. Since 2021, fathers in Switzerland have been entitled to two weeks paternity leave.

There’s definitely room for improvement in the area of work-life balance for families, and there are some ideas in the pipeline, including state subsidies for childcare. With a fertility rate of 1.39 births per woman in 2022, Swiss-born babies is not where population growth is coming from.

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Taking turns

One issue that seems almost unfixable in Switzerland is the high cost of healthcare. The country has the second most expensive system in the world, after the United States. Most of the cost is shouldered by households, directly or indirectly.

Whatever about the cost, the care itself is excellent and relatively well staffed. With one in three healthcare workers holding a foreign diploma, including a large proportion of cross-border workers the system is heavily reliant on non-nationals.

On June 9th, Swiss voters will get to decide on two people’s initiatives, both of which aim to curb the cost to consumers. My impression in the past was that the Swiss were reluctant to vote for freebies for themselves. But this may be the right timing for these proposals, considering that voters accepted an initiative in March of this year to increase the state pension by 8 per cent.

When it comes to daily life in Switzerland, politeness and order is the rule, with one exception – the Swiss still don’t know how to queue! I had this experience just the other day waiting outside a small museum that was only letting in a few people at a time. If you can cope with that fundamental flaw, the rest is easy.

All About Switzerland

A dynamic, up-to-date guide to Swiss society and current affairs, All About Switzerland ebook features a selection of 29 articles by Clare O'Dea. The articles were first published by The Local Switzerland from 2022 to 2024. The ebook is available on Amazon, Kobo and other retailers.

Originally from Dublin, Clare O’Dea has lived in Switzerland for two decades. Author of fiction and non-fiction, Clare has had a varied media career in Ireland and Switzerland, with a stint in Russia. She has contributed articles to The Local Switzerland since 2022. Her new book All About Switzerland: Selected articles from The Local Switzerland is Clare’s fourth and is available as an e-book online.

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