A proposal by trade unions to increase holiday entitlement from four to six weeks has met with opposition by the business community, most parties and the cabinet.
Voters will have the final say on the initiative in a nationwide ballot on March 11. The Travail Suisse umbrella group is supported by the Trade Union Federation and centre-left parties.
Increased productivity and more stress at the workplace justify more holidays for employees to recover, according to the unions.
“Working life is a marathon, not a sprint,” said Martin Flügel, president of Travail Suisse.
Under increasing stress and facing a working life of more than 40 years on average, many employees fall ill and do not reach the regular retirement age, according to Flügel.
He adds that the costs of the heavier workload, notably overtime, amount to SFr10 billion ($10.7 billion) a year.
Supporters say the current regulations from 1984 are outdated and not family-friendly enough, making calls for extra holidays very popular, according to a recent opinion poll.
The unions believe the measure would cost the economy an additional SFr6.8 million – manageable as it would be spread over six years.
Opponents of the initiative however argue Switzerland’s competitive edge would suffer as more holidays lead to higher labour costs.
“An additional holiday week results in a two per cent increase in costs. That is worth several billion francs annually,” said Thomas Daum, director of the Employers Association.
He dismisses the unions’ notion that employees enjoying more holiday time are necessarily healthier when they return to work.
A broad alliance of centre-right and rightwing parties also points out that particularly small and medium-sized companies – which form the backbone of the Swiss economy – would be badly hit by the additional costs as they could often not afford to hire extra staff to cover for people on leave.
Opponents say the initiative leaves no room for flexibility to take into account the specific needs of different sectors of the economy.
As a result of higher costs and a rigid holiday system an increasing number of companies would move abroad, putting further pressure on the Swiss export industry already suffering under the strong currency.
In line with opponents, the government argues the current legislation works as it leaves enough flexibility for employers and unions to negotiate other forms of entitlements, including shorter working hours, part-time jobs and other family-friendly schemes.
Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga points out that many companies already offer more than the statutory four weeks of holidays. “And this is only fair,” said Sommaruga – a member of the centre-left Social Democratic Party.
It was her party, together with the Trade Union Federation, which attempted to introduce a minimum five-week holiday entitlement at the end of the 1970s.
The initiative was widely rejected in a nationwide vote in 1985. However, parliament did decide to increase minimum entitlements by five working days to four weeks annually.
In the run-up to the March 11 vote Sommaruga pledged that cabinet would take concerns about stress in the workplace seriously. She said it was primarily up to employers and employees to find solutions.
Under current federal law dating back to 1984, employees are entitled to a statutory minimum of four weeks of vacation a year.
Employees under the age of 20 are entitled to a minimum of five weeks annually.
However, more generous entitlements may be granted according to industrial sectors and cantons.
Voters in 1985 threw out an initiative calling for a minimum of five weeks. Just under 35% of the electorate came out in favour, while 65% rejected the proposal.
Last November, voters in Zurich rejected a proposal to grant cantonal employees five weeks of holidays.end of infobox
Holidays, gambling, books and taxes
Besides the initiative for six weeks’ holiday, voters will decide on a move by an environmental group to push through a cap on holiday homes.
A separate initiative seeks tax breaks for future home owners.
A referendum is also being held on a decision by parliament to re-introduce a fixed book price agreement.
Also tabled is a vote on plans to enshrine in the constitution regulations on casinos and lotteries as well as efforts to prevent addiction.end of infobox