The Swiss economy has been the main beneficiary of a key labour accord with the European Union, according to a report by the economics ministry. A record number of immigrants entered Switzerland in 2013, ahead of February’s nationwide vote which came out in favour of curbing the influx.
A net 66,200 citizens from member countries of the EU and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) came to Switzerland last year, the highest figure since the free movement of people accord came into effect in 2002.
“The agreement contributed significantly to economic growth and employment over the past 12 years and made Switzerland more attractive for business,” says Marie-Gabrielle Ineichen-Fleisch, secretary of state in the economics ministry.
Nearly two out of three immigrants came to find work, says the study, which was published on Wednesday. People from countries particularly hit by the euro crisis since 2008, including Spain and also countries in eastern Europe, made up nearly half the total number.
“The agreement contributed significantly to economic growth and employment over the past 12 years and made Switzerland more attractive for business."
Boris Zürcher, head of the labour unit at the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, said the immigrants, either highly qualified personnel or low-skilled labour, had not led to Swiss workers losing their jobs.
He added that apart from border regions, notably in Ticino, unemployment had not significantly increased as a result of the free movement of labour to Switzerland.
“The immigrants complemented the high-skilled domestic workforce,” Zürcher told a news conference.
Salaries, social security
He stressed that to a large extent immigration had had no adverse impact on salaries and on the disability insurance. However, it resulted in extra costs for unemployment insurance.
Zürcher also said that the financial contributions by immigrant workers to the mandatory old age pension scheme boosted the ailing social security system for the moment.
The report, the tenth since 2003, is based on results of scientific research and “descriptive analysis”.
It comes five months after 50.3% of voters decided to re-impose tighter immigration controls, following a campaign spearheaded by the rightwing Swiss People’s Party.
The government has until 2017 to apply the demands for annual quotas of immigrant workers, which are likely to cause further tensions with the EU and a series of bilateral treaties between Switzerland and its main trading partner.
The 1.95 million foreigners living in Switzerland at the end of 2013 made up 23% of the resident population.
In a first reaction, the People’s Party dismissed the latest data as flawed. It accused the authorities of glossing over the situation.
“It is high time the administration faces reality,” a statement said.
For its part, the Trade Union Federation says the report fails to address the numerous cases of salary dumping by companies undercutting standard wage levels.
Daniel Lampart, trade union chief economist, called for the introduction of collective labour agreements in sectors such as the clothing retail trade to fight abuses.
He also pointed out that the health sector does not offer job conditions compatible with family life.
“It is an illusion to believe that the re-introduction of quotas will solve any problems,” he said. He called on Swiss employers to hire foreign labour only if no domestic personnel is available.
“Therefore we need better and more secure work conditions,” he told a news conference.
Roland Müller of the Employer’s Organisation told journalists the report confirmed findings by the Swiss business community.
“The potential of the resident labour force is not sufficient to satisfy the demand of the businesses. They rely on high-skilled and willing immigrant workers,” he said.
The Swiss government is currently preparing a bill for parliament to implement the result of the immigration vote and has formally notified the EU that it wants to re-negotiate a bilateral treaty providing for the free movement of people between the 28-member bloc and Switzerland.
“It will be a great challenge,” commented Ineichen-Fleisch.
Swiss voters are also due to decide in November on a proposal by an environmental group to restrict immigration to an average 0.2% of the resident population and spend 10% of annual development aid to promote family planning in developing countries.
By Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch