Business leaders reject quotas on foreign workers

UBS president, Marcel Ospel, (left) and Vorort president, Andres Leuenberger, (right) believe limiting Switzerland's foreign population could have a negative impact on its economy Keystone

Top business personalities have warned that efforts to cut the number of foreigners in Switzerland to 18 per cent of the population could be catastrophic for the economy. The Swiss people are due to vote on the measure next month.

This content was published on August 22, 2000 - 19:20

The warning was issued at a meeting on Tuesday marking the formal launch of a campaign against the initiative by the federation of commerce and industry.

The president of the Federation, Andres Leuenberger, described the "18 per cent initiative" as a clear threat to the Swiss economy. "We are taking this vote very seriously," he said, "even if the proponents of the initiative didn't intend it, a vote in favour would seriously weaken our economy."

Marcel Ospel, president of Switzerland's biggest bank, UBS, voiced his concern over the effect a vote in favour of the initiative would have on Switzerland's image abroad.

"I will be voting against not just as a business leader, but as a Swiss citizen," he said. "Our country has a liberal and open culture, and our history demonstrates how different national groups can live successfully together."

At the moment Switzerland's foreign population stands at 19.3 per cent, and leaders of industry fear that a limit of 18 per cent would mean a recruitment freeze on foreign labour for many years.

Worst affected would be hospitals, the construction industry, and the hotel and tourism trade, which have traditionally relied heavily on foreign workers. But hi-tech companies in Switzerland could be at risk too: some have already threatened to relocate their businesses if their recruitment policies are restricted.

And according to Leuenberger, Switzerland's long-awaited series of bilateral accords with the European Union could be threatened too. Switzerland approved the accords in May, but they are still awaiting ratification by EU member states.

"I think we can say good-bye to all seven agreements if the 18 per cent initiative is approved," Leuenberger said. "The other European parliaments just won't ratify them if we suddenly vote in favour of restrictions on foreign labour."

Swiss business leaders are hoping that their high-powered campaign will help sway voters on September 24. Leuenberger believes the initiative, if approved, will damage the economy without having any of the effects that the initiative's supporters want.

"This initiative won't prevent illegal immigration, or people working illegally. What we need is a better policy on asylum. But first we must defeat this initiative, and then we can concentrate on that."

by Imogen Foulkes

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