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The uncertainty of life as an illegal worker

Most undocumented workers work in domestic jobs, construction, hospitality and agriculture. Kai Reusser

It’s the dream of many to come to Switzerland to work, but what’s it like if you’re forced to work illegally? That’s the case for tens of thousands of people.

Rita, 51, earns CHF500 ($510) for five days’ work. “That’s good money. I spend the whole day looking after an old lady. I clean the flat and cook for her, her son and his wife,” she told 

Before arriving in Switzerland last September, she looked for a job as a secretary in her native Guatemala, but without success. 

Her daughter, Laura, found her the job. “A teacher I know was looking for someone to take care of his mother, who is almost 90. I suggested my mother, but it’s really risky. I’m worried that the working relationship won’t last long,” said the 29-year-old, a shop assistant in a village in canton Bern. She has a residence permit (a B permit) after marrying a Swiss. 

Doesn’t the teacher care that his mother is employing someone illegally? “He says it’s a way of helping both his family and our family. But we have to be discreet. Although care workers are needed to look after old people, the Swiss government is not giving out the corresponding work permits,” she said. 

Asked whether could speak to the teacher, Laura replied: “Good heavens no!” 

Rita is one of 76,000 people who work in Switzerland without the required papers, according to a 2015 report by the State Secretariat for Migration. 

The authors of the study acknowledge that this is a rough estimate. “The number of clandestine workers cannot be determined with certainty and probably lies someone between 50,000 and 99,000,” they said.


Fulfilling demand

That report, the first large scale study of illegal workers since 2005, found that only 18% of them are rejected asylum seekers. 

“The majority never went through the asylum process,” said Martin Reichlin, spokesman for the State Secretariat for Migration. “Their aim is to come to Switzerland and stay in order to fulfil the demand for clandestine workers in the Swiss labour market.” 

The study confirmed that nine out of ten adult illegal immigrants work in one or more paid jobs. In other words, around 60,000 men and women work on the black market, half in private Swiss households. 

“They are economic migrants and they don’t have a permit, quite simply because the Swiss authorities – apart from exceptions for specially qualified people – approve immigration only for workers from the EU or EFTA [Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein],” said Francisco Merlo from La Fraternité, an advice centre for immigrants in Lausanne which took part in the government study. 

Some 63% of clandestine workers crossed the Swiss border without valid travel documents or as tourists. 

A further 19% had been given a residence permit but this had since expired. These were “people who were socially and professionally better integrated and as a result were less conspicuous”, according to the report. 

This was the case with Ana, a 30-year-old Brazilian. She lives with “relatives” in Zurich and says she didn’t choose anonymity voluntarily. “My Swiss ex-husband wanted a divorce four years ago – before I was able to apply for a residence permit,” she told 

Ana went into hiding. “I clean homes and work as a call girl. I set up all my meetings by mobile phone – this means I keep a low profile. I have regular clients. By doing that and by working as a cleaner, I can support my son and mother in Brazil.”

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‘Policy failure’

The 2015 study found that 43% of illegal workers come from Latin America. 

“They come above all from Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil and have created niche jobs cleaning or looking after children and elderly people in private households,” Merlo said. 

After Latin America, 24% of illegal immigrants come from European countries outside the EU and EFTA. Many come from the former Yugoslavia. After Switzerland limited immigration for foreign workers from the EU and EFTA and in 2002 cancelled seasonal worker status, the black market was the only alternative for people from Macedonia and Kosovo without unlimited work contracts.

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The government study did not include clandestine workers from the EU. But Merlo and other migration experts point out that there are many of them, despite the free movement of people, which allows EU citizens to live and work in other EU states. Workers from the EU become clandestine when they lose their jobs – and therefore also their residence permits – in Switzerland but then don’t leave the country as required.

Another reason is when a foreign worker’s family joins them but lack the legally necessary living space, resulting in the residence permit being withheld. 

Merlo says such cases are common. “Workers from Portugal, Spain or Italy will not send their relatives home. They remain in Switzerland illegally until a large enough apartment becomes available and thus a family reunion is legally possible.” 

Since the previous study in 2005, the number of clandestine workers has remained relatively stable. The reasons for this are the short-term demand for flexible workers and the cost pressure in sectors with small profit margins. 

For Merlo, this is evidence of the “failure of a restrictive immigration policy while a stable demand for this cheap workforce exists in the economy and society”. 

He adds that this demand is based on the fact that state efforts to create nurseries for children and options for looking after elderly people remain unsuccessful. 

“We move everything possible abroad to save costs, but three sectors cannot be outsourced: construction, hospitality and work in private households. So because of demand, we tolerate that these people move here and work for us at their own risk and with no rights – a collective hypocrisy”.

Illegal workers

The State Secretariat for Migration is responsible for the regulation of permits for entry, residence and work. According to the report “Paperless workers in Switzerland 2015”, there are a total of 76,000 paperless workers in Switzerland, of whom 12% are minors. 

A total of 19% of illegal workers live in Switzerland for more than ten years, 35% for five to ten years, 25% for less than five years and 21% for less than a year. 

Only two of Switzerland’s 26 cantons – Vaud and Geneva – have shown interest in legalising illegal workers.

Do you think it is a good idea to legalise illegal workers who have been employed in Switzerland for many years? Tell us in the comments section below. 

Translated by Thomas Stephens

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR