The Swiss construction industry is one of the few sectors that employs large numbers of foreigners in low-skilled jobs and has high unemployment levels. It remains unclear if a new system of hiring preferences for Swiss workers will help resolve this situation.
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After the European Union’s free movement of people clause came into effect in 2002, large numbers of foreigners found construction jobs in Switzerland, despite an above-average unemployment rate for the sector. According to the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), around 3,200 construction workers, or 18% of the sector’s labour force, were unemployed in 2016, while the same year over 6,000 foreigners found construction jobs.
Thomas Foery, head of human resources at the largest Swiss construction firm Implenia, which employs workers from over 60 countries, doubts new immigrants force older workers out of their jobs - at least not in the main construction sector.
“Foreign applicants are not necessarily cheaper. They get the same minimum wage, there is a lot of cost and effort to train them, and because of their limited language skills they usually need help dealing with the authorities and finding accommodation,” he argued.
Foery said growth in the Swiss construction industry had slowed recently which had partially led to companies adjusting their capacities.
Last year, Implenia also had to cut jobs in certain regions but it has not revealed how many workers it laid off. Low-skilled workers were most affected by these redundancies.
“Apart from people who have unique skills that cannot be found in Switzerland, we hardly employ anyone from abroad,” Foery said.
Implenia did not wish to comment on the fact that according to the 2016 statistics, thousands of foreigners were recruited in the construction industry all over Switzerland despite the high unemployment rate for this sector.
The initiative to curb mass immigration from the European Union, which was narrowly accepted in 2014, has not had a limiting effect on immigration so far. In its place, a toned-down version will be implemented on July 1.
Parliament’s initial goal was to protect domestic workers from foreign applicants by launching this initiative, which aimed to slow immigration by imposing maximum figures and quotas.
After resistance in parliament, a softer version ended up giving those registered as jobless in Switzerland first crack at finding open jobs in sectors with above-average unemployment. From July 1, 2018, employers are obliged to register relevant job vacancies with regional employment agencies. The new job ads will be visible for the first five days only to those registered with the employment office. Officials will then have three working days to send employers the CVs and details of Swiss residents who are registered with their employment agency.
For the first 18 months of the hiring scheme, the government decided to set the jobless rate for local preference at 8% for a list of job categories, arguing that a 5% threshold would overstretch the capacities of employment offices.
Up until now, Implenia has almost never recruited employees via regional employment agencies.
“They play a minor role in our recruitment process,” Foery explained. The construction industry is a well-connected community. “Whenever we need workers, we can rely on our well working network. Our employees often recommend someone who is experienced in working on a construction site.”
The Swiss Contractors’ Association welcomed parliament’s initial solution and the fact that the implementation of the mass immigration initiative was in line with the EU free movement of people clause. It was not particularly enthusiastic about being forced to register job vacancies.
“Once the 5% threshold takes effect in 2020, we will have to go through the employment office for almost every position. It won’t matter if we need seasonal, short-term or temporary workers,” said association spokesperson Matthias Engel. The group wants the government to increase the limit to at least 8%, even after 2019.
Older workforce affected
Employees hope that the upcoming hiring scheme will provide incentives to make older Swiss workers more attractive to employers. Aging workers are said to be increasingly disadvantaged in the construction industry. The UNIA trade union has recently observed a sharp annual increase in temporary employment in the construction sector of 14%.
“Certain construction companies are increasingly making older employees redundant,” said UNIA spokesperson Philipp Zimmermann. The affected workers could only keep their jobs on a temporary basis or they risked being replaced by younger, cheaper workers, who were often recruited abroad on a permanent basis.
“Temporary workers are in a pretty tricky situation. They are often hired during busy times and can be made redundant within a few weeks. Permanent employees, on the contrary, have longer notice periods,” Zimmermann went on.
He felt that out of respect, older employees, who may have worked for the same company for decades, should maintain fair working conditions.
Foery, meanwhile, blamed the increase in temporary contracts on the project-driven nature of the construction business. “Once one project is finished, it needs another one immediately. Otherwise there is no work for your staff,” he noted.
A Portuguese plasterer welcomed the law to tackle unemployment in his sector. A Swiss firm invited Fernando Rodrigues to come and work here in 2014. He may not have been hired if the new law had been in place, as vacancies now have to be advertised locally before Swiss building companies can seek workers abroad.
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