Cross-border workers in Geneva face bumpy ride

French cross-border commuters wait in front of the Moillesulaz border crossing near Geneva Keystone

They keep Geneva’s economy afloat but don’t live in the city – or even Switzerland. Yet more barriers appear to be going up to hinder cross-border commuters’ access to jobs in the international city.

This content was published on October 27, 2016 - 11:00

Guests staying at the three-star Ramada Encore Genève hotel are lucky if they meet a local among the staff. Only three of the 45 employees are Swiss and live in Geneva. The others drive in every day from France.

“In the hotel business we need foreign workers,” says Erik Wagenaar, the hotel’s Dutch manager who has run the establishment for the past 12 years. “There are lots of jobs available but you just can't find the right people.”

Right now he has several posts to fill, such as barman and sales person positions for people speaking French and German.

“We are open to anyone - Swiss or non-Swiss - but I hardly ever get applications from Swiss people. I'm a three-star hotel and I feel Swiss nationals prefer to work in four- or five-star hotels. It's a question of prestige,” said Wagenaar.

“For the Swiss the jobs here are low-paid and the hours you need to put in make it difficult and put off lots of them. But that's the economic situation. It's not something you can change.”

Manager Erik Wagenaar (centre) and members of his Ramada Encore Genève team Ramada Encore Genève

Veronique Allamand has been working at the hotel for seven years. She is now food and beverage manager and commutes every day from Cluses, in France, 50 kilometres (30 miles) away.

“The main advantage is the salary,” she admitted. “But I also have the kind of job that I could never get in France. I don't have a hotel diploma and here I manage people who themselves have hotel diplomas. In Switzerland they give [people] a chance, not like in France.”

Celine Vitse, a nurse at the Geneva University Hospital (HUG) who commutes from France’s Thonon-les-Bains, agrees the working conditions are appealing.

“My best friend stayed in France and she can't believe it when I tell her that I look after six people; she has 25, for the same job. What I find here in Switzerland is what I learned at school - a global approach to looking after a patient,” she said.

But cross-border workers don’t have it all easy. They work more hours a week in Switzerland than in France (42 versus 35), have long commutes, pay more social security and tax than in the past, and from one day to the next can be fired. “We are a lot less protected than in France,” said Allamand.

A report this month by the Conseil du Léman, a cross-border body represented by officials from France and cantons Geneva, Vaud and Valais, found that one in four jobs in Geneva (approximately 83,000) is held by someone living in France, and the number continues to rise despite sluggish economic growth. Of the 10,000 additional G permit holders (cross-border commuter) issued for all of Switzerland in the past year, 4,300 were in Geneva and 1,400 in the neighbouring canton of Vaud.

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“Geneva cannot do without its commuters and cross-border workers to keep the economy going,” Véronique Kämpfen, communication director at the Business Federation for French-speaking Switzerland, told 

“The increase in G permits, without any increase in unemployment [stable at 5.5%], indicates that the economy is doing rather well, although this depends on the sector of activity.” She says the other side of the coin is that it’s difficult to find Geneva residents to take available jobs.

‘Priority to locals’ directive

Ticino and February 9, 2014

On September 26 a majority of voters in canton Ticino (population: 350,000) chose to give local residents priority on the job market over foreigners in an effort to curb the number of employees from neighbouring Italy. Every day almost 70,000 people cross over into Italian-speaking Ticino to work.

The Swiss government is meanwhile wracking its brains how to implement a 2014 referendum in favour of controlling immigration levels and easing pressure on the job market from rising numbers of foreign workers, while maintaining treaties with the EU and growth. The lower House of Representatives has approved a ‘light’ proposal that involves applying an emergency handbrake in times of economic stress and requiring job vacancies to be first advertised with Swiss unemployment centres.

The suggestion, which has reportedly met with scepticism from EU officials, has yet to become official government policy. The Swiss authorities must make a firm decision on how to address the situation within the next four months.

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Despite their importance to the economy, cross-border commuters could suffer more from new policies to protect local workers in both Geneva and canton Ticino, which borders Italy in Switzerland’s south (see infobox).

In Geneva a cantonal regulation in place since 2014 aims to ensure that 250 public and state-funded institutions like the HUG prioritize local recruitment (see infobox). Presently, 31% of the 11,000 hospital staff are cross-border workers, a stable trend. In 2015 they had 907 new recruits, 23% with G permits.

HUG spokesman Nicolas de Sausurre said hospital officials were generally satisfied with the recruitment procedure that prioritizes locals, which he described as ‘intelligent’.

“It doesn’t impose local candidates for jobs where we know there are few on the market. At HUG most new recruitment is for care workers - either doctors, nurses or assistant nurses. Among these, very few are Swiss. There are not enough trained people in Switzerland to meet the needs of health professionals,” he says. “The problem is training capacity rather than lack of interest.”


But according to a recent report by the French-speaking Le Temps newspaper, the recruitment regulation covering public and state-funded institutions is having secondary effects on the local job market.

It claims Geneva’s cross-border workers – both Swiss and French living in France - increasingly feel discriminated against when looking for jobs in Geneva in both the public and private sectors. It believes the cantonal regulation is the cause.

Le Temps says the ruling for public institutions is indirectly leading to pressures and ‘self-censorship’ by private firms when considering whether to recruit a cross-border worker.

Geneva’s employment minister Mauro Poggia, a member of the populist Geneva Citizens' Movement (MCG) party, told Le Temps that he felt the idea of ‘cantonal preference’ for jobs was gaining traction: “We get more and more vacant posts [at the cantonal job centre (OCE)] coming from the private sector.”

The issue is likely to heat up after the MCG and the Geneva branch of the conservative right Swiss People’s Party followed canton Ticino in early October by announcing proposals to try to inscribe in the local constitution priority for Geneva residents on the job market – in both the private and public sectors.

Unions, French politicians and officials, and the Business Federation for French-speaking Switzerland, have publicly contested their plans.

Ultimately, however, a solution on how to manage cross-border workers and local employment may well come from the federal government in Bern, which is under pressure to implement the 2014 nationwide referendum to curb immigration.

Geneva’s cantonal priority

In 2014, Geneva’s employment minister, Mauro Poggia, a member of the populist Geneva Citizens' Movement (MCG) party, extended a 2011 cantonal directive to prioritise local recruitment to include 250 public administrations and state-funded bodies such as the Geneva transport network (TPG) and Geneva University Hospital (HUG).

Institutions are obliged to announce any vacant positions to the cantonal job centre (OCE) ten days before publishing them elsewhere. If they have candidates with similar skills, they are supposed to give priority to a local OCE candidate. They also have to report why they did not employ an OCE candidate and have to justify any new requests for G permits.

Of the 835 people employed by the Geneva state in 2015, 579 came via the OCE. For state-funded bodies 1,250 posts out of 2,000 announced last year came via the OCE.

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