Skirts and tampons taxed more than menswear and Viagra

“Did you know that we’re paying a higher customs duty as well?!” KEYSTONE/Christof Schuerpf

Women in Switzerland who buy clothes from abroad – or menstruate – pay a higher tax rate than men who wear imported clothing or take pills to treat erectile dysfunction. These are just two Swiss examples of the so-called pink tax, a form of gender-based price discrimination. Here’s why it exists and what’s being done about it.

This content was published on October 10, 2019 - 11:00

When a woman in Switzerland wants to update her wardrobe with clothing made abroad, she can expect to pay more than male colleagues. In a federally-sanctioned example of the pink tax, the tariff for womenswear imported into Switzerland is higher than that for menswear: 5% versus 3% on top of the value of the clothing. Retailers factor this into their prices, which results in women – who already earn less than men, on average – paying more for attire.

The reason for the discrepancy is that Swiss clothing tariffs are based on weight, and historically, women’s clothing was lighter than men’s, yet often more expensive.

An antique silk dress at the Textilmuseum in St Gallen Keystone / Regina Kuehne

“We have worked to ensure that the tariff burden on women’s clothing is adjusted downwards,” price watchdog Stefan Meierhans told swissinfo.ch. A change in the law is now pending, State Secretariat for Economic Affairs spokeswoman Livia Willi explained to swissinfo.ch.

“A bill to abolish industrial tariffs is currently being drafted. [This] would definitively eliminate the unequal treatment between men’s and women’s clothing,” said Willi, who also pointed out that thanks to free trade agreements, a significant proportion of clothing imports are already duty-free.

No tax discount

Women must buy pads, tampons or menstrual cups to absorb their monthly periods. These are subject to the full value-added tax (VAT) rate in Switzerland: 7.7%. Unlike tap water, food, cat litter, flowers, reading material and medication, women’s sanitary supplies do not qualify for the discounted rate of 2.5% put into place in 2018.

There’s a parliamentary motion to adjust the rate downwards, and this past summer, Swiss campaigning group Campax presented a petition urging the Swiss Senate to follow the lead of other countries. For example, Kenya did away with the “tampon tax” in 2004; India did so last year. This year Australia as well as 11 US states joined them. Britain, meanwhile, charges 5% VAT compared with the 20% charged on other goods.

“There are 40 men and six women in the Senate. Nearly 90% of the people deciding on our concern have never menstruated,” pointed out Campax, which handed the petition in on the day of the National Women’s Strike. More than 11,000 people had signed it. Campax

Losing their shirts?

Price lists at the dry cleaner's are often another source of grumbling about unfair pricing for women. However, men often get a better deal because a robot helps press their shirts – as demonstrated in this video from the Swiss Association for Textile Care.

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According to Melanie Saner, the association’s general manager, women’s shirts are typically too small and delicate for the semi-automatic press – noting that some cleaners say it only works for robust fabrics and styles size 40 (US10/UK14) and up.

“The cheapest prices are only for shirts done on the robot,” Saner told swissinfo.ch. “As soon as you have to do it by hand, it’s more expensive – also for men’s or children’s shirts.”

More than a hair more expensive

Another typical pink tax item in many countries is shaving equipment. Spot-checks of razor blades for sale in Bern revealed some major differences in cost. While a men’s three-blade razor refill goes for CHF3.24 ($3.26), the women’s equivalent costs CHF4.98. Overall, the women’s shaving tools cost 8-54% more than men's.

At first glance, the women’s razors seem less expensive, until you notice that their refills contain fewer units than the men’s versions. swissinfo.ch
swissinfo.ch

The Swiss Consumer Protection foundation, which also supports the move to cut the VAT on pads and tampons, notes that in general, “consumers need to be aware that there are gender-specific price differences” on goods and services.

As the foundation’s head of the politics and economy department, André Bähler, told swissinfo.ch, “women often pay far more than men for the same haircut, even when it’s a simple short style”.

Unisex pricing

But recently, a hairdresser in Lausanne has introduced the same prices for men and women. At Avant-Propos, haircuts typically cost CHF80 per person, more for particularly long or involved styles.

The salon owner updated his prices in February after a client asked why her boyfriend had paid CHF20 less for his haircut. Unable to come up with a reason, he decided to treat his customers equally.

“Some men still didn’t understand. They thought that a haircut with us had become too expensive and stopped coming,” Nicolas Cettou told swissinfo.ch, adding that other customers were enthusiastic. There are also new clients attracted to the pricing scheme. swissinfo.ch

(With input from Katy Romy)


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