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Recruitment policies come under spotlight

Calmy-Rey added fuel to the debate over employment in Switzerland

As the economic crisis pushes up unemployment figures, a Swiss minister has raised eyebrows with a call for firms to favour Swiss residents over foreigners.

"Swiss businesses should recruit as a priority people who are well integrated in the Swiss labour market," Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, a member of the centre-left Social Democrat party, told the French-language television discussion programme Infrarouge.

She also called for the so-called "accompanying measures" in a bilateral accord with the European Union, designed to protect workers, to be applied more rigorously.

These include the prevention of wage dumping - paying foreign workers less and thus forcing down wages in general – and checks to ensure that working conditions meet Swiss standards.

Calmy-Rey's remarks add fuel to the debate that has recently flared up over the employment of citizens from the European Union (EU). Under an agreement on the free movement of people, EU and Swiss citizens can live and work in each other's countries.

A top official of the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs made a similar call last week for preference to be given to Swiss residents.

The rightwing People's Party wants to get the agreement completely revised, and has threatened to call a popular vote on the issue.

Both unemployment and immigration are on the agenda of parliament's current winter session.

Workers needed

But are workers really pouring into Switzerland and taking jobs that Swiss people and foreigners already resident could do? Figures issued by the Federal Migration Office show that while the number of new arrivals rose to a peak of 157,000 in 2008, it has sunk to 127,000 in 2009.

"It doesn't make sense for employers to look abroad if they can find suitable workers here with the necessary know-how," Rita Baldegger, head of communication at the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, pointed out to swissinfo.ch.

"People who are here know the environment, they know the culture, they don't have any moving costs, they are much more flexible, they are likely to be able to start very soon," she added.

While it is true that jobs in some sectors have gone, in others there are acute shortages. These include such areas as life sciences, engineering and top level IT jobs, José Maria San José, director of marketing and communications at the recruitment agency Adecco Human Resources, told swissinfo.ch.

"And if Switzerland only used Swiss doctors and health care personnel, the system would collapse," he added.

Political games

"Without these highly qualified people from within Europe, the Swiss economy would be seriously damaged, and be significantly less competitive than it is now," Georg Lutz, a political scientist at Lausanne University told swissinfo.ch.

He sees the debate about restricting free movement as part of normal political games, and doubts whether the People's Party would be pleased if an initiative on the topic were actually to be accepted in a nationwide vote.

"It's very easy to [put forward a proposal] knowing that it's not going to happen. Then you are in the very nice position that you can argue and blame all the others for the negative aspects, without having to take responsibility," he said.

Meanwhile, on the left of the political spectrum, the trade unions which form part of the traditional constituency of Calmy-Rey's Social Democratic Party have concerns of their own about the agreement on free movement.

Although on the whole they see the flanking measures, rather than restrictions on numbers, as the best way to protect workers, Ewald Ackermann, media spokesman for the Swiss Trade Union Federation, told swissinfo.ch that his organisation welcomed Calmy-Rey's comments about favouring Swiss residents.

"We think the approach is correct," he said. "Without such a preference, people who have become unemployed here would in the long run find themselves marginalised."

But Lutz was wary about the weight that should be given to her words.

"I'm not sure how coordinated this position is with her party, or with the trade unions, or with the government. And I'm not at all sure how it would turn into some kind of policy."

Safeguards

As the agreement stands, there are safeguards in place anyway, as Tilman Renz, head of information at the Integration Office on European Affairs explained to swissinfo.ch

The situation is complex, since the EU has expanded since the agreements first came into force, and the more recent EU members are subject to more restrictions than the older ones. Nationals of the eight countries which joined the EU in 2004, and those of Bulgaria and Romania which joined in 2007, are still subject to quotas.

Should there be a massive influx of EU workers a quota system can temporally be reintroduced for all the countries.

But with expansion the accompanying measures have been toughened as well. Renz admitted that there are still sometimes abuses, but in each canton an inspectorate is in place to ensure that these are reduced to a minimum.

Julia Slater, swissinfo.ch

Free movement of persons

The agreement on the free movement of people is part of Switzelrand's agreements with the EU.

It was signed in 1999 as part of the first round of bilateral agreements.

Swiss voters approved it by a two thirds majority in 2000

Nationals of any signatory country can live and work in any other as long as they have a work contract, are self employed or can show they have sufficient money to support themselves.

The agreement originally came into force in 2002, applying to the 15 oldest members of the EU plus Cyprus and Malta.

In 2006 it was extended to the eight states which joined the EU in 2004.

It has applied to Bulgaria and Romania since June 2009.

In all cases the agreement was approved by Swiss voters.

In a transitional period – which has now expired for the original members – quotas can be set on the number of workers accepted.

They can be temporarily introduced if the number of workers entering the country, rises sharply – by 10% of the average figure of the previous three years.

The agreement includes "accompanying measures" to protect workers against the undercutting of wages and to protect such things as social welfare and safety at work.

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