The confidential business data currently being handed over by Swiss banks to the United States to settle a tax dispute has caused alarm and resentment among many employees who feel betrayed by a system that they believed in.
Max*, who used to work at a prominent Swiss bank, tells swissinfo.ch about the mental strain of living with the fear of being arrested, extradited and dragged into a US criminal investigation.
Having worked on the North America desk of his bank’s wealth management unit, Max’s name was handed over to the US authorities without his consent despite his only carrying out support services and having, in his view, “little direct contact with clients”.
The “betrayal” has also dented Max’s future career prospects and left a bitter taste about the role of the Swiss government.
(* name changed to preserve anonymity)
In 2009, Swiss banking giant UBS was fined $780 million after admitting to helping US citizens avoid taxes.
A year later the Swiss government was forced to allow the handover of nearly 4,500 UBS client names to the US tax authorities.
The US continued to investigate other Swiss banks, leading to the downfall of Switzerland’s oldest private bank, Wegelin, earlier this year.
With around 14 other Swiss banks facing possible criminal charges, Swiss Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf authorised five banks to release information relating to their business dealings in the US.
These data included the names of bank employees, but did not contain details on clients or their accounts.
Several employees challenged the release of their personal data in the Swiss courts, with a handful of cases obtaining favourable preliminary rulings.
In July of this year, the government said it would allow a wider release of US business data, including names of third parties – such as lawyers – and numbers (but not names) of clients who had transferred their assets to other Swiss banks.end of infobox
swissinfo.ch: How did you learn that your name would be passed to the US authorities?
Max: The first time I heard this was when my boss took me aside and told me the news. The bank refused to give me written confirmation or any details of what information would be handed over relating to me.
My first reaction was that it couldn’t be possible, as I had always done my work properly, following the rules. I did not understand why they were doing this because I was not involved directly with client relationships or with offering services.
swissinfo.ch: What was your reaction to hearing the news?
Max: I felt disgusted because I was denied a guarantee that the bank would pay for lawyers and help me if I had a problem with the US. I felt betrayed as I had been working conscientiously and in good faith for my employer.
It felt like someone had burgled my house – my personal data has been violated.
swissinfo.ch: What impact has this had on your personal life?
Max: My bank recommended that I not travel in the US, and this made me quite scared. I was even afraid to go out of Switzerland in case I got extradited. We were hearing so many bad stories of people being arrested or harassed by the US authorities.
A lot of my family lived abroad so it was quite a complicated situation. I was so stressed that I had to visit my doctor several times.
Just weeks after hearing my name would be handed over I went to a wedding in England. I was very nervous, but when I finally took the flight nothing happened, so my fears of travelling in Europe were allayed. But to this day I will not travel to the US.
Safeguarding bank employees
The “Lex USA” legislation put before parliament in June contained a clause to protect bank employees who have their names handed over to the US authorities.
The agreement between banks, the bank employees association and the government outlined several provisions.
Employment laws would be tightened to protect affected employees against discrimination. Employees would have the right to know if their names were being handed over, and their data protection rights under Swiss law would be protected.
In addition, the banks pledged to cover legal fees incurred in Switzerland and finance a CHF2.5 million hardship fund that would be used to assist employees with specific difficulties.
Despite Lex USA being rejected by parliament, the bank employees association declared itself satisfied that the government would take these provisions on board as it approved a similar Plan B approach to handing information over to the US in July.end of infobox
swissinfo.ch: And how has this affected you professionally?
I have decided to give up on banking and try to find work in the real estate sector, but after a year I have not been able to find work. Even when I find work I will have to retrain and gain experience before I get back to the level I used to enjoy. The bank has wasted several years of my professional life.
swissinfo.ch: Did you never suspect that you were doing anything immoral while you were working in the banking sector?
Max: I always thought that banking was an important and worthy occupation that was highly regarded by society. As far as I was concerned my work was all legal and above board with the authorities in every country.
swissinfo.ch: How do you rate the performance of the Swiss government in this matter?
Max: I was shocked by the confusing political process and the performance of [Swiss Finance Minister] Eveline Widmer Schlumpf during the Lex USA debate [that eventually allowed Swiss banks to hand over data to the US].
She gave the impression that she was caving in to the banks’ demands without listening to the opinions or interests of other people. Politicians seemed to be saying one thing one day and then something else a week later. It was a huge mess.
I was sold to a foreign government to cut a deal in order to reduce the possible penalties against banks.