A new law has come into effect in Geneva, making it the first Swiss canton to provide women with statutory maternity benefit. Geneva went ahead with the move while federal politicians continue to grapple with the issue of introducing paid maternity leave.
Switzerland is the last country in Western Europe not to offer working mothers statutory paid maternity leave, despite such a benefit being provided for in the constitution.
It was the Swiss people's decision to reject a federal maternity insurance scheme in a referendum in June 1999 that prompted Geneva to rush through its own programme.
Its maternity benefit, approved by the cantonal parliament last December, envisages 16 weeks paid leave for mothers who have been working in the canton for at least three months. They will receive 80 per cent of their salary.
The benefits, estimated at around SFr48 million a year, come from a fund into which employers and employees make equal contributions. One criticism from women's groups has been that the law only applies to working mothers, and that unemployed women will receive no benefits.
The 1999 referendum was the third time since 1984 that the Swiss people had said no to paid maternity leave. The vote exposed big differences in the country. All but one of the French-speaking cantons approved the introduction of maternity benefit, while all the German-speaking ones rejected it.
In practice, most working mothers in Switzerland receive some payment from their employers in the eight weeks after childbirth, but the companies are under no obligation to pay it. It means that around 200,000 women get no guaranteed financial support while taking time off from work to have a child.
The federal government is seeking to change the situation. Last month, the cabinet put forward two proposals for paid maternity leave: The cheaper one would allow women to take between eight and 14 weeks around the time of birth, depending on their length of employment; the other suggests 12 weeks paid leave, irrespective of how long they have worked for a company.
The cost, between SFr465 million and SFr535 million a year, would be met entirely by employers who already pay out SFr411 million on maternity leave.
The government concedes that either of its suggested schemes could see salaries fall, especially for women of childbearing age.
However, these proposals have been criticised for being either too expensive, or not going far enough. There were concerns that some firms would no longer be willing to employ women, and that women would have to remain with the same employer for a long time to be eligible for maximum benefits.
In response, representatives of the four parties in government unveiled their own plan: 14 weeks paid leave, funded by contributions from employers and workers' salaries, to which all working mothers would be entitled.
The cross-party group say such a scheme would get the backing of a majority in parliament and one of the main employers' bodies, which called for a no vote in 1999.
However, the great imponderable is whether a majority of the people, especially in German-speaking cantons, can be persuaded to support it.
by Roy Probert