Canton Geneva is hoping to rally other cantons in support of its proposal to legalise the situation of thousands of clandestine domestic workers.
The idea has the support of some social and migrants’ organisations, but the Federal Migration Office and some cantons in German-speaking Switzerland are more sceptical.
Geneva estimates that around 5,000 household employees, mainly women, work in the canton without being officially registered.
It has called on the government to legalise these workers, who are mostly from South America and the Philippines. This would give them better protection, the canton argues.
Furthermore, illegal work is costing Geneva an estimated SFr38 million ($32 million) per year in taxes and social security contributions.
The move comes at a time of tougher measures against immigrants and asylum seekers in Switzerland.
The rightwing Swiss People’s Party, whose figurehead Christoph Blocher is the country’s justice minister and is responsible for immigration issues, has been taking a lead in calling for a stricter policy on foreigners.
“Not finding a solution to this issue would mean giving a boost to populism,” said Martine Brunschwig Graf, president of canton Geneva’s government and head of the canton’s finance department.
The proposal includes giving domestic workers with a contract a work- and temporary residence permit, which is renewable each year.
But Brunschwig Graf stresses that each case would be examined individually and that there would be no blanket amnesty for clandestine workers, as in other European countries.
Extra measures would ensure that there is no influx of immigrants to the region.
Geneva is currently awaiting a response from the government to its proposal.
The canton’s call for an amnesty for black economy workers has stirred up a debate on the topic, which has been welcomed by some migrants’ groups.
“The Swiss economy needs illegal workers. But without legal status, many are exploited in an unacceptable way,” said Claudio Micheloni of the non-governmental Forum for the Integration of Migrants.
Micheloni said the problem should now be tackled by politicians.
“Hardliners are making sure that the new law on foreigners, which is being examined by the Swiss parliament, will stop illegal workers from coming to Switzerland,” he said.
“If they want to be consistent, they should also legalise those workers who are already in Switzerland and who have often been working here for years.”
Brunschwig Graf also has the support of several unions and employers’ associations in canton Geneva.
“The general proposal is certainly not a perfect solution, but it opens up a realistic way towards solving the problem,” said Sabine von der Weid from the Federation of Companies in French-speaking Switzerland.
According to a Federal Migration Office study, reported by the Geneva-based Le Temps newspaper, there are 130,000 illegal workers in Switzerland. Many of them are to be found in the larger cities of Zurich, Basel, Lausanne and Geneva.
Brunschwig Graf is hoping to meet her cantonal counterparts to talk over her plan.
But some cantons have already reacted with scepticism. Both Basel City police director Jörg Schild and a spokeswoman for canton Zurich told the NZZ am Sonntag that an amnesty was not workable.
And although there has been no official response from the government - the issue needs to be decided in cabinet - the Federal Migration Office has reacted cautiously to the plan.
“If it comes to an amnesty one should remember that until now similar demands have been rejected,” spokesman Mario Tuor told the paper.
For its part, the Forum for the Integration of Migrants intends to step up its lobbying on the issue.
The topic of illegal workers will be high on the agenda of its first national conference in April, which will group foreigners from more than 50 countries living in Switzerland.
In addition to figures from the political and business world, the Forum has asked Justice Minister Christoph Blocher and Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey to attend.
According to a confidential report by the Federal Migration Office there are 130,000 illegal workers in Switzerland.
More than 7,000 live in the canton of Geneva, 10,000 in Vaud and almost 7,000 in Basel. More than 20,000 live in canton Zurich.
Geneva wants to legalise the situation of illegal workers and is urging other cantons to do the same.
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