When voters go to the polls on September 26, they will be deciding whether to introduce statutory paid maternity leave for working mothers across the country.
Geneva is the only Swiss canton to offer such benefits and local officials say the system’s success proves that it could work nationwide.
“On a cantonal level, the experience for workers and employers has been very positive,” said Pierre-Antoine Gobet, of Geneva’s Health and Social Services Department.
“Financially, politically and socially, it has proven very satisfactory,” he told swissinfo. “And ultimately, it is beneficial for both the mothers and children.”
Geneva resident Giuseppina Bartocci, who is expecting her first child in November, agrees that the scheme is especially helpful for career-oriented women.
“Imagine trying to juggle work deadlines while breastfeeding a newborn,” Bartocci said.
“Before benefits were introduced in Geneva, I saw many of my former colleagues sacrifice their jobs in order to become full-time mothers,” she added. “It was a risky decision but they had no choice.
“At least we now have four months to adapt to the challenges of motherhood, which makes it easier to re-enter the workforce and meet the needs of our families.”
Geneva first started offering maternity benefits in 2001, after Swiss voters threw out a similar proposal for the third time in a nationwide vote in 1999.
Under its scheme, gainfully employed women receive up to 16 weeks of paid leave, based on 80 per cent of their salary.
Those benefits are paid for by both workers and employers, who contribute to the canton’s common insurance fund.
Elsewhere in the country, it is up to employers to decide whether to offer maternity leave, even though the concept of maternity benefit was enshrined in the constitution almost 60 years ago.
“At present, women who recently entered the workforce or who decide to change jobs are often at a disadvantage,” said Nadine Gembler, who heads the human resources department at one of the nation’s leading food retailers, Coop.
The proposed federal law would allow for 14 weeks of statutory benefits at 80 per cent pay, with workers and employers contributing to a special fund that already exists to cover loss of earnings for people serving in the army.
“If adopted, the legislation would give all working women in Switzerland equal benefits,” Gembler added. “It would also make them more equal to men, who receive compensation during their mandatory military service.”
The draft legislation was approved by parliament a year ago but the rightwing Swiss People’s Party forced a nationwide vote on the issue, arguing that it would be too expensive to implement and could lead to an increase in taxes.
According to Gobet, “under no circumstances” would the introduction of a nationwide scheme lead to a significant increase in costs for employers or workers.
“Geneva’s cantonal government supports the proposal of a countrywide scheme,” he said. “In our experience, it took some time to ensure that the system worked smoothly and this required a certain investment.
“But in no way would federal legislation lead to ‘state-supported babies’, as the People’s Party claims,” he added.
Gobet admits, however, that a vote in favour of nationwide statutory benefits could have an impact on Geneva’s maternity scheme.
“If Swiss voters reject the proposal, Geneva will maintain its 16-week system,” said Gobet. “But if it passes, we will have to come up with a way to compensate mothers for the additional two weeks that are currently offered under cantonal legislation.”
The cantonal government is currently debating compensation options, including an increase in the amount allocated to families when a child is born.
Gobet said another alternative might be to adopt a “parental leave system” that would allow either the mother or the father take an additional two weeks off at the end of the 14-week maternity leave period.
“Parliament seems interested in this idea, which would be yet another pioneering step for Geneva,” he added.
Regardless of how the system might be affected in Geneva, many soon-to-be working mothers, like Bartocci, hope to see nationwide benefits in place soon.
“Children are the future of our society and they deserve the best head start in life that we can give them,” Bartocci told swissinfo.
“That means giving them time with their babies and not having to worry about making ends meet.”
swissinfo, Anna Nelson in Geneva
Geneva is the only Swiss canton to offer paid maternity leave to working mothers.
Under cantonal law, gainfully employed women are entitled to 16-weeks paid leave at 80 per cent of their salary.
The benefits are paid out of a common insurance scheme to which workers and employers both contribute.
Elsewhere in the country, it is up to employers to decide whether to offer paid maternity leave.