Hospital hires foreigners in boom times

Swiss hospitals already depend on foreign workers from the EU Keystone

German nurse Gudrun Schau came to Switzerland in 2003 to work at Zurich University Hospital, where foreigners make up four out of ten staff.

This content was published on September 13, 2005

Her boss, head of nursing Barbara Brühwiler, says the Swiss economy - rather than the easing of labour restrictions for European Union nationals - determines how many foreign workers she hires.

Schau, who is 29 years old, comes from near Frankfurt. She had a permanent job in Germany but wanted to broaden her horizons.

"During my training I had a teacher who had worked in Zurich who said it would be good to go abroad, especially to Switzerland, because it is very advanced for nursing," Schau told swissinfo.

"I thought about it over the years, but wasn't quite sure. Then my boyfriend, a nurse, also wanted to go, so we decided to go together," she said.

Schau says she enjoys working in Switzerland, especially coming from Germany where the economic situation has worsened and staff numbers are being squeezed.

She particularly appreciates the higher staffing levels in Zurich, the teamwork and her increased responsibilities.


Schau says the wages are also better, although she experienced a shock when she arrived.

"When I first came here for my interview I thought there's no way I can live here when it's all so expensive, but with the salary it's really ok and you quite simply get used to it," said Schau.

Schau is one of a number of German nurses and doctors working at the hospital, attracted by the working conditions and the common language. Many come for extra training.

In all, there are 38 per cent foreigners working at the institution and staff speak about 40 different languages.

Brühwiler, who is in charge of 2,500 nurses and auxiliaries, says she couldn't run her department without foreign workers. Some specialised jobs, such as radiology assistants, are recruited exclusively from abroad because of lack of training in this area in Switzerland.

Boom and bust

The head of nursing says the number of foreigners she employs is mainly influenced by the economy.

When the situation is good, local nurses tend to leave the profession for other sectors such as banking and insurance, says Brühwiler. Then it's necessary to recruit from abroad.

When there's a downturn – such as at the moment – it's easier to hire locally.

"In the past few years we have had a marked decline in recruiting from abroad", she told swissinfo. "Last year among 132 new staff only 40 were foreigners."

Brühwiler says that the last time she had to hire a large number of foreign personnel was in 2000, when 500 jobs became free, almost half of which were then filled by foreigners.

Bilateral accord

She said the 2002 free movement of people treaty, which opened up the Swiss labour market to the EU's 15 old members, had not greatly affected her hiring policy.

Nor does she expect the situation to change if a vote on extending the accord to include the ten new EU states is passed on September 25.

"Of course we are now getting many enquiries from nursing personnel from the European area but if we are able to recruit locally then we do this," Brühwiler told swissinfo.

"These people have done their training here, they know our culture and system and this is always much easier".

However, she does concede that the administrative part of her job, such as obtaining work permits for EU nationals, has become easier since the bilateral accord came into force.

What hasn't yet been harmonised are qualifications, meaning that foreigners' diplomas still have to be recognised by Switzerland.

No wage dumping

Brühwiler is also quick to point out that salaries are the same for all her staff, both Swiss and foreign. No wage dumping - which opponents always single out as a possible consequence of the free movement accord - takes place at the hospital, she says.

"We have a fixed salary system which comes from the canton and this system takes account of the demands of the job and experience. Whether the nurse comes from Germany or Switzerland makes no difference," said Brühwiler.

For Schau, who is due to return to Germany after two and a half years in Zurich, the experience in Switzerland has been a valuable one.

"It's been quite exciting to do something else. Some things are done differently but that's normal, it's another country, but you learn a lot," she said.

"I would definitely encourage other Germans to come here. I have not regretted it for a minute."

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Zurich

Key facts

Zurich University Hospital 2004:
The hospital has 5,797 staff.
This includes around 900 doctors, 1,600 nurses and 1,200 technicians and therapists.
62% are Swiss, 38% foreigners.
About 40 languages are spoken by staff.

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In brief

The ten countries that joined the EU on May 1, 2004 are: Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta.

With the expansion, the existing bilateral agreements between Switzerland and the EU were automatically extended to the new member states.

The exception was the agreement on the free movement of people where amendments had to be negotiated with Brussels.

A referendum has been forced on the issue, resulting in a nationwide vote on September 25.

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More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

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