Sixty years after maternity benefit was anchored in the Swiss constitution, mothers are finally to be entitled to paid maternity leave.
As of July 1, all working women in Switzerland will qualify for a minimum of 14 weeks’ maternity leave, at 80 per cent of their normal salary.
Two generations ago, Swiss voters – who were all male at the time – decided to include some family-friendly protections in the constitution, including the possible provision of maternity benefit.
But it was not until last year that voters finally agreed that working mothers should be legally entitled to some paid leave to have children. Four previous attempts to enshrine maternity benefit in federal law had failed at the ballot box.
Even so, the new law is a far cry from what is routine in most other western European countries. In Sweden, for instance, working women enjoy a minimum of 69 weeks’ paid maternity leave. Those in Norway make do with 42, while Italian women are entitled to 22.
Natalie Imboden of the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions told swissinfo that the Swiss had fixed ideas about certain issues.
"Social issues, particularly those involving a better deal for women, need a good deal of obstinacy and plenty of chances at the ballot box to have a hope of succeeding," she said.
Ironically, the new law could make life more difficult for many working women because the state, and many private employers, were already providing 16 weeks’ leave and full pay.
Canton Thurgau has already opted to put a ceiling on the salary paid to women on maternity leave – SFr172 ($135) a day – which will leave higher earners worse off than before. Canton Bern, by contrast, is keeping maternity leave at 16 weeks with full pay.
"The new law will make life better for women who have nothing," says Imboden.
But she adds that it does little to improve life for working mothers, who must deal with an employment market that is generally incompatible with raising a family, as well as a shortage of crèche places.
The parliamentarian who was instrumental in drawing up the law which was finally passed by voters described it as "fair and realistic". "Parliament and the public said yes, because it was financially reasonable," said Pierre Triponez of the Radical party.
The new law also makes life easier for employers – at least those who already offered paid maternity leave. Instead of having to fund it entirely themselves, they now have to pay only half of the costs of doing without new mothers for 14 weeks.
The costs are covered by a special fund, which will be financed by half-half contributions from employers and employees.
Imboden reckons the new law will save economy about SFr300 million a year, and employers should see their maternity benefit costs fall by about SFr100 million a year over the long term.
Imboden says big business stands to benefit most. Supermarkets such as Migros and Coop will have to fork out SFr3 to SFr4 million less a year, while Zurich Cantonal Bank – the country’s third biggest – should save SFr850,000 and ABB SFr350,000.
Maternity benefit was anchored in the Swiss constitution in 1945.
But voters rejected compulsory paid maternity leave on four occasions – in 1974, 1984, 1987 and 1999.
It finally passed at the ballot box in September 2004 with a 55.4% majority.