The number of "working poor" - employed people who live below the poverty line - has increased sharply during the 1990s, according to a new study. Those worst affected are large families and low skilled workers.
Today, Switzerland's "working poor" account for 7.5 per cent of the population - some 250,000 households - compared with 5.3 per cent a decade ago.
Those worst affected, according to a new study by the Federal Statistical Office and canton Zurich, are large families, single parents, workers with only primary education and the self-employed.
In Switzerland, the "working poor" are defined as individuals with a net income of less than SFr2,100 ($1,220) per month, or for families with three or more children, earnings of less than SFr4,000. Today, more than 500,000 people, around half of whom are children, fall into this category.
And the problem is growing throughout the industrialised world. The director of the Statistical Office, Robert Fuder, told a news conference in Bern on Friday that the problem had deeply rooted economic and social causes.
"The figures show that no single factor can be attributed to the problem, but that it is the adverse combination of economic and social factors that puts people most at risk," he said.
The Swiss Trades Union Federation president, Paul Rechsteiner, said the figures supported his organisation's view that a minimum wage of SFr3,000 a month was needed.
The director of the Swiss Employers' Federation, Peter Hasler, called for a reform of family and education policies, as well as more deregulation, saying that this would lower Switzerland's living costs, which are among the highest in the world.
The statistics show that 29 per cent of single parent households in Switzerland are not able to command wages high enough to lift them above the poverty line. For families with three children or more the figure is 18 per cent.
By contrast, "only" six per cent of single people and three per cent of childless couples are classified as working poor.
Another high-risk group is non-qualified workers who have seen their incomes fall as a result of structural changes in the economy, such as the decline of the industrial base. According to the study, 18 per cent of non-qualified workers, compared to three per cent of highly qualified people, are working poor.
The economics ministry said that, although the number of working poor had increased faster in Switzerland than in Europe during the 1990s, the problem was worse in other countries.
"An increase in the number of working poor by nearly 50 per cent over the 1990s is substantial by comparison to the rest of Europe," said Aymo Brunetti, a labour market specialist at the economics ministry. "However, the ratio of working poor in the overall population is still comparatively low in the international context."
However, a separate study in Zurich concluded that a third of the total population in Switzerland is potentially at risk of joining the ranks of the working poor.
A key finding of both studies was that the working poor is not a fixed group, and that more than half tend to move out of the category in a given year.
Elisa Streuli, one of the authors of the main study, warned that policy measures aimed at regular income earners were unlikely to have much effect in helping to lift families and single parents out of the poverty trap.
She said Switzerland's social policy structure, which was built on the premise of one main breadwinner in each household, was "outdated".
She said the statistics confirmed that the best way help couples avoid falling into poverty was to assist them to enter (or re-enter) the job market.
"What we need are improved opportunities for flexible working hours and part-time work, as well as child caring structures such as crèches and day schools that provide lunches," Streuli said.
by Markus Haefliger