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Pressure grows for six weeks' vacation

We're all going on a summer holiday Keystone

Swiss workers may get a chance to vote themselves two extra weeks of holiday per year, after a unions' assocation collected enough signatures to call a ballot.

This content was published on July 9, 2009 - 13:24

Citing stress and the need to be on a par with other European countries, the trade union umbrella organisation Travail Suisse is putting the case for more time off. It has backed up its argument with an initiative signed by 108,000 people.

After the signatures have been checked by the Federal Chancellery in Bern, the matter will be considered by cabinet and debated by parliament. The people's initiative is a central pillar of Swiss democracy, allowing any citizen to propose an amendment to the Constitution.

Eva Linder of Travail Suisse told swissinfo.ch that payback time had come for bosses in Switzerland.

"Employers have been asking more and more of their employees and we have seen productivity increase in the past years. But this does not come for free. You cannot demand and demand without giving something back."

Linder also referred to a recent national health survey, which indicated that more than 40 per cent of workers said they felt under increasing pressure at work. Pressure that leads to stress and ultimately to costly stress-related illnesses, Linder argues.

Cold water

Meanwhile employers have tried to throw cold water over the idea of more holidays since the initiative was first mooted in mid 2007.

It is a notion that belongs to a different era, according to Hans Reis of the Swiss Employers Association, who points out that the initiative originated at the peak of the economic boom.

"In the current economic climate, the initiative seems like a demand from another planet," he said.

The Swiss government has launched three stimulus packages in the last nine months to help stabilise the Swiss economy to counter a potentially "long and marked recession". The economy is expected to shrink by 2.7 per cent this year.

International comparisons

When it comes to international comparisons of vacation time, different surveys tend to give different results.

An OECD survey in 2007 put Switzerland at the bottom of a group of 16 European countries in numbers of days of paid vacation and paid public holidays combined, alongside Britain and the Netherlands.

The total of 20 days' leave did not include Switzerland's four public holidays because there is no legal right to be paid on those days. However in practice Swiss employers give up to 13 days of paid public holidays per year, depending on the canton.

A more realistic overview, compiled by Economic Promotion Geneva, gave Switzerland a grand total of 31 days off in practice, compared with 43 in Germany, 39 in Italy, 38 in Britain and 35 in France.

Time poor

Swiss employers prefer to compare employment costs rather than days off.

"In international comparisons Swiss employment costs are at the top of the table which limits any leeway for any further improvements in working conditions," Reis pointed out.

Reis also argues that many employees already enjoy more holidays than the statutory minimum thanks to collective bargaining contracts and common in-house practice. "Holiday entitlements that increase with age to five or six weeks are fairly common."

But there is another way of calculating free time – in hours. Here the Swiss are well behind most other European countries.

On the basis of working hours, the Swiss have 120 fewer hours of free time per year than the average European employee. "That's three weeks less time for family, friends and oneself," Travail Suisse notes.

Of course this hardship pales in comparison with working conditions in other parts of the world. In the world's largest economy, the United States, paid annual leave is typically ten days, while the statutory minimum in Japan is 17 days.
 

EU leave entitlement

Statutory minimum days' leave+ public holidays= total

Finland: 25+14=39
Austria: 25+13= 38
Greece: 25+12=37
France: 25+11=36
Portugal: 22+14=36
Spain : 22+14=36
Sweden : 25+11=36
Denmark : 25+10=35
Luxembourg : 25+10=35
Germany : 20+13=33
Belgium: 20+10=30
Italy: 20+10=30
Ireland: 20+9=29
Netherlands: 20+8=28
UK: 20+8=28

Source: Mercer Human Resource Consulting, entitlements for an employee working five days a week with 10 years' service

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Short-time work

In response to the economic crisis, trade unions have called for better protection against mass layoffs amid fears of increasing unemployment.

The Swiss Trade Union Federation, which represents about 380,000 employees in 16 different sectors, said that short-time work was a viable option to prevent collective dismissals.

The federation urged the authorities to extend the period of short-time work, where employees agree to work fewer hours than usual, from 18 months to 24 months.

Companies which benefit from state assistance should be obliged to keep their staff until the economy picks up again and mass sackings should be made conditional on salary caps for management.

The unions want Swiss labour laws to follow European regulations, including allowing improved consultation guarantees for employees.

A survey published in June found that four out of every ten Swiss companies were planning to lay off staff over the next 12 months to deal with the economic downturn.

Also in June the government last week unveiled a third stimulus package worth SFr750 million ($688 million) to stabilise the job market.

The economics ministry expects the jobless rate to soar to 5.5 per cent next year.

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