Protesters tell Bern to leave pensions alone

"Hands off our pensions!" read many banners carried by thousands of protesters in Bern Keystone

More than 25,000 people have protested in the Swiss capital, Bern, against government proposals to cut retirement benefits.

This content was published on September 20, 2003 - 17:45

Demonstrators marched through the city centre on Saturday waving banners which read “Hands off our pensions!”, bringing traffic to a standstill.

“There’s no motivation for us to work if we have to stay employed for longer and receive less pension money,” one woman told swissinfo.

Her message was aimed at suggestions put forward by the Swiss interior minister, Pascal Couchepin, to reform the pension scheme which include raising the retirement age and reducing state pension benefits.

“Pensions and security in old age are a fundamental right for everyone in Switzerland,” another protester said. Asked if he was angry about Couchepin’s proposals, the man replied “Yes, and I think he should resign.”

Couchepin defended his reforms in a radio interview.

"One of the aims of the demonstration was to create fear, which was not justified," he said.

"Nobody is looking to reduce pensions. On the contrary, the wish of the government - my wish - is to ensure the long-term payment of pensions and to do this we need to recognise reality," Couchepin noted.

"The financing of state pensions is assured until 2015 if the reforms are accepted. If they are not, then problems will arise," he added.

Protest march

Railway workers from the Swiss Transport trade union joined Saturday’s protest which took place under sunny skies. Demonstrators gathered near the train station just after midday and then headed towards the Federal Parliament.

Since the square directly in front of the building is under construction, they were forced to carry on walking through Bern’s old town towards the famous tourist attraction, the bear pits.

Blowing whistles, letting off firecrackers, as well as carrying signs that read “Pascal that’s enough!” and “We don’t want to wait until we're dead to get our pensions!”, demonstrators eventually congregated at Aargauerstalden.

There, the president of the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions, Paul Rechsteiner, and the head of the Social Democratic Party, Christiane Brunner, were among several speakers who denounced the planned social reforms.

“Saving” pensions

Under the proposals put forward this spring, Couchepin suggested that in order to “save” the state pension scheme, the retirement age should be raised from the current 65, to 67. The rise would take place in two stages – from 2015, it would increase to 66 and from 2025 to 67.

Moreover, the interior minister wants pension payouts to be linked to inflation rather than based on final salaries as at present.

His proposals would bring costs down, but even with them the state would need more money to keep funding its pension commitments.

Couchepin wants to make up the balance by increasing VAT by 2.1 per cent until 2025 and 3.6 per cent until 2040.

Hugo Fasel, head of Travail.Suisse, an organisation representing 150,000 workers from various industries, told demonstrators in Bern that raising the retirement age "would only force those with medium and low incomes to work longer."

Another protester said the proposed changes to the retirement age were unfairly harsh on manual labourers.

“It’s not fair that manual labourers like me who often start work at 18, might now have to work until we’re 67. People who study only start working when they're around 25, so why should we work two extra years like them?” he told swissinfo.

swissinfo, Samantha Tonkin

Key facts

State spending on pensions is expected to rise dramatically until 2040 due to demographic changes.
The government has suggested raising the retirement age from the current 65, to 67 from 2025.
The interior ministry has also proposed linking pension payouts to inflation rather than also basing them on final salaries as at present.
Further, the ministry proposes making up the balance by increasing VAT by 2.1 per cent until 2025 and 3.6 per cent until 2040.
Unions say the reforms represent a "fundamental threat" to the social welfare state in Switzerland.

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