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Racial discrimination pervasive in Swiss workplace

Foreign workers earn up to 40 per cent less than their Swiss colleagues

(Keystone)

Racial discrimination in the workplace is pervasive in Switzerland, according to a study released ahead of Labour Day.

The study, commissioned by the Federal Service for Combating Racism, found that racial discrimination was present in all aspects of work, from job-seeking to promotion prospects and salaries.

Now the agency wants employers, politicians and workers themselves to come up with ways of combating workplace discrimination.

At a day-long conference to discuss the issue this week, the government announced SFr15 million ($11 million) in funding for projects aimed at raising awareness of discrimination and finding ways of eliminating it.

The conference brought together 150 representatives from industry, the trade unions, the government, and workers' rights groups.

Awareness is crucial

Michele Galizia, head of the Federal Service for Combating Racism, said a first step towards tackling discrimination would be for the general public to accept that it exists.

"One quarter of all workers in Switzerland are foreign," Galizia told swissinfo, "And we have more and more young people who were born in Switzerland but who are of foreign descent. These people do suffer discrimination.

"If we compare salaries, for example, we can see that people from central and eastern Europe earn 20 per cent less than Swiss people, and people from Africa earn 42 per cent less. At least some of this difference is due to discrimination."

Switzerland does not have a law which specifically prohibits discrimination in the workplace, although it does have a constitutional amendment proscribing racism in the public domain, such as in books, newspapers, or classrooms.

"Practically there is no legal way for workers in Switzerland to defend themselves against discrimination," said Galizia. "Someone who feels he or she is a victim of racial discrimination should be able to find help."

Legislation

From November, all European Union countries will have to comply with a directive forbidding workplace discrimination. Switzerland, however, which is not a member of the EU, will not be affected.

But the consensus in Switzerland seems to be that legislation is not really the answer to combating discrimination. Employers and the government favour voluntary partnerships between management, unions and advice groups.

"If you make a new law you haven't changed reality," said Jean-Luc Nordmann of the Swiss Economics Ministry. "You have to start from the basics: in schools, for example, that's the way to change society."

Nordmann suggested that holding up examples of successful foreigners in Switzerland, such as members of Basel's football team, would be one good way to challenge negative perceptions of foreign workers.

No easy answer

His view was echoed by Pierre Triponez of the Swiss Association for Small and Medium Businesses who said that new legislation would be very problematic.

"I don't think racial discrimination is such a big problem in small companies anyway," said Triponez. "They simply would not be able to function if they had such things going on.

"And I'm not sure it's entirely productive to focus just on racial discrimination like this," Triponez told swissinfo.

But this attitude causes frustration among groups like Swiss Labour Assistance, which sees it as a way of avoiding any significant action against discrimination.

Way forward

Anne Roth-Laurent of the charity's Fribourg branch said the desire to tackle the problem through voluntary partnerships between employers and workers would not be enough.

"I deal with people every day who have to suffer discrimination," Roth-Laurent told swissinfo. "I actually think a law would be a very good thing. If you say discrimination is forbidden, then people know they can complain if they are victims of it."

Laurent is supported by Patrick Taran of the International Labour Organization.

"We have done extensive research into this question, and in every country it has shown that legislation is the first necessary step," Taran told swissinfo.

Michele Galizia of the Federal Service for Combating Racism is pragmatic about the law versus self-regulation dilemma.

"In Switzerland changes in the law take a long time," he pointed out. "So at the moment I think the best way to help victims of discrimination is to work with small projects."

"In the long term I think Switzerland should follow the example of the European Union, where in each country you have a legal basis on which to fight discrimination."

swissinfo, Imogen Foulkes

Key facts

25 per cent of workers in Switzerland are foreign
The average salary of foreign workers is significantly less than that of Swiss workers
A young person of Balkan origin has a 75 per cent smaller chance of getting an apprenticeship than a Swiss person.
Switzerland has no law which specifically forbids discrimination in the workplace

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