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Survey favours links to new EU states

Foreign workers bring benefits to Swiss economy Keystone

Switzerland's business community has joined calls to extend open borders to workers from the European Union's newest members, Romania and Bulgaria.

This content was published on April 16, 2008 - 17:05

A survey by the Swiss Business Federation, economiesuisse, showed overwhelming support for extending the EU bilateral agreements. But opponents are expected to challenge such a move by referendum.

Some 97 per cent of business enterprises and associations surveyed by economiesuisse said they supported free movement of workers with Romania and Bulgaria. And 83 per cent believed it to be "important" or "very important" for the Swiss economy.

"The results of this survey come as no surprise. They show us that our commitment to favouring this custom-made path of integration is both correct and important for our country," said Pascal Gentinetta, director of the business lobby group.

The Swiss government has already negotiated an extension of the free movement agreement with the EU to include the two countries that joined the European bloc at the beginning of 2007.

Both houses of parliament will this year debate and decide on the recommendations, which include measures to protect Swiss workers and apply quotas for a limited period if necessary.

But the rightwing Swiss People's Party, that opposes such an extension, has threatened to take the matter to a public vote next year if it is passed by parliament.

Wage dumping

Some union groups have also expressed reservations in the past, warning against wage dumping that could price Swiss workers out of jobs.

But Thomas Daum, head of the Swiss Employers' Association, said there had been no evidence of this taking place since the Swiss labour market first opened up to EU states in 2002.

"All the facts say that migration is driven by the needs of the Swiss economy. People only come to Switzerland when they have a contract with a Swiss employer," he told swissinfo.

"Since we have a need for qualified specialists there is no evidence we will get a flow of low skilled Bulgarians and Romanians, because we don't need them."

Daum warned that the EU could scrap all of its bilateral treaties with Switzerland, including free access to the European marketplace, if Bulgaria and Romania are left out in the cold.

"On the one hand this would have a damaging effect on our labour market. And on the other hand, since all the treaties could be withdrawn, our exporting companies would be seriously hurt," he said.

Self-employed threat

A separate survey by the Association of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises found half of the companies favoured opening the labour market to Romania and Bulgaria, with 29 per cent against the move.

Association director Pierre Triponez told swissinfo that some members were concerned about a threat posed by self-employed workers undercutting the local market.

"An independent dentist could come into Switzerland offering to do his work at a cheaper price. They are not affected by the measures we have to protect Swiss workers from wage dumping.

"But these are isolated cases and such people tend not do this for long," he said.

swissinfo, Matthew Allen in Zurich

Economiesuisse survey

Economiesuisse surveyed more than 100 companies and business associations at the end of last year.

Only 10% of respondents said their business had been unaffected by Switzerland's bilateral agreements with the EU.

Over a third of firms said the free movement of people had been "very important" for their business with another fifth saying it was "important". Nearly two thirds said it had no material impact on their wage structure.

The overwhelming majority of respondents expected the accompanying measures to safeguard Swiss jobs, while only 15% said they had a negative effect on their operations.

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Switzerland and the EU

Non-EU member Switzerland and Brussels signed two sets of bilateral accords in 2000 and 2004, covering 16 different areas.

One accord between 15 EU countries and Switzerland granting mutual access to labour markets came into force in 2002.

This accord was extended to ten new EU members, mostly from eastern Europe, in September 2005.

The agreement came with "safety clause" measures designed to protect the local Swiss workforce and can implement quotas if necessary. These measures ran out for the initial 10 countries in June last year, but will continue for the later entrants until 2011.

Full access to the Swiss labour market for Romania and Bulgaria will also come with safeguards if accepted by parliament and Swiss voters.

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