From June 1 workers from 20 countries in the European Union and the European Free Trade Association (Efta) will have unlimited access to the Swiss labour market.This content was published on June 1, 2007 - 07:59
The government still has the right to re-introduce quotas if it judges that immigration has become too high, but it hasn't stopped the main rightwing party from pushing for a nationwide vote on the issue.
The lifting of restrictions is the second phase of the free movement of people agreement that Switzerland – not a member of the EU, but part of Efta – concluded with Brussels five years ago.
Until now, workers from the 15 original members of the EU, the two new small EU members Malta and Cyprus as well as Efta countries Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein have been subject to quotas.
These limits will no longer apply from June 1, at least for a trial period that will run over a year.
According to a "safety clause" in the agreement, Switzerland has the right to re-introduce quotas for another two years if immigration increases more than ten per cent above a three-year average.
"We cannot exclude that the limits will be breached," said Dominique Boillat, spokesman for the Federal Migration Office.
"However, Switzerland is not necessarily obliged to reintroduce the quotas," he added.
The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco) says that so far the free movement of people has brought the country benefits.
"The current growth rates – 2.7 per cent last year and around 2.0 per cent this year – are hardly possible without foreign labour," said Jean-Daniel Gerber, head of Seco, on Thursday at the presentation of a report on the effect of the agreement on migration between Switzerland and the EU.
"It has helped economic growth by providing companies with the qualified staff which they needed," said Seco spokeswoman Rita Baldegger.
But the unions do not share this enthusiasm.
"There is a pressure on salaries and working conditions in sectors without a minimum wage," said Daniel Lampart, chief economist at the Swiss Trade Union Federation.
Quotas for long-term residence permits were quickly exhausted – 15,000 were granted each year to people with a work contract valid for more than a year.
But short-term permits – up to a year – were less popular. Of the 115,000 allocated, only 55-90 per cent were used.
The immigration authorities are expecting demand for permits – especially long-term ones - to rise in June and July this year, in line with official predictions.
"The suppression of the quotas will lead to short-term permits being converted into long-term ones. This would effectively be the 'normalisation' of the status of people who already work in Switzerland," said Baldegger.
New and old EU members
But Seco does not believe that there will be a huge wave of EU residents coming into Switzerland.
"We do not see any cause for concern about the end of the quotas," added Baldegger. "Also because the people coming to Switzerland are well qualified. They could easily find another job should there be a less favourable economic situation."
With the exception of Malta and Cyprus, the measures from June 1 will not affect the EU members who joined in 2004.
These mostly eastern European countries will have to wait until 2011 for full free movement of people to come into effect in Switzerland.
A date for negotiations about extending the accord to Bulgaria and Romania, who joined the EU at the beginning of this year, has not yet been set.
The Swiss parliament is also due to debate the free movement of people next year. This will allow the rightwing Swiss People's Party, as it has announced, to launch a referendum on the issue.
This would give voters the final say on the free movement of people in Switzerland.
swissinfo, based on an Italian article by Andrea Tognina
The second phase of the free movement of people agreement also affects cross-border workers. From June 1 this status can be given to people from all 20 EU and Efta countries accorded unlimited access and not just those living in neighbouring countries.
Cross-border workers will also be allowed to work anywhere in Switzerland and not just in the border regions.
Since 2002, the number of these types of workers has risen by 30,000 per year, to reach 190,000 by the end of December 2006.
French citizens account for more than half of the total, followed by Italians and Germans.