More than ten thousand construction workers have demonstrated in Bern to demand retirement at the age of 60.This content was published on March 16, 2002 - 15:38
The workers have threatened to start a nation-wide strike on April 3 if negotiations with employers fail.
"Retirement at 60 should rapidly become an integral part of workers' contracts," said Vasco Pedrina, head of the Swiss building and industry union (GBI) during Saturday's protest. "We will show our strength and determination in April if our demands are ignored."
Nearly half of Switzerland's construction workers either die or fall ill by the time they reach the current retirement age of 65. In many cases, they say, they cannot keep working until retirement because of the tough demands of their job.
The GBI has campaigned for early retirement for the past decade but, according to Rolf Beyeler, head of communications, the battle has been fruitless.
"Nothing really happened in the past ten years so we have decided to change our strategy. We are willing to accept compromises in other areas in order to show that early retirement has absolute priority," Beyeler told swissinfo.
The Swiss Building Association (SBV) previously offered to settle for a retirement age of 63. But Beyeler says this is not good enough.
"Lowering the retirement age to 63 would not get us anywhere. At the moment there are only about 280 construction workers in Switzerland who are still fit enough to do their work at the age of 63."
Statistics from the Swiss building and industry union show that only 57 per cent of the country's 100,000 construction workers are still healthy by the time they reach 65. "The remaining 43 per cent fall ill or die early and this is a very ugly situation," Beyeler said.
The employers' association, however, accuses the union of being inflexible by not accepting the compromise. "We want to reduce the retirement age step by step and have a look how much it will cost us," SBV chairman, Daniel Lehmann, told swissinfo.
Beyeler warns, though, that unless conditions improve for construction workers, the industry will find it increasingly difficult to attract new recruits. "Who wants to choose a profession where the risk of dying early is eight times higher than in an office," he said.
Ernst Wenger from Burgistein near Bern became a mason at the age of 16. "I wanted to work outside, to be in a team and see the result of my work at the end of a day," he told swissinfo.
Wenger, now 59, was planning to retire at the age of 62 but he never got that far as he was made redundant because of his company's restructuring measures.
"Well, I think I am too old, not efficient enough and probably too expensive for the company," he lamented.
The mason, who mainly worked as a foreman, also thinks that retirement at the age of 60 would actually improve the quality of the building work.
"Early retirement would make the building industry more attractive. This means that the work, which is currently carried out by the minimum amount of people, would improve," he said.
Wenger, who also suffers from a bad back and knee problems, is currently looking for work, which is proving difficult. "The employment office told me to accept any job, but all the companies that I have applied to so far are not taking me on because of my age," he said.
The union and the construction workers are also demanding a pay rise of SFr120 a month as the current average of SFr3,750 is, according to the GBI, "little compensation for the huge risks involved".
The union is also said to be considering a nationwide strike in order to put pressure on employers.
Beyeler would not comment on a possible strike, which could potentially upset the national exhibition, Expo.02, which is due to kick off on May 15.
by Billi Bierling and Urs Maurer
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