Swiss voters decide on maternity benefits

Swiss voters went to the polls Sunday to decide whether to introduce a maternity benefit programme. Unlike its European neighbours, Switzerland currently offers no guaranteed funding for women who take time off work to have a child.

This content was published on June 11, 1999 minutes

Although support for maternity benefit was written into the Swiss constitution back in 1945, an agreement on what sort of benefit should be introduced was never reached.

Now the Swiss government has put forward a generous proposal: 14 weeks paid leave for working mothers, and a sliding scale of payments for mothers who stay home.

But the plan is opposed by Swiss business leaders, who say benefits for all are a luxury Switzerland can no longer afford.

"Our whole benefit system is already unbalanced," said Max Meyer, deputy director of the Swiss employers' association. "We should be targetting those who are really in need instead of offering everything to everybody."

The idea that maternity benefit should only be available to mothers on low incomes may well find favour with voters since many Swiss are worried about the rising costs of social benefits.

But women campaigning in favour of the proposals say it must be available to all.

"Maternity benefit should be an equal right for all women," said Esther Knaus, a working mother active in the yes campaign.

"The idea that only poor women should be entitled makes me furious. It's a waste of education and talent if professional women don't go back to their jobs. I don't think Switzerland can afford that waste," Knaus said.

Swiss President Ruth Dreifuss agrees: the introduction of maternity benefit is a promise she has made to Swiss women -- and she intends to keep it.

"Fifty-four years of waiting is long enough," she said recently. "If there was a Nobel prize for patience, it would be awarded to Swiss women."

The latest opinion polls show that Swiss voters will probably vote narrowly in favour of maternity benefit. But the cost of introducing the programme could well be a deciding factor. It's estimated that maternity benefit will cost Swiss tax payers SFr 500 million a year, and many voters may hesitate before voting in favour.

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