Immigration vote: businesses fear lack of skilled workers

Ready for a fight? Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann has called on Swiss businesses to do their part Keystone

Swiss business leaders have criticised the government for not using all the time at its disposal to implement the result of a national vote, two days after the proposal of a draft law on immigration curbs. In response, the government urged companies to make more of an effort.

This content was published on June 22, 2014 and agencies

In February, 50.3% of Swiss voters approved a proposal by the rightwing Swiss People’s Party to re-introduce immigration quotas for EU citizens, as well as a national preference when filling job vacancies.

It also stipulates that Switzerland will have to renegotiate its bilateral accord with the EU on the free movement of people within three years or revoke it.

The cabinet, which had urged voters to reject the proposal, suddenly found itself with three years to implement a result which violates a fundamental element of the EU: the freedom of movement for all its citizens.

Switzerland is not part of the EU but has signed various bilateral agreements with the 28-nation bloc, including on free movement of labour, partly to ensure its access to European markets.


The government is aware that it will upset someone whatever it does. “You can twist and turn as you like, the new models are either unconstitutional or not compatible [with EU agreements],” Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga admitted on Friday.

The government said the new law would set immigration quotas – as voters demanded in February – but hoped softer rules for EU citizens may reduce retaliatory measures from Brussels and big neighbours such as Germany and France.

It did not specify exactly what restrictions the new law would impose on EU citizens. The government said it had refrained from setting a fixed, inflexible target for reducing immigration in its proposal for the law, which will come into force in 2017.

As expected, the European Commission swiftly denounced the Swiss proposal as “irreconcilable” with a pact that since 2002 has allowed Swiss and EU citizens to cross the border freely and work on either side as long as they have a contract or are self-employed.

“Quantitative limits and national preference are contrary to our treaties. Negotiating them is not an option for the Commission,” Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said.

Government defence

Business leaders fear that immigration quotas will make it harder – if not impossible – for them to attract the necessary skilled employees. In addition, they believe picking a fight with the EU on this issue will make already tough negotiations even tougher.

“Without specialists from abroad, we’d have to move part of the work abroad,” warned Hans Hess, president of the Swissmem industrial lobby group, in the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper.

Heinz Karrer, president of economiesuisse, the Swiss Business Federation, told the Zentralschweiz am Sonntag that he feared “a negative impact on Switzerland as a business location” if highly skilled workers could be recruited only in reduced numbers.

For his part, Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann defended the government’s proposal – as he is obliged to by the principle of collegiality – saying “all sides have their jobs to do and must deliver”.

In an interview with SonntagsBlick and the NZZ am Sonntag, Schneider-Ammann – who was widely criticised for not working hard enough before the vote to explain how many problems a “no” would create – emphasised the demands on those who could really offer jobs: companies.

He explained that this didn’t mean getting people to work more. “The aim is much rather that more people can work,” he told SonntagsBlick. “The potential is greatest with women, but there are also possibilities for older workers.”

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