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Switzerland opens its doors to EU workers


A new bilateral agreement with the European Union will gradually make it easier for EU nationals to work in Switzerland and vice-versa.

But one group in particular will feel the immediate benefits of the new policy - cross-border commuters who work in Switzerland. Their permits will now be valid for five years instead of one, and they will only have to return home once a week rather than every day.

For their part, the Swiss will be able to live and work in any EU country within two years (see "Switzerland takes a step closer to Europe" below). The agreement, one of seven, came into force at the weekend.

There are an estimated 100,000 people living in the border regions of neighbouring France, Germany and Italy who commute across the border daily to work in Switzerland.

Flexibility and mobility

José Bessard of the European Integration Office in Bern says the new agreement gives cross-border commuters greater flexibility in choosing where they work.

"It will be easier for them to change jobs and they will have a much greater geographical zone in which to work," he told swissinfo.

"Because they do not have to travel home every day, they can now look for jobs in other parts of Switzerland."

Marie-Therese Kuhn a director at the cantonal office for business and industry (KIGA) in the northwestern Swiss city of Basel, says the new agreement can only bring advantages to the city's labour market.

"It will become much larger," she says. "At the moment it's only a local labour market, but in the future it will be more regional and it will be easier to match qualifications with jobs."

Changing status

Basel is in the unique position of attracting a workforce from both France and Germany. It has around 30,000 foreign workers and almost half of them currently make the daily trip across the border.

Kuhn does not think that dropping the requirement of returning home every day will have a great impact on the property market in the city - one of the fears that had been voiced by opponents of the agreement.

"I don't think it'll make rental prices higher," she says. "The living costs are too high for French commuters, and although some Germans may want to change their residence for tax purposes, it would mean they would also have to change their status."

Indeed, if cross-border commuters want to make Switzerland their permanent place of residence, they would lose some of their advantages, such as the right to change jobs.

The reason is because many of the provisions in the agreement governing the free movement of people only come into force in two years' time.

Bessard believes that the delay will stop a lot of current cross-border workers from moving to Switzerland over the next two years.

Even after the two year "waiting" period has elapsed, a number of restrictions will remain in place to protect Swiss jobs and prevent salary dumping.

For instance, there will still be a quota system for the professions such as doctors and dentists, and priority will be given to EU nationals already living in Switzerland, who from June 1 are free to change jobs or their place of residence.

Increased competition

The accord is expected to lead to an increase in the number of people applying for cross-border work permits, especially among service providers such as plumbers, builders and electricians, who will be able to work in Switzerland for up to 90 days in any one calendar year.

Kuhn believes this will lead to more competition for local firms and ultimately benefit the consumer. She says, though, that prices are not likely to come down for the foreseeable future.

"German and French companies would not be able to offer lower prices because they have to respect collective labour agreements.

"The only way they could have an impact would be to finish jobs faster, but they would still have to meet the same quality standards."

She dismisses fears that some of the providers based abroad will start using illegal workers in Switzerland in an attempt to cut costs. "We know that Germany had a problem and there is always a risk," she says. "But we will have our inspectors going around and checking and time will tell whether it will be a problem, which I don't think it will."

Changing relations

Kuhn believes that the free movement of people heralds an important change in Switzerland's relations with the European Union.

As well as giving the Swiss access to labour markets in the 15 member states, she also thinks it will have a significant impact on the quality of the workforce in cities close to the border such as Basel.

That is a view backed up by Bessard, who says the agreement is very important for Switzerland on both a psychological and a real level.

"It will eventually lead to complete free movement not just of cross-border workers but also Swiss and EU nationals," he says.

by Jonathan Summerton

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