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Volunteers play vital role in Swiss society

Volunteers help maintain the countryside in the Ticino valley of Bavona

(Keystone)

Voluntary workers in Switzerland put in 44 million hours of their time every month for no reward.

And even though there’s little official recognition for the contribution they make to Swiss society, the trend for unpaid work is on the rise.

Four out of ten people in Switzerland work as volunteers, or have done so in the past.

Translated into money terms, such work is valued at SFr20 billion ($16 billion) a year, according to estimates from the Swiss Federal Statistics Office.

This is an indication that voluntary work makes an enormous contribution to the wellbeing of Swiss society. And it ensures services and aid in areas in which the state or the economy are not active.

Changing profile

But over the past few years, the profile of people who offer their services for nothing has changed.

“It has become much more difficult to find people today who want to commit themselves to the traditional areas such as church or social work,” commented Stefan Spahr, who is head of Benevol Schweiz, a kind of coordination organisation for voluntary work in the German-speaking part of the country.

A lack of volunteers is particularly felt in areas that demand a long-term commitment or a basis of trust with the people involved, for example the disabled, pensioners or the sick.

“The volunteers of today prefer to look for short-term service tied to specific projects,” Spahr said. Young people, he added, tended to be mainly interested in the topical issues of the environment or immigration.

Until recently, volunteers would give up their free time from purely idealistic motives. But increasingly, voluntary work is being seen as a good way of acquiring professional experience.

This development has certain ramifications for the organisations that depend on voluntary work because they must build up clear organisational structures and define training possibilities.

Organisational costs

“In this sense, voluntary work no longer comes free,” Spahr commented. Although the volunteers received no pay, the whole organisational structure had its costs.

A kind of “social” certificate has appeared in Switzerland over the past two years in the context of increasing professionalism of voluntary work. The project was launched in 2001, the United Nations international year of volunteers.

The certificate serves as a way of assessing and recognising the contribution made by individuals – their abilities and performance - so that voluntary work can be measured and compared with paid work.

It has been issued to 150,000 people over the past two years and has become a kind of national standard. But Spahr says that there are still problems in getting employers to recognise the certificate.

The Swiss Employers’ Association agreed that it had some reservations about the certificate.

“If this is made mandatory, voluntary work will lose its original meaning,” argued Association spokesman Hans Reis.

More red tape?

“We want to avoid a situation in which persons are discriminated against because for one reason or another they did not do any voluntary work,” he added. Another fear is that there would be additional red tape.

This does not mean that Swiss employers do not support voluntary work. On the contrary, a study published in 2001 said that they encouraged spells of voluntary labour.

The unions also recognise the significance of voluntary and unpaid service. “Our society would not function without this contribution,” said Ewald Ackermann, spokesman for the Swiss Trades Union Federation.

But there is also a certain reserve at the Federation.

“We must avoid situations for specific groups, for example senior citizens, in which voluntary work becomes some kind of duty,” Ackermann added.

There have been discussions in a number of cantons over the past few years on making volunteer work tax-deductible or compensating volunteers in the calculation of pensions. But all suggestions made so far have been turned down.

“Perhaps we should no longer pursue the tax deduction path in view of the current political situation, and look for other ways of recognition,” Stefan Spahr said.

“One possibility would be to recognize the importance of volunteer work in an article of the constitution,” he added.

swissinfo, Andrea Tognina

Key facts

Four out of ten Swiss carry out voluntary or unpaid work in Switzerland.
They put in 44 million hours of such work every month.
This work, put into money terms, is estimated at SFr20 billion ($16 billion).

end of infobox

In brief

A working group of 50 parliamentarians has been formed to discuss the issue of voluntary work and its recognition.

The Federal Statistics Office is due to publish a study later this year, with recommendations for the government on how voluntary work can be supported.

end of infobox


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