Cantons demand more access to foreign employees

Canton Zurich argues a lack of access to international skilled workers could threaten the top ranking of its Federal Institute of Technology © KEYSTONE / GAETAN BALLY

Switzerland’s three economic powerhouse cantons have demanded greater access to foreign workers from outside of the European Union. Zurich, Geneva and Basel City say their economies and research capabilities depend on such highly skilled employees. 

The number of foreign workers in Switzerland has been at the centre of a fierce political and social debate for some time, culminating in a 2014 referendum to curb the rate of immigration. The following year, the government reduced the number of B and L permits for non-EU migrants from 8,500 to 6,500. 

Protests led by Zurich, Geneva and Basel City forced the government to partially relent, increasing permits to 7,500 this year. But on Tuesday, the three cantons joined forces once again to demand a return to at least 2014 levels (8,500). 

Not enough visas

All three cantons used up their initial worker permit allocations inside the first three months of this year and have almost exhausted a secondary batch of reserve visas.

 They argue that the current limit on permits starves multinational companies, innovative start-ups, universities and research institutes of highly skilled recruits from India, the United States, China and other countries. This threatens Switzerland’s economic welfare by damaging its reputation as a global centre for business and research, the cantons said in a joint statement. 

The IT, cleantech, medtech, pharmaceutical, finance and life sciences sectors are particularly affected. If access to the foreign labour force remains capped, companies will be forced to relocate research projects and jobs outside of Switzerland, cantonal representatives said. 

“We are now in a tense situation which creates an uncertainty that is damaging our economy,” Geneva’s finance director Pierre Maudet told 

Maintaining reputations

His Zurich counterpart, Carmen Walker Späh, warned that the canton’s efforts to become a global hub of digital technology could come to nothing if the situation is not eased. 

“If the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) wants to remain the highest-ranked university in Europe, it needs to attract the best talent worldwide,” she added at a press conference. 

Basel City’s Christoph Brutschin said his region’s long-established reputation as a global leader in life sciences was under threat. 

Economic drivers

The three cantons claim to drive a third of Switzerland’s economic growth, giving them considerable lobbying clout. But with the immigration debate still running hot, they risk running into a wall of political opposition. 

The government’s attempt to find a compromise between the demands of the 2014 initiative and its obligations to keep borders open to EU workers have been roundly condemned by the rightwing Swiss People’s Party. They are threatening another initiative with stronger anti-mass immigration demands to force the government to play ball. 

In the meantime, many Swiss companies may soon be obliged to prove that there are no domestic candidates to fill vacancies before hiring from abroad.

Swiss work permits

Since 2002, Switzerland has had an agreement with the EU to open borders to workers from the EU or European Free Trade Association (EFTA) states (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway). A 2014 Swiss referendum demanded restrictions on migration, but the government has so far refused to impose quotas, which would violate the 2002 EU treaty. 

Citizens from non-EU/EFTA countries must have a guaranteed work contract from an employer as well as the appropriate work visa before entering the country. Having a job offer alone is not enough to guarantee a permit.

Family members of a permit holder are allowed to stay and reside in Switzerland as well, regardless of nationality. Family members include a spouse, descendants under age 21 or dependents over whom custody or care is granted, regardless of age.

The 7,500 work visas available this year are either L permits, which typically last between three and 12 months, or B permits that have a five year duration.

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