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Geneva seeks solution for illegal workers

Protesters calling for work permits in Bern Keystone Archive

Canton Geneva has called on the government to legalise the situation of thousands of clandestine domestic workers, mostly maids and housekeepers.

These workers, many of them from South America and the Philippines, already benefit from a contract with their employers.

Around 5,000 household employees, mainly women, work in Geneva without being officially registered, a situation the cantonal authorities say they will no longer tolerate.

“It would be hypocritical to pretend that there wasn’t a problem,” said Martine Brunschwig-Graf, president of canton Geneva’s government, adding that the workers in question deserved better protection.

The government admits that it is shocked by the extent of the problem. Furthermore, taxes and social security contributions worth a total of SFr38 million ($32 million) fail to land in the state’s coffers every year.

Brunschwig-Graf added that only domestic workers with an oral or written contract would have the chance of receiving a work permit.


Illegal workers without any kind of contract, asylum seekers whose requests have been turned down and people with a criminal record are not included in the canton’s request to the federal authorities.

Geneva has not asked for a blanket amnesty, but is calling for each case to be examined on its own merits and judged according to strict criteria.

The local government will also take a series of measures to avoid attracting more clandestine workers.

The ability to change jobs will be limited, minimum salaries will be instituted and checks will be carried out to ensure proper working conditions. Employers will also have to guarantee social contributions are paid.

Immigration will be more tightly controlled, while the illegal hiring of domestic workers will be severely sanctioned. Both employers and employees will face hefty – and heavier – fines.

The Geneva authorities warn that the situation of these workers is not unique to their canton. But they add that what may work in canton Geneva may not be the solution elsewhere.

swissinfo with agencies

Anywhere between 70,000 and 180,000 people were residing illegally in Switzerland at the end of 2003, according to the Catholic charity Caritas.
Other estimates put this number as high as 300,000.
As unregistered workers, they benefit from no legal protection.
Work carried out by these illegal workers leads to losses for the state of around SFr1 billion.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR