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Switzerland: Domestic Workers protected by the Country’s first Sectoral Employment Contract

by IDWFED published Feb 10, 2011 12:00 AM
Contributors: Vania Alleva & Mauro Moretto/Global Labour Column
The Swiss union UNIA has convinced the Swiss government to establish the country's first sectoral employment contract for domestic workers. Also called NAVs, these agreements are designed for sectors in which collective agreements cannot be reached.



Read the original article in full:  Domestic Workers in Switzerland protected by the Country’s first Sectoral Employment Contract | Global Labour Column


In Switzerland as elsewhere, the State has been retreating on social policy in recent years. This is leading to a decline in social service provision and, consequently, to an increase in demand for domestically based services. Nobody knows exactly how many waged employees are currently at work in Swiss private households (as many are unreported), but statistical estimates suggest that their numbers are continually increasing. At the end of 2007, the Unia trade union, on the basis of various studies(1), put the number of full-time jobs in the sector at about 125,000 (approx. 4 per cent of the total workforce). More than 90 per cent of these employees are women. Many are migrants, often without any legal residency status. They come from a whole range of countries where they had often previously gained academic qualifications and worked in other occupations. Recently, increasing numbers of women from the new EU member states have been finding jobs in Swiss private households.

Fighting low wages and poor working conditions

Despite the legal risks, and other incentives to stay hidden, more and more private household workers are venturing out to see Unia. They report appalling working conditions: extremely low wages, combined with hefty deductions for board and lodging, often no social security or pension coverage, massive daily workloads, pay stoppages if they fall ill or if the employer goes on vacation, uncompensated work on public holidays, obviously no overtime arrangements, and so on. No wonder that all the available studies pinpoint this sector as the one with the highest proportion of precarious employment relationships and working poor.

For more than ten years now Unia has, together with other unions in the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions (SGB/USS), been fighting against the social scandal of the working poor and for substantial pay rises in low-wage sectors. At the turn of the 21st century, it chalked up some important successes in sectors such as hospitality and retailing. However, as Switzerland still does not have a general legal minimum wage, this struggle runs up against certain limits – especially where there is no organized negotiating partner on the employer side with whom to agree on binding minimum wages. As that applies particularly to domestic workers, Unia and the SGB/USS called on the Swiss government, at the end of 2007, to make use of the legal possibilities that were created as part of the accompanying measures for the free movement of persons between Switzerland and the European Union, and to decree for this category of workers the first-ever Switzerland-wide “standard work contract” (Normalarbeitsvertrag or NAV) with binding minimum wages and working conditions. An NAV is not a collective agreement, but a sector-specific legal minimum wage for sectors in which there are no collectively agreed provisions.

At the same time, Unia drew public attention to the highly precarious working conditions experienced by domestic employees. The government finally took up the union concerns and asked an experts group to work out the parameters for an NAV with binding minimum wages. Taking part in that group were representatives of the cantonal and national authorities, employer organizations, and organizations in related sectors (cleaning and hospitality), as well as the authors of the present article, who were representing the unions. The experts group reported back in mid-2009 with a proposed NAV that took account of multiple elements and requirements.

The main focus was on the setting of minimum wages that would reflect the wide-ranging and physically demanding tasks involved in private domestic work. Concretely, the experts’ group defined three wage categories on the basis of experience and training: 1. untrained employees, 2. experienced employees and 3. employees with vocational training or long experience. For the domestic employees’ protection and security, other elements going beyond the legal requirements are vital. Among them are working time arrangements (including overtime), holidays and leave, and the continued payment of wages in case of illness. Although the Unia representatives pressed for these elements to be included in the proposed NAV, they were left out – both because they are covered by existing cantonal NAVs and because the legislation underpinning national NAVs does not provide for them.

A first step in the right direction

On its way through the political and administrative procedures, the draft NAV had to overcome some resistance and many hurdles. Some cuts also had to be accepted, notably to the effective minimum wage levels, before the national government decreed the first NAV for domestic employees, with binding minimum wages and the force of law, in October 2010 (see here the full text of the law in German, French and Italian) . To date, this is the only national-level NAV, so its significance goes beyond the sector for which it was adopted.

The NAV came into force on 1 January 2011, and it is an important step in the right direction. The compulsory minimum wages are:

  • CHF 18.20 per hour for untrained workers
  • CHF 20.00 per hour for untrained workers with 4 years of professional experience or for workers with two years’ training
  • CHF 22.00 per hour for workers with three years’ training.

Source: Vania Alleva & Mauro Moretto/Global Labour Column

Story Type: News

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