Tuesday 20 May 2014

Swiss voters reject minimum wage

TODAY, 19 May 2014

GENEVA — Worried about upsetting Switzerland’s strong economy or driving its high costs even higher, more than three-quarters of Swiss voters rejected a plan yesterday (May 18) to create the world’s highest minimum wage and slightly more than half spurned a request to outfit the Swiss Air Force with 22 new fighter jets.

A tally by Swiss TV showed that with votes counted in all 26 of the Alpine nation’s cantons (states), the Swiss trade union’s idea of making the minimum wage 22 Swiss francs (S$31) per hour fell flat by a vote of 76.3 per cent opposed and 23.7 per cent in favour.

The military’s controversial request to spend 3.1 billion francs for Saab’s new Gripen fighter jets was narrowly defeated, with 53.4 per cent against it and 46.6 per cent who supported the purchase.

At a news conference in the Swiss capital Bern, members of the Federal Council of seven ministers, which includes the president, confirmed the vote results. They welcomed the decision on the minimum wage proposal. Trade unions had proposed it as a way of fighting poverty in a country that, by some measures, features the world’s highest prices and most expensive cities.

But opinion polls had indicated that most voters sided with the council and business leaders, who argued it would cost jobs and erode economic competitiveness, driving Switzerland’s high costs even higher.

“A fixed salary has never been a good way to fight the problem,” Economy Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann said in Bern.

“If the initiative had been accepted, it would have led to workplace losses, especially in rural areas where less qualified people have a harder time finding jobs,” he said. “The best remedy against poverty is work.”

The proposal would have eclipsed the existing highest minimum wages in force elsewhere in Europe. Switzerland has no minimum wage, but the median hourly wage is about 33 francs an hour.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which adjusts figures for spending power, lists the highest current minimum wage as Luxembourg’s at US$10.66 (S$13.33) an hour, followed by France at US$10.60, Australia at US$10.21, Belgium at US$9.97, and the Netherlands at US$9.48. The United States wage, an adjusted US$7.11 down from the actual US$7.25 rate, came 10th on the list.

Adjusted for its high prices, Switzerland’s wage proposal would have represented about US$14 an hour based on a 42-hour work week.

The nation’s defence minister, Mr Ueli Maurer, who had pushed hard for the Gripen purchased, acknowledged the vote exposed wide “differences” in levels of support around the country that would need to be addressed because of “the void that will be created in our country in terms of aviation security”.

Voters also faced two other decisions at the polls yesterday, a result of Switzerland’s unique system of popular rule that is expressed in endless citizen-inspired referendums, a weak federal government and strong cantonal governments.

An initiative to amend the nation’s constitution by imposing a lifetime ban on convicted paedophiles working with children won support throughout the nation by a vote of 63.5 per cent to 36.5 per cent.

Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said the vote sent a clear message of concern about protecting children against sexual abuse. But she cautioned that the new constitutional provision would require a ban to be “automatically applied without distinction” between predators and a young adult who sleeps with his girlfriend, if she is a minor.

“This fact poses a problem and the Federal Council will have to see how to apply this initiative,” she said.

A medical reform measure to provide constitutional support for more family doctors in rural areas passed overwhelmingly by a vote of 88 per cent to 12 per cent.


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