Swiss women and a major Swiss union held a national day of action today for wage equality for women and for a minimum wage of $4,000 a month for all workers. The Swiss franc and the U.S. dollar are about on par, the franc worth a little more than a U.S. dollar. The new minimum wage that the union and women are seeking would be the equivalent of $48,000 per year. The current minimum wage is $3,000 per month, which was won in the 1980s. Switzerland has one of the highest costs of living in the world.
The “women’s strike,” as the UNIA labor federation also describes the action, was launched to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Swiss women’s winning of the right to vote in 1971 and the 30th anniversary of an article on gender equality being included in the Swiss Federal Constitution in 1981. Swiss women make 19.8 percent less than men, despite the gender equality article in the Constitution. The union argues that 40 percent of the wage difference can only be explained by discrimination.
UNIA’s Demand for Wage Equality and a Higher Minimum
The UNIA labor federation argues that the right to a living wage is anchored in the Swiss Constitution and calls for the Confederation and the cantons (Switzerland’s “states”) to adopt measures to protect workers’ wages. UNIA calls upon the government to ensure that collective bargaining agreements be based upon the accepted minimum wages in localities, industries, and professions. The union federation demands that legislators establish a minimum wage of 22 francs an hour, the equivalent of 4,000 Swiss francs per month based on a 42-hour workweek. The minimum wage, says the union, should be indexed, that is, linked to the cost of living. Cantons themselves might set higher minimums in particular regions.
UNIA has taken up gender equality seriously. Beginning in December of 2008, the union opened its doors to women, offering them free consultations on wage equality. It also organized a national campaign to educate the Swiss public about the issue and to encourage women to fight for wage equality. The labor federation also published a brochure titled “Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value: Women and Equality — How to Defend Yourself.” And the union published a Wage Inequality Calculator where women workers could see just how out of line their wages were. UNIA, in addition to organizing the women’s strike, is also active in the parliament to put forward legislation to prevent women from suffering wage discrimination.
UNIA points out that the Swiss government’s Office of Equality between Men and Woman has also called upon employers to equalize wages and suggested simple ways to find out if the wages of their men and women employees are unequal. The government has also set up National Research Program 60, also commemorating the Constitution’s gender equality article, to investigate the issues of inequalities between men and women.
Why Do Women Make Less?
The union argues that women make less for a variety of reasons. First, typically women’s work is less valued and therefore paid less than men’s work. Since women’s work is often seen as supplementing a family’s income, women work part-time more often than men do (57% for women and 12% for men), and this affects their opportunities for promotion. Women in the workplace are less likely to have key positions or managing positions than are men (23% for women as against 37% for men). And, women generally earn a lower wage or salary than male colleagues at the time they enter their field of work, with lifetime implications for their earnings.
Dan La Botz is a Cincinnati-based teacher, writer and activist.