The increasing internationalization of the division of labour on the Swiss labour market has lead to a growing proportion of superior jobs requiring high skills in Switzerland. At present, one in four persons employed1 in Switzerland is a foreigner – often in key positions and contributing to the competitiveness of Swiss companies on the global market. Especially with regard to foreign companies settling and establishing themselves in Switzerland, it is important to be able to draw in foreign managers and specialists.
More than half of the foreigners who came to Switzerland in 2007 did so for work2; 88 per cent of them came from EU-27/EFTA states3, and twelve per cent from non-EU/EFTA states4. The employment of foreigners has a key qualitative and quantitative significance for the Swiss labour market. The current economic development and long-term demographic perspectives point to the fact that, in coming years, employers will have to depend on a high number of skilled and productive labourers to take part in a growing economy.
EU/EFTA citizens: free movement of people
The agreement on the free movement of people simplifies the living and working conditions of EU citizens in Switzerland. Employers can take on workers from EU/EFTA states with minimal administrative constraints, since they are equal to the Swiss on the labour market. Europeans who have entered Switzerland on the basis of the free movement of people often possess good to excellent skills. Likewise, many long-term immigrants from EU-27/EFTA states – and especially from Germany – work as entrepreneurs, directors, and managers5.
The free movement of people is complemented by a mutual recognition of educational degrees, the right to own real estate, and the coordination of social security systems. The low level of legal and administrative hurdles makes the decision to migrate easier for workers and enhances their mobility and flexibility. Experts believe that the economic growth of the past years was made possible by the free movement of people.
Non-EU/EFTA citizens: work permit based on the federal immigration law (AuG)
For third country nationals (non-EU/EFTA citizens) to obtain a work permit requires job skills not available on the domestic labour market and in the EU/EFTA space. Thus, only highly skilled workers obtain a permit. Moreover, they must be paid commensurate to their position and qualification. The qualification may have been obtained at college, through work experience or in various levels of specialization.
One of the main novelties in the law that came into effect on 1 January 2008 consists of a better legal status as well as improved professional and geographic mobility in Switzerland for foreigners with a residence authorization.
Becoming self-employed is also possible, provided the necessary business and financial conditions are met. This is a way to reduce bureaucratic hurdles for skilled workers, specialists and managers from third countries. Thanks to increased mobility on the labour market, workers can be attracted to areas where there is a demand. Access to employment for family members of foreigners integrated into the Swiss labour market for the long-term has also been eased.
The new immigration law further expressly allows companies and research institutes in Switzerland to recruit foreign graduates of Swiss universities, regardless of the domestic and EU/EFTA labour market. This regulation mainly regards highly skilled scientists and engineers in areas in which they can practise their acquired skills at high levels of employment and in which there is a demand for employees.
Improved labour market structure and lasting economic development
The proportion of skilled foreigners with tertiary education has continually risen over the past twenty years. While a good twelve per cent had such education in 1990, it was already more than 18 per cent in 2000.
Particularly since the end of the nineties, there has been a significant rise (over 100 per cent) in the proportion of immigrants with tertiary education. In parallel, the proportion of unskilled workers among new immigrants has dropped significantly since the nineties.
With the continuation of the dual permitting system, access to the Swiss labour market remains strongly market-driven. The individual employer takes a central role in the two-stepped cantonal/federal permitting procedure. Work permits for new immigrants from third countries are handed out under the condition that there is an actual employment offer with a specific job position and description.
Thus, the main objectives of the new immigration law, when it comes to the labour market, is to equalize the employment situation and to improve the labour market structure by means of a long-term integration of foreign workers into the Swiss labour market. The results are not only positive socio-political impulses, but also a lasting economic development.
The permitting conditions for third country nationals, as defined by the new immigration law, in addition to the parallel measures from the agreement on the free movement of people, are protecting job seekers against wage and social dumping. This is how Switzerland remains attractive to skilled workers, in particular.
That, in turn, enables companies to recruit the best employees to fill their available positions.
Flexible and efficient permitting
Despite the two-level cantonal/federal procedure, the Swiss permitting system for third country nationals has proven to be quick in international comparisons. Fully documented applications for people who correspond to the above criteria are approved in as little as a few days. Such a transparent permitting system also enables small and medium-sized enterprises to plan their personnel recruitment efficiently. Thanks to its transparency and dependability, the migration aspect of the federal labour market policy has the confidence of both businesses and the population. Thus, the immigration policy is well prepared for the challenges of the coming years.
Dr. iur. Eduard Gnesa (*1952) studied law in Fribourg and Geneva, and obtained a doctorate. In 2001, after various activities at the University of Bern and in the federal administration, he became the head of the federal agency for immigration, integration and emigration. Since 2004, he has been the director of the new federal agency for migration.