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Supporters of the trade union federation UNIA demanded a monthly minimum wage at a demonstration in Basel, Switzerland. Credit Patrick Straub/KEYSTONE, via Associated Press

Supporters of the trade union federation UNIA demanded a monthly minimum wage at a demonstration in Basel, Switzerland. Credit Patrick Straub/KEYSTONE, via Associated Press

On Sunday, the Swiss will decide whether they want to introduce the world's highest minimum wage, reports Peter Stäuber

Whenever I spot an article on Switzerland in the foreign press, I get ready to feel embarrassed. It's either about something vaguely amusing, like the opening hours of the Swiss air control, something depressing, like a vote on a minaret ban, or something so depressing that it's also vaguely amusing, like a ruling by a Swiss court, according to which calling somebody a "dirty asylum seeker" is not racist. The country got a particularly bad press earlier this year, when the electorate decided by a thin margin to introduce immigration controls – something that obviously delighted Ukip.

But instead of focusing on the question whether the Swiss are particularly right-wing and nasty, or simply express feelings that would be popular over here as well (er, probably not), let's turn to some good news: On Sunday, the Swiss will vote on whether to introduce the a minimum wage – the highest in the world.

The proposal was put forward by the trade union federation and is supported by the Social Democrats and the Green Party. It forms part of a long tradition of progressive referenda (in the Swiss version of direct democracy, anybody can propose a referendum, called Volksinitiative in German, provided s/he can collect 100000 signatures within 18 months; for a change of the constitution, the approval of the smaller chamber of the Swiss parliament is also needed): In 1989, the Swiss voted on the abolition of the army, four years later on whether to reject the acquisition of new fighter jets, in 2012 on an extension of the minimum annual leave to 6 weeks, and last year on a cap of the maximum salary to twelve times the salary of the lowest-paid within the same company (which would have meant that the boss of UBS would have to pay his lowest-earning employee around half a million pounds if he was to keep his salary – a fairly reasonable proposal).

Trouble is, all of these have been defeated, often by a large margin. A notable example of a successful referendum proposed by the left was the moratorium on nuclear power stations in 1990. The belated decision to join the UN in 2002 was also achieved through a referendum.

Now, Switzerland has the chance of not only catching up with other countries (remember that the vote for women was introduced in 1971), but to lead the world in terms of wages. The proposed 4000 Swiss francs (around £2600) pre-tax monthly income work out as 22 francs per hour, that's around £15. If that sounds like an extraordinary amount of money, consider that Switzerland is one of the most expensive countries in Europe: I recently wanted to buy a takeaway in Börek in Zürich, before I realised it would set me back a not very appetising 12 francs (£8 pounds). But even adjusted for purchasing power, Switzerland would still be ahead of Luxemburg and France, the current leaders in terms of pay. Germany is planning to introduce a minimum wage of 8.50 euro (around £7), while in the US Barack Obama is trying to push it up to $10.10 (£6).

According to the initiators of the referendum, more than 300,000 full-time workers would benefit from the minimum wage. Although certain sectors of the Swiss economy, such as construction and the catering industry, are subject to collective labour agreements, more than half of all workers are not protected by any wage agreement. In the retail business low wages are particularly widespread. A higher minimum wage would also reduce gender inequality: According to the initiators, 7 out of 10 low-wage workers are women.

Business organisations like the trade association or the lobby group Economiesuisse are predictably warning of job losses – a claim for which there is no evidence. But even though the Swiss business community has for a long time been fairly influential, these days they cannot be so sure of their power: They campaigned both against the mass immigration referendum and last year's proposal to strenghen the powers of shareholders to determine executive pay – both times the voters said Yes.

As most other countries, Switzerland has seen growing inequality over the past two decades, with a further increase after the financial crisis: From 2010 until 2012, real wages in the top 10 percent or earners have risen by 7 percent, while in the bottom 10 percent they have fallen further. Should the Swiss electorate vote Yes on Sunday, it would be an important step to halt this development – and it would give the press a chance to report some good news from the central European tax haven.

Peter Stauber

Peter Stauber

Peter Stäuber is a freelance journalist and translator. He writes for English and German language publications and is a member of the NUJ.

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