11:23 pm - Tuesday November 3, 2015

Swiss Voters Defeat $24.65 Minimum Wage by a Wide Margin

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BERLIN — Swiss voters resoundingly rejected on Sunday a proposed minimum wage that would have been the world’s highest, a move widely seen as reflecting an aversion to state intervention in the liberal economic policies that are the bedrock of Switzerland’s prosperity.

Trade unions had sought a minimum hourly wage of 22 Swiss francs, or $24.65, in what they said was an effort to ensure fair salaries for workers in the lowest-paid sectors, such as retailing and personal services. Switzerland has no national minimum wage.

The proposed rate — considerably higher than elsewhere in Europe and more than double the $10.10 President Obama has sought in the United States — found little support in a national referendum, with 76.3 percent opposed, according to initial results released by the government.

Switzerland, as one of the world’s most prosperous countries and home to major international banks and hedge funds, as well as big chemical, pharmaceutical and machinery companies, might seem an unlikely venue for a debate on wage disparity. But unions argued that many people in the lowest-paying sectors of the economy struggled to make ends meet because their wages had not kept up with a cost of living among the highest in the world.

The vote on Sunday showed, however, that most Swiss do not view low wages as a problem, or at least not one that the government should be asked to fix.

“A fixed salary has never been a good way to fight the problem,” said Johann Schneider-Ammann, the economic minister. “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. The best remedy against poverty is work.”

Giorgio Tuti, president of SEV, the union for transport workers, told the broadcaster SWI that his disappointment was mitigated by the fact that the initiative had brought the issue of income disparity to the fore. In the months before the vote, several leading retailers raised the base salaries for their workers.

“I am relatively certain that the whole of Switzerland has now realized that a minimum wage and the problem of low wages is an important issue,” he said.

Business leaders argued that a national minimum wage would hurt Swiss competitiveness in the global economy. Some Swiss already see their nation’s position threatened by a referendum approved in February to limit the number of European Union citizens allowed to live and work in Switzerland, which is not a member of the 28-nation bloc.

In the last two years, efforts have been made to address Swiss income inequality through referendums that would have limited executive pay packages. Those measures were also defeated but by narrower margins than the minimum wage proposal.

“Switzerland, especially in popular votes, has never had a tradition of approving state intervention in the labor markets,” said Daniel Kubler, a professor of political science at the University of Zurich. “A majority of Swiss has always thought, and still seems to think, that liberal economic principles are the basis of their model of success.”

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