The freedom of movement debate - the Swiss experience

Submitted by cathy n on 24 January, 2017 - 4:27 Author: Sebastian Osthoff

Brexit has triggered a debate on free movement which appears to be a veritable free for all. Many on the left now seem to think, that the working class is served best with a protectionist labour market policy. It is not often that Switzerland might provide lessons for the labour movement but we have been going through this for the last 20 years.

Since the 1990s the far right keeps bombarding us with, and all too often winning, xenophobic, deliberately anti-immigrant referendums. We have now banned minarets, toughened our asylum laws to a point where fleeing conscription into a brutal and abusive military system is not seen as a reason for leaving one’s country anymore and most importantly in 2014 Switzerland voted to limit immigration by introducing quotas for non-domestic labour. This has brought us at loggerheads with the EU, at the moment negotiations are at a standstill as the EU sees freedom of movement as a basic principle and ties other free trade agreements to it. The first retaliation was to exclude Switzerland from the Erasmus international student exchange programme.

All the massive pressure from the far right, even the de-facto limiting of immigration has not lead to a single foreigner less coming to Switzerland. The Swiss labour market, as is the British labour market is just too dependent on an influx of non-domestic workers. What it has lead to though is a situation, where immigrant workers are increasingly marginalized, stripped of their rights in the work place, unable to claim benefits or acquire citizenship. And of course most important for the bosses: they are too intimidated to take industrial action or demand a raise.

The single purpose of right wing anti-immigration policy is not to reduce the amount of immigrant workers but to make them easier to exploit and easier to kick out of the country if they are unable to be exploited for any longer. The increasing demise of the left and the labour movement in Switzerland went hand in hand with the rise in the far right. Were Social democracy was the strongest political party in every sense at the end of the 80s it is now vastly outperformed by the right wing populists.

The Swiss labour movement has not yet found an adequate answer to this problems. Appeals to anti-racism are in stark contrast to the Social democratic party’s actual policy in parliament where it all too complacent in policing the borders. Every now and then a pathetic attempt is made to copy the right wings language and imagery to the labour movements own avails. Last year the country’s largest trade union, UNIA, ran a campaign under the slogan of “Polish dumping wages have to stay in Warszaw!” However, trying to out-do the right wing in their own game never works, it only cements their growth by giving credibility to their ideas, the Swiss left by any measure was completely unsuccessful in this.
Our job is not to tail the backward ideas in the working class, but to regain a real presence in the workplaces and working class communities, domestic and immigrant, and present a clear cut alternative to capitalist divide and rule politics.

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