Swiss women strike for more money, time and respect

Europe (HRNW): Women across Switzerland have begun a day of demonstrations against what they say is the country’s unacceptably slow pace to equality. Friday’s protest comes 28 years after similar action saw half a million women take to the streets in 1991. Swiss women have long campaigned to accelerate the pace of gender equality. They joined millions of other women in Europe after World War One ended in 1918 in demanding the right to vote – but did not get it until 1971. At the time of the 1991 strike there were no women in the Swiss government, and there was no statutory maternity leave. Appenzell, the last Swiss canton to refuse women the right to vote, had just been ordered to change its policy by Switzerland’s Supreme Court. However, women in Switzerland still earn on average 20% less than men, they are under-represented in management positions, and childcare remains not only expensive, but in short supply.

Last month, a survey by the International Labour Organisation put Switzerland bottom of the list in pay rates between men and women in senior roles. Journalist Beatrice Born, who was six months pregnant with her first child when she joined the strike back in 1991, will be striking again on Friday. When she returned to work following the birth of her daughter in 1991, she got something of a shock. No-one, it seemed, had expected her back, and certainly not full-time. “The resistance was huge,” she says. Paola Ferro, one of the organisers of the 1991 strike, will be back on the streets on Friday, too. She agrees that some progress has been made in the past 28 years, but points to the wage and pension gap. Swiss women’s pensions are 37% lower than men’s, primarily because women take time out from work to raise their children. A new strike was first suggested last year in response to parliament’s decision to introduce more scrutiny on equal pay. The government’s move only related to companies with more than 100 employees, a measure that women trade union leaders dismissed as virtually meaningless.

Since then, women across the country have been mobilising, using social media to take advantage of the power of the hashtag. #Frauenstreik – women’s strike in German – has been trending for days, along with #GrèvedesFemmes in French. Events were staged in many of the main cities on Friday, including Bern, Sion and Lausanne, where women filled the station concourse to sing a feminist hymn. Nadine, a Swiss law student not even born when the first strike took place in her country, will be among those taking part. “I think it’s a good thing,” says the student, who comes from the traditionally conservative canton of Glarus. “People will get informed about the many disadvantages women still face: we don’t get equal pay, men still get prioritised with certain jobs,” she adds.

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