OPINION: Swiss childcare culture and divorce laws mean women are losing out

The high costs of childcare in Switzerland, the culture for family-based care and recent Federal Court decisions made in the guise of equality all mean that women in Switzerland are at a disadvantage, Clare O’Dea writes.

OPINION: Swiss childcare culture and divorce laws mean women are losing out
Swiss childcare culture and costs and the country's divorce laws mean women are losing out. Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash

We don’t think of marriage as an institution that negatively impacts a person’s earning power, but the law has long recognised this feature, taking into account years of unpaid care work and reduced earning capacity in the case of divorce. Now the approach is more cautious.

Previously, settlements between couples were quite traditional, reflecting the model of most families, where one spouse earned most of the family income and one spouse did most of the care and home-related work. 

But recent Swiss Federal Court judgements between 2020 and 2022 reflect a changed approach towards establishing individual financial independence. Now, in normal cases, the lesser-earning spouse is supposed to be able to support herself (mostly wives) fully as soon as possible after divorce.

The principle of financial independence being pushed through on the divorce side ignores the reality for most mothers, who for practical, economic and cultural reasons reduce their – present and future – earning capacity during marriage. Divorced women already had a much higher risk of experiencing poverty than divorced men before this change.

READ ALSO: How do the costs of childcare in Switzerland compare to elsewhere in Europe?

Childcare dynamics

So what’s keeping women in the home? The reluctance of Swiss parents to use external childcare is an interesting phenomenon. Could it be related to the history of poor children forcibly being taken into care or is it simply an expression of conservative values?

Grandparents Day is celebrated on the second Sunday of March in Switzerland. In my local newspaper, the occasion was marked with an article about a grandmother who looks after her two grandchildren up to four day per week. Both her daughters, mothers of the pre-school age children, said they would work less or not at all if they didn’t have this family care arrangement for their children.

The grandmother, who is only 57 years old, has a paid job one day per week. She said she would rather give up that job than miss out on looking after her grandchildren.

This strong preference for family-based care for children is part of the reason why most mothers reduce their working hours significantly after birth. Day care is seen by many parents as less than ideal, an option to be used in small doses to complement family-based or other privately-arranged care.

Added to that cultural barrier, and the short duration of statutory maternity leave (14 weeks), the cost of childcare in Switzerland, which is the second highest of OECD countries, is prohibitive. The net cost of a full-time place in a creche for one child is 26 percent of the average household income of a working couple in Switzerland, second only to New Zealand at 27 percent.

Most OECD members manage to provide childcare that costs less than 15 percent of a couple’s income. Ireland, the UK, New Zealand and Switzerland are the only four countries above the 20 percent mark.

Common problem

Traditional gender-based roles within marriage are alive and kicking in Switzerland. Economically, this is a disadvantage for women, at least on paper. But the disadvantage becomes concrete in the case of divorce. Because when the provider-carer deal is broken, the law is blind to that lack of economic equality.

Divorce is not a rare scenario. The divorce rate in Switzerland was 41.9 percent in 2021 and the average length of marriage at the time of divorce was 15.7 years. A lot can happen in 15.7 years, especially when they are potentially a person’s prime earning years.

The main thrust of the Federal Court decisions on divorce law is a narrowing of the conditions under which the lesser-earning spouse receives maintenance payments. A marriage is no longer automatically considered to be life-shaping (lebensprägend), and therefore creating a right to alimony, just because there are children involved.

The position now is that the spouse who looks after the children during the marriage should stand on their own two feet financially after the marriage ends. This overwhelmingly applies to mothers, most of whom work part-time.

But the change has happened without the necessary progress in the economic situation of women, and as a result, there is now a mismatch between the law and the reality for women.

Poverty trap

The reality is that motherhood in Switzerland usually means losing ground in the workplace, while fatherhood does not. Women generally do more unpaid work at home, whether they have a paid job or not. Most women work part-time and mothers often work in worse-paid jobs than they are qualified for as a result of their interrupted working life.

The net effect of all this is that women are at higher risk of poverty in old age, especially if the provider-carer deal they participate in for several years is shattered by divorce.

I’m all for encouraging women to regain their financial independence after divorce. But not in a way that the structural barriers are ignored.

There are signs of improvement in the area of childcare provision. Full-day schooling is becoming more common, with fewer children needing to return home in the middle of the day. Last September, voters in the city of Zurich approved a plan to offer supervision and a meal to children over the lunch break in all schools by 2025, for instance.

The National Council voted last month in favour of a 710-million-franc package intended to reduce childcare costs for families by 20 percent by 2025. The Council of States, usually more reluctant to spend, still has to vote on the package.

But it will take years for families to actually reap the benefit of these measures, which still only scratch the surface of the problem of economic inequality. In the meantime, women facing divorce need to know that they are on their own, and that neither the state, their ex-partner nor the law will necessarily help them in future. 

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Why foreigners who land a job in Switzerland always ask about wages

People from around the globe flock to Switzerland in hopes of a better future and higher income. Yet Switzerland’s living costs are notoriously high and many foreigners are left wondering if what they are projected to make will suffice to live comfortably.

Why foreigners who land a job in Switzerland always ask about wages

Besides chocolate, cheese, and banks full of other people’s money, Switzerland is perhaps best known for being expensive – even for its (future) residents.

Various studies have shown time and again that Swiss consumers pay much more for basic goods and services than most of their European counterparts, and that, paired with inflation, has some people living in Switzerland second-guessing their salaries – even when they are as high as 180k francs a year.

READ MORE: Why is Switzerland so expensive?

A quick browse in an active expat Facebook forum reveals that the main question many have about moving to Switzerland surrounds what constitutes an appropriate salary? 

One poster looking to settle in Geneva asked other foreigners living in Switzerland: “Is a salary of around 180k francs gross enough for comfortable living for a family of 3 people?”

It’s a common question with many fellow potential movers asking about Zurich and Basel and quoting widely different salary offers.

In this case the individual received varying advice on the topic, with one respondent saying that the offered salary is “a hugely high salary – other people live with 50 percent less than that”.

However, a second responded disagreed, arguing that a salary of 180k “won’t be luxurious, but it will be comfortable” while advising the original poster to shop for groceries in France to save money.

READ MORE: Why cross-border shopping has become less popular in Switzerland

Yet another respondent said that 180k gross may just suffice in Geneva, but this will “depend on your lifestyle” and that living just outside the city would be an overall smarter money-saving move.

Another poster also asked a question what constitutes an appropriate entry level wage. Specifically, they asked whether an entry-level software engineering position in Switzerland would pay between 78k and 92.5k – as was estimated online.

One respondent commented that their partner with ten years’ worth of work experience in the industry received offers in the range of 100k to 120k in the canton of Vaud, “which in our opinion is not a lot.”

The poster was also advised by another user to look at the average market salary and “put a few sprinkles on top: health insurance, travel card, bonuses and then add 2.5 percent to the total which is the expected Swiss salary increase for 2023”.

They further recommended the jobseeker factor in whether they will be working from home or go to an office as this could affect their monthly expenses.

READ MORE: How to work out what salary you could earn in Switzerland?

Yet another person asked whether a net salary of 3,600 francs in the canton of Bern would allow them to save around 500 francs each month. They added that the health insurance had already been paid.

Even though its salaries are among the highest in the world, Switzerland is one of only five nations in Europe — the others being Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway — that has never introduced minimum wages nationally. Though some cantons, including Ticino, Neuchâtel, Jura, Basel-City and Geneva, have set fixed minimum wages, Bern has not, and this can severely impact employees’ monthly outgoings.

While some are concerned about their monthly savings potential, others are worried that their monthly wage will not be enough to successfully support a family.

In the same group, a poster enquired “Is a gross salary of 5,000 francs enough for a family of four to live on?”, and while many respondents said that this would largely depend on the canton, Switzerland’s statistics indicate that the family would be living above the poverty threshold.

In fact, recent figures from the Federal Statistical Office (FSO) indicate that about 8.5 percent of Switzerland’s population live under the official poverty threshold, which is defined at receiving 2,279 francs per month on average for a single person, and 3,976 francs per month for two adults and two children.

Obviously, this is much more of a problem for people living in high-cost cities like Zurich and Geneva where most foreigners settle, than for those in rural areas where money goes fiurther.

Despite this, one respondent said that with a family that size, earning around 4.500 francs “is going to be a tight budget – even if you are only meant to buy groceries. It’s doable but don’t expect much room in your finances.”

While some foreigners were lucky enough to land a job in Switzerland may have been offered a decent salary, some are left wondering whether their offered relocation package is fair.

One poster asked whether a one-off relocation package of 4,500 francs paid for by the employer will suffice to successfully move to Switzerland. The reply: some employers don’t pay towards your move at all.

But just how much salary is enough to live comfortably in Switzerland?

While wages are determined by various factors, including your education, experience, as well as the canton where you will work, there are ways to find out what salary to expect for the kind of work position you are seeking.

You can find out the general level of wages in your particular field from various sources, including in this article: What is the average salary for (almost) every job in Switzerland?

But, as the title states, these are averages that don’t necessarily take into account all the variables and factors mentioned above.

So, what is a reliable source of salary information?

The site of the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) has a national wage calculator which is quite specific.

It “enables you to calculate a monthly gross wage (central value or median) and the spread of wages for a specific individual profile,” SECO explains.

To find out, you have to fill out your personal information, such as the industry in which you are seeking employment, your age, years of experience, education, how many hours each week you want to work, as well as the canton where you are looking for a job.