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article imageSwiss women strike for equal pay again, three decades on

By Agn├Ęs PEDRERO (AFP)     Jun 4, 2019 in Business

Nearly 30 years after staging a first nationwide strike for equal pay, women across Switzerland say they are preparing fresh action to push for wage parity next week.

On June 14, 1991 -- 10 years after equality between the sexes was enshrined in the Swiss constitution -- half a million women walked out of their workplaces or homes to protest persistent inequalities.

Three decades on, however, unions and rights groups say things have barely improved.

They are calling on Swiss women to join a fresh strike, again on June 14, to demand "more time, more money, more respect".

Women in Switzerland on average still make 20 percent less than men.

And for men and women with equal qualifications, the wage gap remains nearly eight percent, according to the national statistics office.

Swiss women are angry that  decades after the constitutional recognition of the equality of women  t...
Swiss women are angry that, decades after the constitutional recognition of the equality of women, they are still not getting paid as much as men
Fabrice COFFRINI, AFP

"Even if you take into account all of the regular excuses and you only compare women and men in the exact same position with the same professional experience, the fact remains that a woman in Switzerland is cheated out of 300,000 Swiss francs ($313,000, 266,000 euros) over the course of her career, just because she is a woman," Switzerland's largest union UNIA said in a statement last year.

Strikers will also be demanding zero tolerance for violence against women and more respect and better pay for women's work, including through the introduction of a minimum national salary.

The idea of another nationwide women's strike was born out of frustration at a bid to change the law to impose more oversight over salary distribution, which passed through the Swiss parliament last year

The final text only applied to companies with more than 100 employees -- affecting fewer than one percent of employers -- and failed to include sanctions for those that allow persistent gender pay gaps.

- 'Women work for free' -

Organisers have called upon women to snub their jobs, and also housework, for the entire day to help raise awareness about the vital contribution women make across society.

"Really, the objective is to block the country with a feminist strike, a women's strike," activist Marie Metrailler told AFP.

For those women unable to take a full day, the organisers urge them to at least pack their things and go by 3:24 pm -- in recognition of the male-female pay disparity.

"After that, women work for free," said Anne Fritz, the main organiser of the strike and a representative of USS, an umbrella organisation that groups 16 Swiss unions.

Gaining recognition of women's rights has been a drawn-out process in Switzerland.

It was one of the last countries in Europe to grant women the right to vote, in 1971 -- and in the conservative Appenzell region women only won that right in 1991.

Women demonstrated on May 14 in Lausanne  a month ahead of the nationwide action to press for equal ...
Women demonstrated on May 14 in Lausanne, a month ahead of the nationwide action to press for equal pay
Fabrice COFFRINI, AFP

And while Switzerland did enshrine gender equality into its constitution in 1981, it took another 15 years before the law took effect.

"In 1991, we determined that... nothing was moving. So we went on strike," Geneva author Huguette Junod told AFP.

Around 500,000 women -- a high number in a country that at the time counted fewer than 3.5 million female inhabitants -- marched and organised giant picnics in the streets. Some women hung brooms from their balconies.

The large turnout was all the more remarkable given that work stoppages have been extremely rare in Switzerland since employers and unions signed the "Peace at Work" convention in 1937. It states that differences should be worked out through negotiation rather than strikes.

Junod, 76, recalls that many women were blocked from participating in 1991.

But, she said, "those who were not permitted to strike wore a fuchsia-coloured armband ... and took a longer break".

- 'Illegal' -

Organisers are bracing for a repeat of that situation, for while the strike has some support, the employers' organisation flatly opposes it.

"This strike is illegal," Marco Taddei, one of the organisation's representatives, told AFP.

He stressed that the demands put forward "do not solely target working conditions", and that the constitution "stipulates that a strike can only be used as a last resort."

The unions disagree.

"What is illegal is wage discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace," Fritz said.

Recognising that many women will not be able to get away from work, organisers have declared purple the colour to wear this time to show support for the strikers.

Over the past three decades, womens' rights advocates in Switzerland have made some gains. Abortion was legalised in 2002, and 2005 saw the introduction of 14 weeks of paid maternity leave.

But Switzerland still offers no paternity leave, and limited access to over-priced daycare is seen as a major hindrance to women's full participation in the world of work.

Switzerland "is very conservative on the question of women's rights," Eleonore Lepinard, a sociologist and associate professor of gender studies at Lausanne University, told AFP.

The authorities have yet to commit to collective policies on day-care and elderly care, which would make it easier for women to enter, remain and thrive in the workforce.

Women's forced absence from the workforce for years at a time "benefits men on the employment market and in terms of salaries", Lepinard said.

She hailed women's growing ability to speak up and make their grievances known.

The question, she said, is: "Do the politicians know how to listen?"

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