December 5, 2022

Family-friendly proposals set for mixed results at ballot box

Supporters say a ten-day paid paternity leave would move Switzerland towards greater gender equality and help parents achieve a better work-life balance. © Keystone / Gaetan Bally

Swiss voters on Sunday will decide whether to approve two weeks’ statutory paternity leave and more generous tax deductions for families with children. Although both proposals aim to help working parents, only one of them is predicted to win over voters.

This content was published on September 25, 2020 – 15:00

Paternity leave

A “yes” vote to the legal reform giving new fathers ten days of paid leave would lift Switzerland out of the position of laggard on paternity leave in Europe. Currently men are not entitled to any statutory days off after the birth of a child, although they can request one or two days’ leave under the code of obligations. Some employers in both private and public sectors have more generous policies.

The proposed leave would be paid under the state-run income compensation scheme – part of the social security system funded in equal parts by employers and employees. Fathers would be entitled to 80% of their average earnings, up to a maximum of CHF196 ($213) per day, for leave which they must take within six months of the child’s birth. The total annual costs are estimated at CHF230 million.

To be eligible they must have worked for a minimum of five months in Switzerland and made contributions to the old-age pension scheme for at least nine months. Only biological fathers would be able to claim these benefits.

The ten days are a compromise solution overwhelmingly approved by parliament in 2019 after an alliance of women’s, men’s and family groups together with trade unions submitted a people’s initiative calling for 20 days (four weeks) of paid paternity leave. The alliance accepted the compromise and withdrew its initiative, although it has said it will reintroduce it if the two weeks are rejected by voters.

Previous attempts in parliament to introduce paternity leave beginning in the 1990s have all failed. A paid maternity leave of 14 weeks was introduced in 2005.

The current proposal, though supported by a large swathe of the political spectrum – from centre-right to left – has its detractors. Those who forced the nationwide vote on the amendment – a group comprising mainly members of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party and small- and medium-sized entreprises – fear the burden for small-business owners financing what amounts to a benefit for the few.

Supporters, on the other hand, say that paternity leave will move Switzerland towards greater gender equality and families towards achieving a better work-life balance. The argument appears to have been winning over voters during the campaign, with the most recent poll showing 61% in favour, 35% against and 4% undecided.

If approved, the amendment would come into force in 2021.

Federal tax deductions

The other family-friendly proposal whose fate is to be decided by voters on Sunday has two components. The first is to increase the tax-deductible sum for childcare expenses from CHF10,100 to CHF25,000. The second would see the general deduction for children increase from CHF6,500 to CHF10,000.

The original intent of the amendment was to alleviate the high costs of daycares or crèches for working families and encourage mothers to rejoin the workforce, part of the government’s effort to address skilled-worker shortages.

Parliament approved the reform last year but only after fierce debate, particularly with regard to the second element – the general deduction, which was introduced by the centrist Christian Democratic Party, and which a coalition of left-leaning parties decided to challenge through a nationwide vote.

The Social Democrats, Green Party and centre-left Liberal Greens believe the anticipated CHF380-million annual loss to government coffers is too high a price to pay for a tax rebate they say will go mainly to high-income families. Currently around 60% of families with children in Switzerland pay the federal direct income tax and would be eligible for a tax break under the general child deduction – albeit on a sliding scale, so families with smaller incomes would receive smaller rebates.

The business community has been divided on the issue, while the trade unions have recommended rejecting the reform.

The argument of the left regarding the high cost of “a tax break for the rich” seems to be resonating with voters as decision-day nears: a survey carried out in early September shows a reversal of public opinion, with more people (52%) against the amendment than in the previous poll, published in August, in a nine-percentage-point lead over those who say they support the proposal.

Other matters before voters

Also on the national ballot papers on Sunday are a proposal to scrap a deal with the EU on immigration, a CHF6 billion ($6.6 billion) credit to buy new fighter jets for the Swiss air force, and a reform of the hunting law.

It is the second set of nationwide votes this year, as a scheduled ballot in May was cancelled due to the Covid-19 crisis.

About 5.4 Swiss citizens, including registered expatriate Swiss, are eligible to take part in the votes.

Voters will also be deciding on a number of issues at cantonal and local levels.

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