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Study: Migrants in Switzerland dominate low-wage jobs

Study: Migrants in Switzerland dominate low-wage jobs

Foreign-born workers dominate in low-wage professions. Swiss nationals, on the other hand, have advanced up the professional ranks. Among teachers and police officers, few non-native workers can be found.

The Swiss steer clear of jobs like these: If they have to get their hands dirty, they want foreigners to step in.


«We regularly visit schools to motivate young people to pursue jobs in construction,» says Urs Meyer from the construction company Stutz AG in St. Gallen. «Our training is top-notch, and we offer fair wages – the average monthly salary in our trade is 6,000 francs. Still, many people don’t like to work outside in the weather.»

Because Stutz AG, with its 850 employees, has difficulty recruiting native Swiss people, it has to fill the gap with foreign workers. «Recruitment is also becoming more difficult among the Portuguese, which is why we are now increasingly hiring young people in the trade from Hungary and Poland,» Meyer says.

The construction industry is the sector with the highest proportion of foreign workers in Switzerland. This is shown by an analysis carried out by the Basel-based consultancy Demografik for the NZZ. About 60% of the country’s masons and flooring installers are foreign-born, for instance. The comparable figure among the country’s unskilled workers as a whole is even higher, at 84%. Swiss nationals also make up only a third of kitchen assistants and cleaning staffers. The ranking examines only professions with more than 10,000 employees in the country.

Immigrants taking on unpopular jobs

«The proportion of foreign workers is highest in jobs that are generally considered unappealing – whether because of the low pay, high level of physical demands or irregular working hours,» says Demografik economist Lisa Triolo. «Nevertheless, these professions are important for the functioning of the economy, because they are difficult to automate.»

On the other side of the scale, the list of jobs whose employees are nearly all Swiss citizens is notable. Police officers lead this ranking. They are closely followed by primary and secondary school teachers, kindergarten teachers, and social workers. Foreign-born workers account for less than 10% of employees in all of these professions. The same applies to senior administrative staffers and lawyers.

Typical professions for Swiss citizens and foreign-born residents

Proportion of foreign-born workers in %

Michael Siegenthaler, a labor market expert at the Swiss Economic Institute at ETH Zurich, also notes a division of roles between native Swiss workers and foreign nationals. «Research shows that immigrants primarily complement the locals here,» he says. He says that migrants lead to hardly any job displacement, partly because Swiss workers specialize in areas in which they have an advantage thanks to their language skills, training or local knowledge, as is the case with teachers or civil servants.

In her analysis, Triolo also found that foreigners mainly work in areas where recruiting employees has been difficult. «The longer the vacancy period in an occupational group, the higher the proportion of foreigners. For example, construction is the sector in which companies take the longest to fill an open position,» she says. Immigration is therefore a consequence of the skilled-worker shortage, she says.

In fact, immigration has increased considerably in Switzerland over the last two decades. While the federal government recorded 1 million employees with a foreign passport in 2004, the figure has now reached 1.8 million – an increase of 80%. During this time, more than 400,000 foreign-born workers were also naturalized. By contrast, the number of Swiss employees grew by only around 13%, reaching a total of 3.5 million in 2023.

Boom in foreign workers

Swiss and foreign employees since 1991, indexed

At the same time, the Swiss workforce has experienced an impressive professional advancement. The number of Swiss citizens working as executives or in a well-paid intellectual or technical profession has increased by over 300,000. Swiss citizens have also left the lower-paid professions in droves. Compared to 20 years ago, 220,000 fewer Swiss nationals are working in sales, the skilled trades and the unskilled labor sector alone.

This gap has been completely filled by migrant workers. Many expatriates, a category that is often mentioned in the immigration debate, have also flocked to Switzerland. Three-quarters of the top executives of the 20 largest companies on the stock exchange are foreigners, for instance. In many other high-skill professions, however, the proportion of foreigners is significantly lower. Even among medical specialists, a profession frequently cited when it comes to immigration, foreign-born residents make only make up 35% of the sector.

Low-wage sectors like food service have a high share of foreign-born workers. Salaries among Swiss nationals are on average 1,100 francs higher than among foreign-born workers.

Low-wage sectors like food service have a high share of foreign-born workers. Salaries among Swiss nationals are on average 1,100 francs higher than among foreign-born workers.

Gaëtan Bally / Keystone

The fact that immigrant workers are more likely to work in comparatively undesirable jobs is illustrated by a wage comparison. On average, native Swiss workers earn 1,100 francs more per month than immigrant workers. Swiss Economic Institute expert Siegenthaler says it is an illusion to think that immigration can be managed so as to allow only high-skilled people to enter the country. «In practice, it is impossible to prevent follow-on effects,» he says. «According to estimates, every additional job created in the export industry results in half another job in the services sector.»

What does this mean against the backdrop of the initiative recently submitted by the national-conservative Swiss People’s Party, which seeks to prevent Switzerland from reaching 10 million residents? The initiative would set a limit on immigration as soon as the resident population rises to 9.5 million. As an emergency brake, the federal government would have to end its agreement on the free movement of persons with the EU.

«The economy is heavily dependent on foreign workers today,» Siegenthaler says. If these jobs in the low-wage sector were to go unfilled, this would have far-reaching consequences, the labor market economist added. He notes that there is continued unmet demand for workers in the nursing, sales and residential construction sectors. «In order to attract more Swiss workers to these sectors, wages would have to rise significantly – which companies would pass on to customers through higher prices, so purchasing power would not necessarily increase,» he says. «Our lives would therefore become more expensive, and Switzerland would become an even more expensive country.»

Wages are the key

Restaurant owner Manuel Wiesner agrees. The Wiesner family restaurants run by him and his brother employ around 1,000 people. «It’s true that the Swiss have completely different salary expectations. I would have to increase the salary by around 1,500 francs per month to recruit a Swiss worker as a kitchen assistant to wash dishes,» he says. «This would lead to a domino effect: The chef, the sous chef and so on would also demand higher wages, so that the menu prices would have to rise significantly.»

People from 70 nations work in Wiesner’s company. His conclusion: The company could not function without foreign-born workers. Especially since the demographic gap is also becoming a problem. While 100,000 people retire every year, fewer and fewer young people are joining the workforce. «The population growth masks the fact that we are mainly seeing a rise in retirees,» says Triolo, the demographer and economist. «While the number of people in employment is barely increasing, we will have 40% more pensioners by 2040.»

However, as Triolo notes, the lower the level of immigration, the more the Swiss would have to step in – whether by taking on a higher workload or retiring later. She says this will probably be necessary anyway, as the pool of workers is shrinking throughout Europe. By 2040, for instance, Italy’s population of working age people will be 18% smaller than today, she notes.

Portuguese workers returning home

Some countries are attracting their emigrants back home with tax incentives – with considerable success, Triolo says. «Between 2017 and 2022, more Portuguese migrants left Switzerland than arrived here,» she notes. «The average age of these returnees was 39.» This is particularly bad news for the Swiss construction industry, she adds, as 30% of employees in this sector come from Portugal.

Indeed, the construction industry is already suffering from the wave of retirements. In a recent study, the Swiss Builders Association warned that the shortage of skilled workers would «intensify very strongly and quickly.» By 2040, 30% more masons and forepersons will be needed than will be available at that time, the study estimates.

Stutz AG’s Meyer hopes to compensate for some of these departures by hiring people who are changing careers. «We also recruit older, experienced people. We just recently hired a 52-year-old crane operator, for instance,» he says. But if it becomes too hard to hire workers, there will be no option other than cutting back on what the company offers, he says. In addition, services would become more expensive. «Our sector is an important pillar of the economy,» says Meyer. «But we cannot build houses without the work done by capable people.»

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