On Sunday, 11th March, the Swiss were once again called to the ballot box regarding the increase of the national minimum holiday period from the current four weeks to six. Flying in the face of every notion of increased competition and working times, it begs the question of whether any country in the developed West can afford this luxury in times of recovery?
The vote was organised by Travail.Suisse, a trade union, supported by various left-wing and green political parties. It was delivered through a referendum, an inherent mechanism of Swiss direct democracy, which is often used for important questions regarding the Confederation’s citizens.
Switzerland remains an exception amidst Europe. It is not a member of the European Union but is a member of the Schengen agreement, therefore benefiting from tariff-free exports to the EU, on which it depends for a lot of its trade. It is also a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), a precursor to the EU of which the UK used to be a member, together with Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.
Whilst benefiting from EU trade, Switzerland has a very different economy. It remains at 3.9% unemployment rate for 2010 and its real GDP growth rate was at 2.6% for the same year. All of this for a small population of 7.9 million. Its wealth is drawn from financial services, watch-making, and precision engineers and manufacturers.
The Confederation is also a form of mini-Europe in itself with a voluntary association of different cantons voluntarily associated during the Middle Ages to resist the bigger Empires that surrounded them. It has now four language communities (French, German, Italian and Romansh) equally represented at the Federal level.
Cantons have important powers to this day and a lot of matters are decided at this level including education and economy (but not fiscal policy). Hence, Switzerland defines itself through common values and the principle of direct democracy with seven ministers at every level is only now being considered reformable.
This brings us to the results of the vote. With a majority of 66.5% saying “No” to the increase in holiday time, the Swiss proved their realism and their will to go against current trends of ‘resisting’ globalisation such as neighbouring France with the 35-hour week.
The real focus should be not on how long or how little a country works in hourly measurement but how much it produces in this given time. The nature of work is changing all over the West and increased competition from Asia and the BRICs means the West needs to work harder just to afford its own lifestyle, let alone growth.
A re-think of what work means is crucial. Few companies have understood this worldwide but multi-national corporations such as Google or PR firms such as Edelman all understand that in order to get the highest productivity, their employees need to be happy. Seen from Korea, with the longest working hours in the OECD and where most employees are only granted 3 to 10 days leave annually (including yours truly), the debate over four to six weeks may seem ludicrous.
On a comparative basis, the Swiss work on average 1,636 hours a year, Koreans 2,193hours, or nearly 75% more. Nobody likes working this much in Korea and indeed, it ranks 32nd on OECD productivity rates for GDP-produced-per-hour-worked, but they fear that resting is seen as a sign of weakness.
Nevertheless, the measurement of this is how a society views itself. The Swiss pride themselves on their work ethic and their productivity, but let us hope that this outcome may also result in challenging ancient norms of work and adapting to the age of the digital and knowledge-based economy.