For 70K Italians, a work commute to Switzerland

JON VAN HOUSEN and MARIELLA RADAELLI

Every day some 70,000 Italians living in northern Italy commute to work in Switzerland. Making Swiss salaries while enjoying the Italian way of life might sound like a great fit.

For many, no doubt it is, but others say they face forms of discrimination. Despite the theories of economists and promises by politicians on European unity, workers are hitting the hard reality of ancient differences in lands historically separated by cultures and language.
Italian electric cars
Tolerated as a fact of economic necessity but not always welcomed: Language, driving habits and even culinary preferences continue to divide the continent.

Over the past few years the biggest story in Europe has been the refugee crisis. Millions fleeing conflict or economic desperation have found their way to the continent, then faced more hardship, possible prejudice and loss of identity as they attempt to adapt. It is the tale of the displaced since time immemorial.

But another form of dislocation is a part of daily life in Europe within its internal borders. On working days some 1.5 million Europeans commute to another country to work and then return home. Known as frontier or cross-border workers, they too can face alienation as outsiders in their host work country.

Leaders of the grand experiment in European Union began the first steps to break down barriers and borders in 1950 following the nationalistic conflicts of WWII. By the time the EU was established in its full form in 1993, member countries had fully committed to integration.

But “there is a growing xenophobic sentiment”, says Paolo Barcella, a history professor at the University of Bergamo who recently organized an international symposium on the issue. “Resentment is strengthened by the feeling that cross-border workers tend to create tensions in the labor markets of their host countries.”

Workers from northern Italy have been traveling to the Ticino region of Switzerland in since the 1950s, but their numbers boomed in the ’60s. Agreements between Switzerland, the EU and Italy have codified the arrangement. Today the daily commute continues, but cultural tensions remain.

Under European Commission treaties, individuals are entitled to move freely from one EU member state to another for work without discrimination in hiring or pay. A recent study by the commission noted that frontier workers are a very small part of the overall labor force, but they are a litmus test of sorts on whether the EU truly implements universal rights.

“The phenomenon is more significant in terms of indicating the progress and limitations of European integration in connection with the achievements in freedom of movement for people,” said the study.

Five countries — France, Italy, Belgium, Germany and Austria — are the most important “suppliers” of cross-border labor. And five countries — Switzerland, Luxembourg, Germany, Monaco and the Netherlands — are the main importers.

France is the biggest “exporter” of cross-border labor in Europe with some 179,000 French nationals working in neighboring countries, most of them in Switzerland and Germany. France is followed by Italy and its 70,000 cross-border workers in Switzerland.

As a share of the overall population, the ratio of cross-border work commuters is particularly high in Slovakia (5.7 percent), Estonia (3.5 percent), Hungary (2.4 percent) and Belgium (2.3 percent).

Driving the phenomenon is “an important gap between labor conditions and living costs in two neighboring countries”, says Barcella. The pay is much higher in Switzerland and the cost of living significantly lower in Italy, so tens of thousands in northern Italy travel across the border every working day.

Because Switzerland is not a member of the EU, bilateral agreements govern the details. Many times workers must have a contract and work permit and “historically live within 20 kilometers of the border”, says the professor. Other regulations govern how much tax is paid and benefits received in respective countries.

With open borders yet different tax and benefit regimes in each country, the EU has developed a range of special work regulations. One is for the airline industry whose workers are so mobile it was hard to define their tax home. A regulation was needed to close a loophole that enabled some low-cost airlines to pick country with the least costly and generous social security systems and apply those to their crew.

It defined their tax and benefit home as the place they normally start and end their work day. Irish media reported that the new rules could mean Ryanair would face rising social welfare costs as 8,500 cabin crew and pilots at the low-cost carrier now have Irish work contracts.

Frontier workers also face many of the same obstacles as transient workers such as knowledge of the local language and difficulty in getting degrees and occupational qualifications recognized in the host work country. But according to the European Trade Union Syndicate, frontier workers “are the ones most exposed to forms of indirect discrimination — those which most often go unnoticed and are the most difficult to eradicate”.

Simply put they are tolerated as a fact of economic necessity but not always welcomed. Language, dress and even culinary preferences continue to divide the continent.

But there are examples of beneficial synergy, says Barcella. In the border town of Neuchâtel, the Swiss government finances French nationals to study watchmaking to develop skills needed make the country’s iconic timepieces.

A version of this story appeared in the Khaleej Times of Dubai.