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What issues should an expat be aware of?

When you arrive in Switzerland, you are faced with a lot that is new. The question of work obviously raises its head: What regulations exist? What obligations exist? What is different about Switzerland?


In a country where only 2.4% of the working population is unemployed1, it may be difficult to focus on the steps to take in the event of unemployment, especially given that the very notion of expatriation suggests a certain level of job stability.

Flexibility, the cornerstone of the system

This figure, tantamount to full employment, is the result of several factors:

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Strong industry that has specialised in value-added sectors, i.e. watchmaking, finance, pharmaceuticals, etc.

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Low density

A low population density that struggles to meet all requirements

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Greater flexibility at work

This last point is reflected in very liberal regulations, for both the employee and the employer, when it comes to signing and terminating employment contracts.

Even if provisions exist to regulate termination on both sides (notice periods, etc.), the freedom to terminate remains key because it is not necessary to give reasons to hand in one's notice. Only unjustified dismissal, in particular that in particular those inherent to employee's personality and unrelated to work, dismissal with immediate effect that is unjustified and untimely dismissal (employees’ pregnancy, illness, etc.) are subject to a sanction.

This flexibility is also in practice at the time of hire (in particular to bolster a sector of activity on a temporary basis by recruiting foreign workers) or on a daily basis thanks to the widespread practice of flexible working hours, part-time work or on-the-job training.

Employment contract, Collective Labour Agreement and the Swiss Code of Obligations

In Switzerland, employment law is based on many sources.

Swiss Code of Obligations (CO)

The Swiss Code of Obligations (CO) lists and provides a framework for many fundamental points underlining the obligations of the employer and employee. It is the basis for the employment contract between the employer and the employee.

Employment law

Another pillar of this system is employment law. The purpose of this law is to protect the employee's health, whether purely in terms of health or provisions applicable to working hours and breaks.

Collective Labour Agreement (CLA)

At the same time, some sectors refer to collective labour agreements guaranteeing a minimum level of service to the employee depending on the particular characteristics of the sector in question. In particular, there are benefits relating to additional leave days, salary, social protection, etc.

Collective labour agreements are commonplace in Switzerland and allow a certain level of social security in the sense that they are negotiated between the employer's representative(s) and a trade union (or several).

It is important for each employee to carefully review the clauses of his or her employment contract and potentially the collective labour agreement.

Working time and annual leave

The provisions relating to working time are generally specified in your employment contract. However, according to Article 9 of the Swiss Employment Law Act an employee may work a maximum of 45 or 50 hours per week depending on his or her sector of activity. The daily rest time must be at least 11 consecutive hours.

Annual leave may vary from one company to another. Legislation provides for a minimum of four weeks per year. It is quite common for employers to allocate a quota above the legal minimum (usually five weeks). Depending on length of service or Collective Labour Agreements, employees may benefit from a higher number of annual leave days. Public holidays are not counted as ‘annual leave days’. The numbers of public holidays varies from canton to canton, with up to a maximum of eight per year in addition to 1 August (Switzerland’s national day).

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In a referendum held on 12 March 2012, citizens rejected an initiative to increase holidays to a minimum of six weeks per year.

Absences: illnesses, children, etc.

A number of life events can lead to absences from work. Some are authorised by law, others are not.

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Sick leave must be paid by the employer just like maternity leave or the fulfilment of an obligation like military service. Please note that the minimum requirements for compensation in the event of incapacity to work due to illness vary from one canton to another. The SECO website clearly explains these compensation periods, which vary according to your length of service with the company.

An employee presenting a medical certificate indicating X days' leave must not report to work before the end of the leave.

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Personal life

Other reasons indirectly related to your personal life may entitle you to a leave of absence.

Some contracts, agreements or staff regulations explicitly provide for annual leave for life events such as a wedding, move, birth or the death of a relative.

For sick children, the law provides for paid leave of up to three days upon presentation of a medical certificate. For more complex cases, provisions may be amended.

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Breakdowns etc

Absences related to everyday events such as commutes or inconvenient power cuts on Monday or Friday mornings are unfortunately not taken into account by the employer.

Luckily, increasing numbers of companies are offering their employees greater flexibility at work, e.g. teleworking.

Work certificate: A unique feature of Swiss working life

The employer must provide the employee with a work certificate. This document is systematically requested during a job change since it provides an objective overview of the employee's professional skills and conduct in relation to his or her duties.

It is advisable to ask your employer for an interim certificate when changing managers or roles.

Your employer must issue a certificate in line with reality. It is entirely possible to dispute certain terms used if you believe they do not reflect the reality of the situation.

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Legend has it that a special ‘HR’ language exists when it comes to work certificates that translates into a recommendation for the prospective employer! Accordingly, you must show outstanding behaviour in your daily work environment.

1 Source: SECO report ‘Labour market conditions’ - June 2018.

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