A Swiss vote is attracting global attention

What would you do if you were paid 2500 per month to do nothing
Voices Opinion Wednesday, May 25, 2016 - 15:38

The Swiss are currently working their hearts and minds through a spirited debate. On June 5, 2016, they will vote on whether or not to pay people $2,500 per month for doing nothing. A typical dining table conversation goes something like this. Person A cannot decide how to vote and wonders if the salary/dole will hit productivity and encourage a sense of entitlement. Person B asks which is worse, the state bailing out corrupt banks for billions of dollars or helping people stay out of poverty. Conclusion – it’s not as simple as that.  Democracy is a responsibility and the Swiss take that very seriously.

Consider this. Some 2.8 billion people in the world survive on less that $2 a day. An estimated 276 million Indians – 34 times the population of Switzerland or a little over four times the population of the United Kingdom – live below $1.25 per day. One billion people in the world have no access to safe drinking water. Viewed against this, the Swiss vote to peg a basic minimum salary at $30,000 per year might seem ridiculous, but that figure is just a few hundred dollars over the poverty line in the country which was $29,501 in 2014.

The Swiss debate has caught the attention of lawmakers in Canada, the Netherlands and there’s a Finnish experiment along the same lines underway. The Swiss government is opposing the popular initiative calling it demotivating and detrimental to the country’s economic interests now struggling with a high Swiss Franc. “We’ve come to the conclusion that such an initiative could weaken our economy,” Interior Minister Alan Berset told Swiss media.

While the external image of the country is that of a population eating chocolates and swimming in cheese and bank notes and gnomes shuffling in and out of banks, the Swiss are a very hard working people, their work ethic comparable only to the German one in productivity. The country regularly tops global competitive and innovation charts and for an economy that is heavily services-driven, this ethic has resulted in over ten global brands from a population of some eight million. It is not uncommon to see top executives at their desks by 7 am pulling 14 hour-days on a regular basis. Free money is tantamount to begging in this background. Social service workers say it is very difficult for the Swiss to even claim what is rightfully their social benefit as that signals a lazy person. 

While polls show that some 60 per cent of the population is opposing the move and the vote will most certainly fail, the discussion comes at a time when European politics is experiencing serious turbulence with job cuts, a refugee crisis, terrorism and indifferent leadership. The idea of a basic common income has been a subject for some years and former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis called it a necessity as automation and robots eliminate jobs. “A rich country like Switzerland has the great opportunity to try out this great experiment,” he said.

In Switzerland’s direct democracy, people vote a lot.  Anyone can start a petition and 100,000 signatures later, the issue can be put to vote. A typical Swiss voting document can have several issues facing the ballot each time and appropriate documentation is mailed to voters well in advance of voting day. Many post their votes on their way to work.

According to the National Statistics Bureau, one in eight people in Switzerland lives below the poverty line in 2016 and one in five over 65 is at the risk of being poor. The vote allocates a quarter of the minimum salary for every child and it is silent on conditions under which non-citizens would qualify. The initiators of the basic minimum salary vote have said the amount they have mentioned should allow people to have a decent existence. The annual $30,000 they are asking for is just above the 2014 poverty line of $29, 501.

For a people who once voted against having more vacations, the thought of getting paid to do nothing is irksome.  This is a country where everything that is not mandatory is obligatory. Once you have figured that out, the outcome of next month’s vote will be clear.