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EXPLAINED: How much do foreign workers in Switzerland earn?

A government report released in 2019 compared the salaries of Swiss employees with those of foreign workers in the country. Here is what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: How much do foreign workers in Switzerland earn?
Lugano in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. File photo: AFP

The figures on wages are contained in the 2019 annual report on the impact of the free movement of persons treaty between Switzerland and the EU produced by the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco).

These yearly reports play a key role in the ongoing political debate over the impact of this immigration in Switzerland.

A rosy picture of immigration

The 2019 edition (here in French), released in July, shows there was net migration of 31,200 from the EU/EFTA area in 2018 – little changed from the 2017 figure of 31,250 but it’s a long way down from the record high of 68,000 in 2013 when the global financial crisis was in full swing.

In comments made to the press at the time Seco director Marie-Gabrielle Ineichen-Fleisch admitted that the Swiss–EU freedom of movement treaty is “controversial” and that not all groups within society benefit equally from the regime.

Nonetheless, her agency’s report paints a generally glowing picture of the role played by foreign workers in the Swiss economy.

Swiss salaries: What wages can you expect when working in Switzerland?

It argues these workers have provided a valuable shot in the arm for the Swiss economy by giving the country’s firms “uncomplicated” access to the foreign labour needed to make up for local skills shortages while counteracting the effects of an ageing domestic population.

The average age of EU/EFTA workers in Switzerland in 2017 was just over 30, while two thirds were between the ages of 18 and 41.

Unemployment among foreign workers

At the same time, the labour force participation rate of EU/EFTA workers aged 15 to 64 in 2018 was actually higher than that of Swiss workers – 87.3 percent against 84.6 percent.

In terms of unemployment, the news is not so positive. EU/EFTA workers are more likely to be out of work with their jobless rate at 6.1 percent compared to 3.5 percent for Swiss workers. However, there are big differences between nationalities here.

For Germans in Switzerland, the jobless rate in Switzerland was just 2.7 percent last year. For the French, it was 6.7 percent and for the Portuguese it was 7.4 percent.

A “very small” wage difference between Swiss workers and foreigners

Crucially, the report argues that the introduction of the free movement of persons treaty between Switzerland and the EU has not pushed down the wages of the local population – a major concern for many given traditionally high Swiss salaries.

Overall, the difference in wages between people who immigrated to Switzerland from the European Union and EFTA states between 2010 and 2018 and people based in the country before that date was “very small” – just 0.4 percent, according to SECO.

Workers from northern/western Europe – who are generally highly qualified and who are more likely to be in management positions – earn an average 13.5 percent more than Swiss workers in overall terms.

Read also: Three Swiss cities named Europe’s priciest for foreign workers

This equates to two percent once “explainable factors” including age, education levels, sector, years of experience and level of responsibility are taken into account.

By contrast, workers from southern Europe earn 18.7 percent less than Swiss employees – or 4.3 percent less once explainable factors are accounted for.

Meanwhile workers from eastern Europe – who are also generally well-qualified but who, according to Seco, are often not employed in their field of choice – take home 9.8 percent an hour less than Swiss workers, or 5.9 percent after explainable factors.

For people from outside the EU/EFTA area (so-called third nationals), the difference is an overall 18.8 percent in favour of Swiss workers, or 6.7 percent after explainable factors (35 francs an hour, or around €31.40 an hour, against 40.9 francs an hour).

Swiss debate over immigration

The upbeat Seco report comes in the context of a long-running debate over freedom of movement in Switzerland.

The government recognises that freedom of movement is essential to the Swiss economy and to the country’s relations with the EU but the right-wing Swiss People’s Party – the country’s largest – has consistently pushed for immigration to be restricted.

Read also: Explained – what it’s really like working in Switzerland

In 2014, Swiss voters backed an SVP initiative to implement immigration quotas at a referendum but the government watered down the proposal over fears it would seriously damage Switzerland’s relations with the EU.

The resulting measures oblige firms to advertise open positions in occupations with high unemployment via regional unemployment (RAV/ORP) offices for five working days before they are advertised publicly in a bid to give Swiss-based workers first bite of the cherry.

But a frustrated SVP has now launched a new initiative calling for an end to the Swiss–EU freedom of movement treaty.

The situation is made even more complicated by the fact that Bern is currently trying to hammer out a deal on future bilateral relations with Brussels.

Among the major stumbling blocks is the possible threat to Switzerland’s wage protection measures. Unions fear any future deal that does not guarantee the future existence of these measures might see the country’s workers taking a hit to the hip pocket.

Read also: An essential guide to Swiss work permits 

A version of this article was first published in July 2019

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For members


What are the best ways to search for your next job in Switzerland?

Looking for a new job in Switzerland? We've put together some tips on where to search for that new role.

What are the best ways to search for your next job in Switzerland?

The good news is that, as a country that serves as a world centre of finance, pharmaceuticals, and research, Switzerland offers an environment very friendly to English speakers. Unlike some European countries, hiring is a flexible and open process. 

That said, some hints will help you in your Swiss job search. 

Know where to look 

Before beginning your job search, knowing where most of your industry’s jobs are is essential. 

As The Local Switzerland has previously discussed, Zurich is Switzerland’s financial capital, whereas most pharmaceutical players are based in Basel. 

The life sciences are concentrated in ‘Health Valley’, stretching from Geneva to Montreaux. 

Geneva, Zurich, Lausanne, Bern, Basel, and St Gallen also have large universities that employ many researchers from abroad. 

Knowing where jobs are based will allow you to concentrate your search, and give you the time to more fully research and understand the needs of particular companies.

READ MORE: Where are the jobs in Switzerland for English speakers?

Develop your Xing as well as your LinkedIn profile

Most job seekers within professional working environments will have a LinkedIn profile to share with prospective employers. 

Xing is also a significant player in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, and it’s normal for German-speaking professionals to have an accompanying profile on that platform. 

Developing your presence on Xing can demonstrate that you are gaining a greater understanding of the Swiss working environment and establishing yourself as a long-term investment. 

READ MORE: Can you find a job in Zurich if you don’t speak German?

Use specialised job boards 

While many of the big job boards operate in Switzerland—Indeed and Monster, for example—several job boards focus on Swiss jobs specifically or service a key segment of the job market.,, and Jobscout24 are popular sites within Switzerland and are often the first port of call for job seekers. Each has an English version and a user-friendly interface.

Several specialist job boards exist for specialised roles, such as those in the IT or medical research sectors.

Using a profession-based job board allows employers to draw from a more concentrated talent pool while offering job seekers a more significant opportunity to showcase their knowledge and skills. is a popular destination for IT professionals, whereas specialises in pharmaceutical and medical research jobs. is an excellent place to look for C-suite jobs in the finance and banking sectors. 

Networking is essential 

While there is often a perception that job hunting in Switzerland is very process-oriented, you may be surprised to learn that many positions are filled via word of mouth. 

Suppose you have friends or former colleagues already found a position within a Swiss firm. In that case, asking what positions are opening and whether you could apply is not unreasonable or rude. 

Word of mouth and hiring through connections are common in the Swiss IT field, but they are also common within several other industries, particularly among startups. 

Read More: Where are Switzerland’s biggest international companies?

Use your initiative 

You may also be surprised to hear that simply applying to a firm with your resume isn’t looked down upon in Switzerland (or the German-speaking world). 

This is known as an Initiativbewerbung (or simply ‘application on the initiative’), and employers often regard it very favourably.

To make an Initiativbewerbung, you’ll need your Anschreiben or lettre de motivation (cover letter), Lebenslauf or resume (curriculum vitae or CV), testimonials from other employers, and copies of any relevant certificates or qualifications. 

When naming these files, remember to use the German terms—it will help when they are searched for later!

It’s worth taking the time to identify and address your application directly to the head or manager of the particular department you’re looking to work within. This will create a stronger impression, and there’s less chance of losing it in the daily flow of emails and information.