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How hard is finding work in Zurich without speaking German?

With a strong and resilient job market, Zurich is a major destination for international workers. But how important is speaking German - and can you get by if you only speak English?

A woman drinks a cup of tea while looking at her laptop
Are you looking for work in Zurich? Here's what you need to know. Photo by Dai KE on Unsplash

Living and working in Zurich offers many draw cards from high salaries, a favourable work-life balance and international working environment.

In addition to the economic power of the city, which contributes an estimated 20 percent of the overall Swiss GDP, Zurich has additional permits available to attract foreign workers. 

‘It’s competitive’: Essential advice for how to find a job in Zurich

But how important is speaking German – or indeed any Swiss language – when working in Zurich? 

Can you get by in Zurich without speaking German? 

The greater Zurich metropolitan area includes an estimated 1.6 million people, making it one of the largest German-speaking cities in the world. 

However, with half of population of the city’s urban area foreign, Zurich has an International feel. 

Indeed, it is not unusual to be asked to order in English at bars, cafes and restaurants in central areas of the city, due to the influx of foreign workers in the hospitality industry. 

Given the prevalence of English and English-speaking workers in the city, it is certainly possible to get by if you only speak English in Zurich. 

In addition to ordering in English, officials such as police officers and administrative staff at the town hall will also speak English or at least be able to direct you to someone who does. 

The same goes for private entities such as insurance companies, as well as utility companies for gas and electricity. 

Many official communications such as those from the cantonal government are also made in English. 

Can you work in Zurich without speaking German? 

Of course, the main element here is what industry you work in. English teachers will find it easier to get by in Zurich without German than emergency room nurses. 

Nikolaus Schönecker, Senior Team Lead at Hays in Zurich specialises in filling permanent roles in the IT sector. 

“The amount of roles not requiring German or Swiss German is increasing, since many companies are realising this is the only way to challenge the shortage of experts,” he says. Nevertheless, having even rudimentary language skills can set you apart from other foreign candidates.

Working remotely from Switzerland: What are the rules for foreigners?

“Show your willingness to learn German. If you aim to be able to follow business meetings in German at a B1 level and reply in English, the barriers will be lower.” 

Stephan Surber, Senior Partner at Page Executive Switzerland, advises job-hunters to connect with the local expat community as well as country-related networking organisations such as the Chambers of Commerce. 

Most of these groups including AmCham, Swiss-Chinese Chamber of Commerce and the Swedish-Swiss Chamber of Commerce also publish a list of its members online, which may be a good guide to finding international firms based in Zurich. 

He also suggests jobseekers to target expert networks such as the CFA or ACCA community for financial analysts and accountants. 

EXPLAINED: Which Swiss cantons have a minimum wage?

There are many English-language job portals on hand such as jobsinzurich.com, LinkedIn and The Local’s own search engine. But experts we spoke to said that recruitment agencies or headhunters could prove useful in finding hidden opportunities that are not yet on the market.

They can also provide feedback on interviews and ask their clients questions that a direct candidate would not usually get to ask. 

And if you eventually find yourself across an interviewer, aim to be modest and genuine. “Although self-confidence can surely help in most jobs, most Swiss people dislike bragging and overstating,” reminds Schönecker. “So try to show your best side in a realistic way.” 

What do the Local’s readers say? 

In January, 2022, The Local asked its readers about finding work in Zurich – with the importance of English a major factor. 

Generally speaking, the reader responses reflect those of the experts – that speaking German can be crucial at times, but is not necessary. 

Two thirds (66.67%) of the 30 respondents told us it was “very important” to speak German/Swiss German to find a job in Zurich. 

Just under a third said it was “beneficial but not necessary” while one respondent said it was “unimportant”. 

Have you found work in Zurich without speaking German? Or have you not? Get in touch with us at [email protected]. 

How do I find an English-speaking job in Switzerland? 

Other than contacting companies and organisations directly, you can go through a recruitment agencies such as Adecco or Manpower. If they find you a job you will not have to pay anything; the employer will be charged for their services.

There are other resources as well where you can do your own search.

First and foremost is The Local’s own search engine where industries are listed by categories.

Other resources include Jobs.ch and Glassdoor.

A more in-depth summary of how to find English-speaking work in Switzerland is available here. 

READ MORE: How to find English language jobs in Switzerland

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ZURICH

4,000 francs a month: Zurich set to introduce minimum wage

Switzerland’s largest — and most expensive — city is seeking to introduce a minimum hourly salary from 2024.

4,000 francs a month: Zurich set to introduce minimum wage

In 2022, a committee composed of left-wing parties and trade unions submitted to the city council an initiative called “A wage to live,” which called for a minimum hourly wage of 23 francs per hour to be introduced in Zurich.

Municipal councillors countered with an even better proposal last week, upping the amount to an inflation-adjusted minimum wage of 23.90 per hour — 4,000 francs a month. 

This wage is intended mainly for an estimated 17,000 low-income Zurich residents, two-thirds of whom are women.

The minimum salary “will relieve many of those affected by low wages in the city of Zurich – employees at fast food chains, cleaning companies, and those working in retail”, said Oliver Heimgartner from the local Social Democratic Party.

However, there may still be hurdles to overcome before the proposed minimum wage becomes law in Zurich, as it cannot be excluded that right-wing groups, which oppose minimum wages, will launch a referendum on this issue.

“A minimum wage jeopardises jobs and harms the economy,” MP Susanne Brunner from the populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP) said.

In addition, she pointed out that a municipal minimum wage – that is, one that applies only to the city and not to the entire canton – is a “bureaucratic nightmare.”

If the initiative does go through in Zurich, the city will join five Swiss cantons where minimum wage is already a rule.

Geneva has what has been called the “world’s highest minimum wage” — 24 francs an hour, which was raised from 23 francs in 2020 and 23.27 francs in 2022, to adjust for inflation. 

The Swiss city of Zurich.

The Swiss city of Zurich. Photo by Ilia Bronskiy on Unsplash

Next is Basel-City, which has set its wage at 21 francs an hour, while Neuchâtel and Jura set at 20, and Ticino, at 19.75.

These salaries, negotiated by unions on behalf of workers, reflect the cost of living in each of these regions.

In all these cantons, as elsewhere in Switzerland, most people earn more than the minimum.

Unlike many other countries, Switzerland doesn’t have a nationally mandated minimum wage.

That does not, however, mean that companies are free to pay their workers as much — or as little — as they want.

Instead, the minimum amount is determined through negotiations between employers and unions  — the so-called  collective labour agreement (CLA).

Generally speaking, CLAs cover a minimum wage for each type of work; regulations relating to work hours; payment of wages in the event of illness or maternity; vacation and days off; and protection against dismissal. 

CLAs are sector-specific; in other words, they take into account the particular aspects of each branch. As an example, Switzerland’s largest labour union, The Swiss Federation of Trade Unions (UNIA), maintains 265 collective agreements in the areas of industry and construction.

READ MORE: What is a Swiss collective bargaining agreement — and how could it benefit you?

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