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OPINION: Swiss childcare culture and divorce laws mean women are losing out

The high costs of childcare in Switzerland, the culture for family-based care and recent Federal Court decisions made in the guise of equality all mean that women in Switzerland are at a disadvantage, Clare O’Dea writes.

OPINION: Swiss childcare culture and divorce laws mean women are losing out
Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash

We don’t think of marriage as an institution that negatively impacts a person’s earning power, but the law has long recognised this feature, taking into account years of unpaid care work and reduced earning capacity in the case of divorce. Now the approach is more cautious.

Previously, settlements between couples were quite traditional, reflecting the model of most families, where one spouse earned most of the family income and one spouse did most of the care and home-related work. 

But recent Swiss Federal Court judgements between 2020 and 2022 reflect a changed approach towards establishing individual financial independence. Now, in normal cases, the lesser-earning spouse is supposed to be able to support herself (mostly wives) fully as soon as possible after divorce.

The principle of financial independence being pushed through on the divorce side ignores the reality for most mothers, who for practical, economic and cultural reasons reduce their – present and future – earning capacity during marriage. Divorced women already had a much higher risk of experiencing poverty than divorced men before this change.

READ ALSO: How do the costs of childcare in Switzerland compare to elsewhere in Europe?

Childcare dynamics

So what’s keeping women in the home? The reluctance of Swiss parents to use external childcare is an interesting phenomenon. Could it be related to the history of poor children forcibly being taken into care or is it simply an expression of conservative values?

Grandparents Day is celebrated on the second Sunday of March in Switzerland. In my local newspaper, the occasion was marked with an article about a grandmother who looks after her two grandchildren up to four day per week. Both her daughters, mothers of the pre-school age children, said they would work less or not at all if they didn’t have this family care arrangement for their children.

The grandmother, who is only 57 years old, has a paid job one day per week. She said she would rather give up that job than miss out on looking after her grandchildren.

This strong preference for family-based care for children is part of the reason why most mothers reduce their working hours significantly after birth. Day care is seen by many parents as less than ideal, an option to be used in small doses to complement family-based or other privately-arranged care.

Added to that cultural barrier, and the short duration of statutory maternity leave (14 weeks), the cost of childcare in Switzerland, which is the second highest of OECD countries, is prohibitive. The net cost of a full-time place in a creche for one child is 26 percent of the average household income of a working couple in Switzerland, second only to New Zealand at 27 percent.

Most OECD members manage to provide childcare that costs less than 15 percent of a couple’s income. Ireland, the UK, New Zealand and Switzerland are the only four countries above the 20 percent mark.

Common problem

Traditional gender-based roles within marriage are alive and kicking in Switzerland. Economically, this is a disadvantage for women, at least on paper. But the disadvantage becomes concrete in the case of divorce. Because when the provider-carer deal is broken, the law is blind to that lack of economic equality.

Divorce is not a rare scenario. The divorce rate in Switzerland was 41.9 percent in 2021 and the average length of marriage at the time of divorce was 15.7 years. A lot can happen in 15.7 years, especially when they are potentially a person’s prime earning years.

The main thrust of the Federal Court decisions on divorce law is a narrowing of the conditions under which the lesser-earning spouse receives maintenance payments. A marriage is no longer automatically considered to be life-shaping (lebensprägend), and therefore creating a right to alimony, just because there are children involved.

The position now is that the spouse who looks after the children during the marriage should stand on their own two feet financially after the marriage ends. This overwhelmingly applies to mothers, most of whom work part-time.

But the change has happened without the necessary progress in the economic situation of women, and as a result, there is now a mismatch between the law and the reality for women.

Poverty trap

The reality is that motherhood in Switzerland usually means losing ground in the workplace, while fatherhood does not. Women generally do more unpaid work at home, whether they have a paid job or not. Most women work part-time and mothers often work in worse-paid jobs than they are qualified for as a result of their interrupted working life.

The net effect of all this is that women are at higher risk of poverty in old age, especially if the provider-carer deal they participate in for several years is shattered by divorce.

I’m all for encouraging women to regain their financial independence after divorce. But not in a way that the structural barriers are ignored.

There are signs of improvement in the area of childcare provision. Full-day schooling is becoming more common, with fewer children needing to return home in the middle of the day. Last September, voters in the city of Zurich approved a plan to offer supervision and a meal to children over the lunch break in all schools by 2025, for instance.

The National Council voted last month in favour of a 710-million-franc package intended to reduce childcare costs for families by 20 percent by 2025. The Council of States, usually more reluctant to spend, still has to vote on the package.

But it will take years for families to actually reap the benefit of these measures, which still only scratch the surface of the problem of economic inequality. In the meantime, women facing divorce need to know that they are on their own, and that neither the state, their ex-partner nor the law will necessarily help them in future. 

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WORKING IN SWITZERLAND

Six ways working in Switzerland is better than in the US

Sometimes it is difficult to compare different systems because much of the context is missing. But when looking at employment conditions in Switzerland and the United States from a purely factual perspective, some conclusions can be drawn.

Six ways working in Switzerland is better than in the US

In terms on politics, social system, demographics, and economy, Switzerland and America are, both literally and figuratively,  worlds apart.

But if you are a US citizen who is moving to Switzerland for professional reasons (and lucky enough to be granted a work permit as a third country national), then you may want to know how the Swiss employment system compares with the American one.

Let’s look at general differences — that is, laws and practices applicable to the working population as a whole, and not just relating to the most fortunate employees like top-level executives, who typically have more benefits than the rank-and-file workers.

Wages

Much depends on your professional level, of course, but generally speaking, on average employees in Switzerland earn more than their US counterparts.

An average annual income in Switzerland is about 80,000 francs, while in the US it amounts to $59,428 (53,000 francs).

You may argue that cost of living is lower in the United States, so the money goes further there. This is true in a general sense, but on the other hand, taxes are lower in Switzerland.

Workers in Switzerland have more statuary protections

Swiss law grants certain rights to its employees, which the US legislation doesn’t.

For instance, Swiss workers are entitled to at least four weeks’ of paid vacation time per year.  

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about annual leave in Switzerland

In the US, on the other hand, there is no statutory minimum paid vacation. Instead, this is left up to the employers’ discretion.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), about one–third of private industry workers received 10 to 14 days of paid vacation after one year of service. After 10 years of service, 33 percent of private industry workers received between 15 and 19 days of paid vacation.

‘Sick days’

Swiss employment law only mandates that employers offer basic paid sick leave: generally, three weeks in your first year in the job, rising with each additional year to around four months max, depending on the canton.

However, many Swiss employers take out insurance that covers a more generous sick pay deal.

In the US, on the other hand, no law guarantees workers a single paid day off, and many aren’t even entitled to unpaid time.

According to BLS, only 77 percent of the private sector workforce has paid sick time. This means that almost one in four workers do not have even a single paid sick day. 

Work-life balance

This phrase is used to describe a division of time between work and leisure activities. This means the ability to successfully combine work, family commitments, and personal life .

Here too, Switzerland (and Europe in general) has a definite edge.

The Better Life Index by the Organisaton for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), found that  “in Switzerland, full-time workers devote a similar amount of their day on average to personal care (eating, sleeping, etc.) and leisure (socialising with friends and family, hobbies, games, computer and television use, etc.) as the OECD average of 15 hours.”  

 In the US, on the other hand, employees devote “less than the OECD average of 15 hours” to their non-work related activities.

Health insurance

Most US residents who are employed get their health insurance through their company.

In Switzerland, on the other hand, individuals are responsible for purchasing their own policies from one of the dozens of insurance providers.

It is difficult to say which approach is better; however, not having one’s health insurance tied to (and dependent on) a specific employer means that a person won’t be left without a coverage if he or she loses their job — even more so, considering how expensive medical care is in the United States.

READ ALSO: How does Switzerland’s healthcare system compare with the US? 

Unemployment benefits

If you have worked — and paid into the Swiss social security system — for 12 months in the past two years, you are entitled to 260 days (approximately 37 weeks) worth of unemployment allowance.

In the case that you had been employed for at least 18 months, you will collect for 400 days.

Workers in most US states, on the other hand, are eligible for only 26 weeks of unemployment allowances.

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