Employment Offices

Since the end of the 19th century, employment offices have assisted those seeking work and monitored the unemployed. In the course of the 20th century, they evolved into significant actors in labour market policy. In the 1990s, they were converted into a network of regional job placement centres.

Those seeking work in the 19th century could in part rely on assistance from commercial job placement offices. Unions, associations and charitable organisations also also provided such services. However, the private offices only brokered job placements in certain professions, favoured particular groups of people, or demanded payment for what were in part dubious services. The workers concerned therefore increasingly called for free public job placement services. Middle-class parties also supported public employment offices, as this might reduce the influence of the trade unions. International social reform networks, and later the International Labour Organisation, likewise supported introducing public employment offices.

The first public job placement agencies were established in the 1880s in St. Gallen, Bern, Basel, Schaffhausen, Biel, Geneva, Winterthur and Zurich. In 1903, 11 such employment agencies founded the Association of Swiss Employment Offices; the Zurich employment office provided coordination. The association published supraregional lists of vacant positions and recorded the number of those seeking work in statistics; these later became an important tool in labour market policy. After 1910, employment offices began receiving federal subsidies for up to a third of their operating costs. All 25 cantons, as well as 50 municipalities, had employment offices by 1926. 

Public and private job placement agencies and offices also monitored those who used their services. Unions paid close attention to ensure their members did not incorrectly receive support from union funds. The public employment offices also had a disciplining effect on the unemployed, monitoring, among other things, the food provided to wandering tradesmen who sought work in return for board and lodging.

After the First World War, employment offices were entrusted with the regulatory task of implementing cantonal restrictions on foreign workers. They checked applications sent by companies to the immigration authorities. After 1921, employment offices were coordinated by the Federal Labour Office, and by the Federal Office for Industry, Commerce and Labour after 1930. Due to unemployment immediately following the war, and increasingly during the 1930s, employment offices monitored those who received welfare or unemployment benefits. They also carried out retraining programmes and helped implement infrastructure projects (public relief works) whose main purpose was to occupy the unemployed. During the Second World War, the employment offices participated in organising the compulsory ‘work service obligation’ (Arbeitsdienstpflicht) as well as voluntary work schemes to ensure national food self-sufficiency.

A period of strong economic growth dawned after 1945 and it lasted until the recession of 1974/1975. As a result of the positive employment situation, the employment offices became less focused on job placement and monitoring the unemployed, while combatting the negative consequences of the economic boom became more urgent. A great deal of time and costs were expended on checking the work permits of foreign workers, large numbers of whom were employed as cross-border commuters, seasonal workers and resident foreign nationals. Political campaigns sought to reduce the number of foreign workers; and they had an effect on Swiss immigration policy and the expenditure of employment offices in the 1960s. Measures were taken against so-called ‘economic overheating’, resulting in limits to the number of permits issued. In some cantons, the employment offices were also tasked with enacting policies to address the lack of housing that had arisen due to the growth in population caused by the booming economy.

The 1974-75 recession marked the return of unemployment as a pressing concern for employment offices and workers alike. On the one hand, the Confederation took measures to limit the renewal of residence permits for foreign workers. They thereby exported part of the unemployment problem back to the countries the workers had come from. On the other hand, by 1976 it had also introduced compulsory unemployment insurance. The 1982 Unemployment Insurance Act likewise made it possible to use funds from the unemployment insurance program for labour market measures lying within the sphere of competence of the cantonal employment offices. As the employment situation rapidly improved, however, few such ‘preventive measures’ were taken.

Mass unemployment in the early 1990s, and the return of structural unemployment (amounting to several percentage points) led to a complete revision of the Unemployment Insurance Act. The job placement service was also fundamentally restructured in the process. The new situation on the labour market made it clear that the previous system of job placement and advice for the unemployment– carried out in many places without qualified personnel – was no longer adequate. In consequence, the Unemployment Insurance Act of 1995 obliged cantons to introduce regional job placement centres (RAV) in place of the municipal employment offices; their funding was guaranteed by the national unemployment insurance programme. In addition, only those who actively sought a new job would receive daily allowances, in accordance with the ‘activation’ principle. The range of labour market measures available to the cantons was to be increased and regularly implemented. 

The RAV began their work in 1996-97, advising those seeking work, monitoring the recipients of unemployment insurance benefits, maintaining their contacts with employers, associations, unions and charitable organisations, and also determining which labour market measures were necessary. The Federal Office for the Economy and Labour (BWA) assumed responsibility for coordinating the employment offices in 1998; this responsibility was ceded to the State Secretariat for the Economy (SECO) in 1999.  

Literatur / Bibliographie / Bibliografia / References: Verband Schweizerischer Arbeitsämter (2004): 100 Jahre Verband Schweizerischer Arbeitsämter (VSAA), Bern ; Stüdli Beat (2013), Vergangenheit mit Zukunft. 100 Jahre Baselbieter Arbeitswelt. Das Kantonale Amt für Industrie, Gewerbe und Arbeit 1913-2013, Liestal ; Tabin Jean-Pierre, Togni Carola (2013), L’assurance chômage en Suisse. Une socio-histoire (1924-1982), Lausanne.