Mothers, Fathers and Children

The Swiss welfare state cares for mothers, fathers and children in various ways. The factory laws contained special provisions for children and mothers, while family protection focused on the traditional family unit. In more recent decades, day care centres and maternity insurance have improved the reconciliation of work and family life.

Mothers, children and fathers are affected insofar as family and maternity are considered a social risk. Relevant protective measures have been introduced in a range of different historical contexts, varying greatly in both means and purpose.

Protection of Children and Female Workers in Factory Laws

Child labour was an everyday fact of life for various social groups until well into the 19th century. In agriculture, children worked from an early age, assuming an important role in housekeeping and on the farm. As from the beginning of the industrialisation, children also earned a wage outside of the home. The physical and temporal burden of child workers as young as six to ten years old, for example in textile factories, was significant and impacted their schooling as well as physical and intellectual development. In the 19th century, bourgeois social reformers started to criticise child labour in the industrial sector. As a consequence, it was gradually restricted first by cantonal and later by federal factory laws. The Federal Factory Act of 1877 banned children under 14 years of age from working; however, it only affected factory work and ignored paid domestic work and agriculture.

The Factory Act also stipulated special protection for women. Its initial emphasis was placed on protecting pregnant women and young mothers. The Factory Act of 1877 provided an 8-week period of leave for mothers, six of which had to follow birth. In addition, the Federal Council determined industrial branches in which pregnant women were not permitted to work. Furthermore, working on Sundays was prohibited and night time work was banned. These regulations applied for all women, thereby discriminating against them in relation to men on the labour market, particularly in the metal and machinery industry. Moreover, the Factory Act did not provide for loss of income and therefore remained rather double-edged for the women afforded protection. Pregnant women and new mothers were now obliged to enter unpaid maternity leave. It was up to the women and their families to bridge the income gap. The Health and Accident Insurance Act (KUVG) of 1911 offered some relief. The act afforded insured new mothers the benefits they would receive in case of illness for a period of six months. Depending on the insurance scheme, benefits included nursing care or a sickness allowance. However, only a small fraction of women had any form of health insurance at the time, meaning broad swathes of the female population did not benefit from these improvements in provision.

The spread of waged work in the 19th century also consolidated gender roles; women would typically handle the housework and cared for the children, while men took on the role of breadwinner for the family. Women therefore became increasingly financially dependent on their husbands. The general provisions of the Factory Act applied to men only. Fathers were afforded no special protection in comparison to men without children.

Family Protection: Strengthening the Traditional Family Model

In the 1930s, debates on social policy increasingly revolved around the appropriate protection of the family unit. Improving family protection was a long-standing concern of Catholic policymakers. As an indirect consequence of an initiative put forward by the Catholic Conservative Party (CVP) CVP family protection was enshrined in the constitution in 1945. It promoted the traditional family model and put other forms of family at a disadvantage. The constitutional article stipulated the introduction of family allowances and a maternity insurance. Both were only implemented decades later. During the first two decades after the war, all cantons introduced family allowances, later followed in some places by birth and education allowances. Family allowances were managed by private and public compensation funds. At the national level, minimal standards for family allowances were only introduced in 2006. 

Political debates regarding the economic protection of the family likewise particularly concerned the contradiction between individual and social wages. The question was whether wages should merely reward work performance (individual wage) or encompass social commitments associated with providing for a family (social wage) as well. The concept of the family wage based on the salary of the father as well as the number of children, and was met with the approval of Catholic conservatives in particular. Defenders of the individual wage included the unions and employers, as well as women’s organisations which campaigned against the unequal pay of men and women. That said, women’s organizations were also in favour of compensating family commitments with special allowances. 

Against the backdrop of the economic crisis in the 1930s, conservative and left wing groups campaigned against double-income households. They considered the employment of qualified, married women in the public sector to be a particular bane. While conservatives promoted the bourgeois gender roles of a ‘breadwinner’ and a housewife, the left levied criticism against the high earnings of double-income households in the upper echelons of society. 

Maternity Insurance: Recognition of Women’s Work 

Maternity insurance was introduced in 2004, almost 60 years after the family protection article was added to the constitution. Previous attempts to introduce the insurance had failed in 1987 and 1999 due to opposition against working mothers (for ideological reasons, linked to the upholding traditional family values) as well as reservations regarding the fiscal costs of the policy. While family allowances strengthened the traditional family model and reduced the incentive for married women to work, maternity insurance generally facilitated the reconciliation of work and motherhood. It is funded through the income compensation scheme and compensates new mothers for 80 percent of their lost income for a period of 14 weeks. The introduction of maternity insurance signified a major recognition of women employment. 

Childcare: The Challenges of Reconciling Work and Family 

The reconciliation of work and family life for women and men depends not only on maternity insurance, but also on the availability of affordable childcare outside the family. If no affordable childcare is available, it is typically the mother who stops working to look after her child, resulting in inequality of opportunity between men and women. From an economic perspective, this can exacerbate the shortage of workers. Since affordable childcare outside the family is not always available, single mothers and families with many children are particularly exposed to a higher risk of poverty (the so-called ‘new poverty’ issue).

Childcare centres can be public or private and they may or may not receive public subsidies. They are more widespread in urban areas than in rural regions. The lack of childcare outside of the family (crèches, day care centres, day care families, day care schools etc.) led to a public debate about the availability of childcare in the 1990s. Consequently, Parliament resolved to subsidise childcare facilities. The corresponding programme entered into force in 2003 and was extended in 2011 and 2015, which ensured a further increase in childcare supply.

Fathers involved in childrearing are also affected by the difficulties of reconciling work and family life. That said, women are still far more involved housekeeping and raising children. Various ideas about introducing a paternity leave, or creating a parental leave that could be divided between mothers and fathers, have increasingly been discussed in recent years.

Literatur / Bibliographie / Bibliografia / References: Gaby Sutter (2005), Berufstätige Mütter. Subtiler Wandel der Geschlechterordnung in der Schweiz (1945-1970), Zürich; Wecker Regina, Studer Brigitte, Sutter Gaby (2001), Die « schutzbedürftige Frau » : Zur Konstruktion vonGeschlecht durch Mutterschaftsversicherung, Nachtarbeitsverbot und Sonderschutzgesetzgebung,Zürich; Aebi Alain, Dessoulavy Danielle, Scenini Romana (1994), La politique familiale et son arlésienne: L'assurance-maternité, Genève.