The Unemployed

Changes in unemployment policy during the 20th century have transformed the circumstances of unemployed wage earners. Yet, unemployment affects people differently depending on age, sex and nationality.

Unemployed Workers at the Beginning of the 20th Century

Before the first unemployment funds were set up at the end of the 19th century, unemployment meant poverty. Those affected were supported by their families, charities or state welfare. At first, unemployment funds were provided chiefly by trade unions and primarily insured male workers. Although female workers were not explicitly excluded, they were relatively underrepresented in the funds compared to men. At the beginning of the 20th century, however, insured people of both sexes still constituted a small minority, encompassing less than one tenth of the working population.

The amount and duration of benefit payments were limited by the financial means of the union funds: having to make do without state subsidies or employer contributions, they were funded only by means of membership contributions. In 1918, the daily allowances paid by the largest unemployment fund (set up by the Swiss metal and watch workers’ association, SMUV) amounted to less than half of the daily wage earned by a worker in the watch industry – even though food, clothing and rent accounted for more than two thirds of a working family’s budget. The duration of compensation was also strictly limited. The duration of the compensation granted by the SMUV fund lay between 30 days for people who had been a member for at least one year, and a maximum of 50 days for people who had paid contributions for more than ten years. The unemployed were therefore supported by their fund for no longer than two months. They would then have to get by on their own – or apply for state welfare. In contrast to welfare dependent on the goodwill of the authorities, unemployment compensation was a legal right. That said, the possibilities to appeal decisions made by the funds was limited or non-existent depending on the canton.

The unemployed were closely monitored: they had to have their unemployment card stamped every day, provide reasons for their unemployment and accept any job deemed reasonable in terms of industry-standard working and wage conditions. Unemployed who failed to report to the fund or refused a position were denied their daily allowances. 

The unemployed ultimately organised themselves as part of a workers’ movement, which called for improved protection. Demonstrations were held, such as in 1922 against cuts to unemployment support in Neuchâtel. 

Unemployment During the 1930s Crisis 

The extensive job losses during the crisis of the 1930s (1932-1937) and the measures taken by the Confederation and cantons to cushion its effects and contain social protest contributed to unemployment becoming a key topic on the political agenda.

Even beneficiaries of unemployed compensation faced great economic hardship. At the time, the funds secured no more than 60 percent of insured earnings for a period of 90 days. Besides, less than a third of the working population were insured with a fund and thus entitled to compensation. A disproportionately low number of female workers were insured compared to men and they had to accept various forms of partial unemployment – such as cuts to working hours and wages; these were often left uncompensated by the funds. Parts of the migrant workforce, especially seasonal workers, were excluded from insurance schemes.

The unemployed excluded from insurance, as well as those who had exhausted their entitlement or who were unable to get by using the funds’ minimal daily allowances, received support by means of emergency measures taken by municipalities, cantons and private organisations. Municipalities opened shelters and canteens for the unemployed. Construction sites were created to provide work for the married unemployed. The unemployed were therefore supported by specific measures following the model of poor relief.

A policy of vocational reorientation also accompanied these measures. The unemployed (in watchmaking, metal and construction sector) were encouraged to accept jobs in other sectors, particularly in agriculture, and move to regions less affected by unemployment. Unemployed women from the watchmaking and textile industries were encouraged to work as maids, often for lower wages than in the factories.

Unemployment committees formed in the 1930s to represent the interests of those out of work and call for greater protection. They developed in cooperation with unions, but also in dispute with them- Unions indeed aimed at restricting the political power of the movement because some labour leaders considered their demands as too radical.

The Federal Act on Compulsory Unemployment Insurance of 1982

The introduction of a compulsory insurance in 1976 represented a significant change: by the end of the decade, almost all workers were insured against unemployment. Ten years before, the share of insured workers amounted to only one fifth of the total workforce. This meant that substantially more people were now entitled to compensation in the event of unemployment. What about the benefits the insurance provided? 

The Federal Act on Compulsory Unemployment Insurance and Insolvency Compensation (AVIG) enacted in 1982 did not contain any significant changes as to the percentage of the insured wage: those married still receive 80 percent of the insured wage to this day, the remaining policyholders 70 percent. Income cuts are hence significant. There are substantial differences among the beneficiaries as the insurance has retained income inequalities. In 2013, the maximum compensation was set at 8,400 francs per month, while the median wage lay at 5,500 francs. There is no lower limit for the compensation. This means that some of the unemployed slip below the poverty line and are dependent on supplementary benefits from social welfare.

The duration of unemployment allowances is another factor of inequality. In 1982, someone who had paid contributions for at least 18 months was entitled to 250 daily allowances (400 daily allowances in 2013). Once this period lapsed, the unemployed would no longer have an income. They would have to seek social welfare as soon as they had spent all their savings.

Beneficiaries are obliged to look for employment and accept reasonable work. They have to supply written evidence that they are seeking work. Monthly meetings with a job counsellor take the place of the former daily or weekly stamps. Measures were also developed for re-integrating the unemployed into the labour market with the AVIG of 1982. The new act marked the shift towards a workfare-centred policy in the 1990s. A refusal to participate in employment measures such as internships, subsidised jobs and courses would lead to sanctions in the form reduced daily allowances.

In the 1970s crisis, which lasted from 1975 to 1979, local unemployment committees were set up, as in the 1930s. Similar committees were established in the 1980s and 1990s as well. They offered support to individuals and represented collective demands. Formally independently organised, they were partly supported by trade unions or church organisations. The locally-based committees joined together to form national organisations, largely to have their voice be heard as part of the process of crafting national legislation. Politically, they argued for reduced controls and against benefit cuts. In 1997, they successfully fought against planned cuts to daily allowances. In a referendum, however, voters narrowly rejected the plan. The creation of centers to advise the unemployed was one result of forming such committees during the crisis of the 1990s. Some of these still exist today, and are subsidized by state institutions.

As in the 1930s, unemployment committees formed during the economic crisis of the 1970s. These became unemployed associations during the crisis of the 1990s. Some of them still exist today. The associations offered individual support and represented collective interests.

Since the economic crisis of the 1990s, the unemployment rate among the working population has remained at three to four percent. Unemployment and underemployment affects particularly affected the young, migrants and women in general.

> Unemployment insurance in numbers

Literatur / Bibliographie / Bibliografia / References: Tabin Jean-Pierre, Togni Carola (2013), L’assurance chômage en Suisse, Lausanne ; Guex Sébastien et al. (dir.) (1996), Arbeitslosigkeit. Le chômage, Traverse, Zeitschrift für Geschichte, Revue d’histoire, 2 ; Lafontant Chantal, Millet Jacqueline (1996), Arbeite wer kann ! Travaille qui peut !, Lausanne ; Perrenoud Marc (1995), Entre la charité et la révolution. Les Comités de chômeurs face aux politiques de lutte contre le chômage dans le canton de Neuchâtel lors de la crise des années 1930, in: Batou Jean, Cerutti Mauro, Heimberg Charles (dir.), Pour une histoire des gens sans Histoire. Ouvriers exclues et rebelles en Suisse 19e-20e siècles, Lausanne, 105–120 ;  Auderset Patrick, Pizzolato Letizia (2011), Défendre les droits des chômeuses et des chômeurs : l’exemple de l’ADC Lausanne (1992-2010), Cahiers d’histoire du mouvement ouvrier, 27, 65-92.