Employment Status and Social Security

Social security is linked in many ways to employment status. Those in paid employment are better covered, often, than those whose work goes unpaid. Moreover, many social insurance schemes base their financing model on employment-related contributions. Gainful employment includes productive work performed by employees or by the self-employed. Yet, not all work counts as gainful employment. Unpaid work such as housework, helping out neighbors, or volunteering – work predominantly performed by women – is excluded.

There are historical reasons for the close tie between employment status and social security. When the first social insurance schemes came into being at the end of the 19th century, they were primarily aimed at protecting factory workers, a group which exemplified the modern form of gainful employment. The welfare state was meant to provide protection against the poverty risks posed by industrial society: work accidents in factories and loss of wages due to illness, old age, and disability. Everyday factory work was considered particularly dangerous, and the industrial workforce particularly in need of protection, so this became the starting point for the first welfare state measures. Both the cantonal factory and work protection laws enacted between 1840 and 1870, as well as the first national factory law enacted in 1877, applied primarily to dangerous industrial operations. The first major social insurance scheme in Switzerland, the National Accident Insurance Fund (Suva), established in 1912, also primarily insured workers in the industrial sector. The self-employed were long excluded from compulsory insurance, as were salaried employees and those who worked in agriculture. In the late 19th century, factory workers also had a vocal lobby in the form of trade unions and the Social Democratic Party. Some in the Liberal Party also supported establishing of state social insurance schemes – to help workers help themselves.

Furthermore, that factory workers were prominent in early social insurance schemes is related to a shift in the meaning of the term "worker" over the course of the 19th century. Until the middle of that century, it referred not just to factory workers but also to other dependent employees, including day laborers, assistants, journeymen and servants. No sharp demarcation existed between this and self-employment, for example in handicraft enterprises or cottage industries. By the 1860s, however, factory work was increasingly set apart from other occupations, in particular, home-based and craft-based work. After the First World War, provisions to better protect home-based workers were discussed, but a national law to do so, one which passed Parliament unanimously in 1919, was rejected in a 1920 referendum. It was not until 1940 that the national government passed a law on home-based work, which, in addition to various protective measures, also established minimum wages. Home-based work remained disadvantaged, and this especially affected women; by the early 20th century, 10-15% of the female workforce worked at home.

Demands for better protection for domestic workers, also mostly women, met with similar obstacles. At the turn of the 20th century, middle-class women's associations did oppose the corresponding protective provisions in labour law, but it would take until 1923, at the instigation of servants' associations, that the first standard employment contracts for domestic workers were introduced in the cities of Zurich and Winterthur.

In early social insurance schemes, white-collar workers were also passed over, though for different reasons. The term itself referred to employed persons who performed more mental than physical labour. On the one hand, this category of workers did not exist until around 1900, and hence did not play a prominent role in early social insurance debates. On the other hand, white-collar work was also considered to be more elevated and thus was also more privileged in legal and other ways, even without social insurance protection. Many companies offered white-collar workers longer periods for giving notice than they did for blue-collar workers, they enjoyed a fixed monthly salaries, salary guarantees in case of illness, and were also contractually entitled to vacations.

The more rigid definition of gainful employment that gained currency during the 19th century also had far-reaching consequences for the modern understanding of housework. The factory sector expanded strongly due to industrialization, often at the expense of cottage industries, and this was accompanied by increased spatial separation between work and home. Gainful employment largely took place outside the household. Housework, by contrast, was increasingly unpaid work, in part because the significance of having servants declined in the 20th century with the introduction of household technologies. Largely done by women, housework included managing the production of food and clothing, accumulating foodstuff reserves, cleaning, and washing. With the rise of the middle-class model of the family, ideally with a single, male, breadwinner, the proportion of gainfully employed women in the female population declined during the first half of the 20th century from 47% (1910) to 35% (1941). Since the 1970s, the proportion has again gradually increased, reaching about 60% by 2020, and in 2019, over 75% among women of working age. The number of women engaged in unpaid housework has fluctuated accordingly. In social insurance schemes such as accident or unemployment insurance, such forms of housework have not been regarded as work activities to be insured.

Even women engaged in gainful work were often worse off in social insurance schemes than men doing comparable work, largely due to the significantly lower wages paid to women. The wage gap varied by sector and industry, lower in the public than in the private sector, and lower in the service than in the industrial sector. On average, during the 19th and 20th centuries in Switzerland, women earned between a quarter and a third less than men in comparable jobs. The Swiss labor market certainly had many women gainfully employed, especially in the industrial and service sectors; the textile industry during the 19th and 20th centuries, for example, mostly employed women. A high proportion of those engaged in home-based work were women, as was the case in restaurant employment.

In social insurance schemes, the gender wage gap is reflected primarily in the pension system. In occupation-based pension schemes, lower wages lead to lower pensions, and to a lesser extent, to reductions in social security payments. Women were also long discriminated against by health insurance funds. Before compulsory health insurance was introduced in 1996, women generally had to pay higher premiums. Finally, gainfully employed women in Switzerland were also worse off in terms of maternity insurance than elsewhere in Europe. Although a constitutional mandate to introduce it had existed since 1945, a law establishing mandatory maternity insurance throughout the country did not come into force until 2004 – and that only after several failed attempts.

Social insurance and employment status are also linked together through the funding mechanisms. Wage-dependent contributions were considered the core funding instrument for early social insurance efforts in the 19th century. The extent of tax-based financing remained limited, not least because it was politically controversial. Since, from a middle-class perspective, welfare institutions were regarded as a way to help people help themselves, it was only logical that the insured should contribute to their own social insurance. In Switzerland, most major social insurance schemes (to address the consequences of accidents, old age, disability, or unemployment) are financed by wage-dependent contributions. Among the major areas insured, only health is funded differently: contributions are calculated independent of income and paid by all insured persons individually (using "capitation premiums"). However, the system of wage-dependent funding for social insurance does not mean the gainfully employed are also privileged in terms of benefits. The AHV system, for example, also pays out pensions to insured persons who were not gainfully employed before their retirement and only paid the minimum contribution.

Literatur / Bibliographie / Bibliografia / References: HLS: Arbeit, Arbeiter, Arbeiterschutz, Bauern, Erwerbstätigkeit, Frauenerwerbsarbeit, Gesinde, Heimarbeit, Verlagssystem, Zünfte; Isler Simona (2019), Politiken der Arbeit. Perspektiven der Frauenbewegung um 1900, Basel; Moser Peter (1994), Der Stand der Bauern. Bäuerliche Politik, Wirtschaft und Kultur gestern und heute, Frauenfeld; Bundesamt für Statistik (2020), Schweizerische Arbeitskräfteerhebung (SAKE). Erwerbsbeteiligung der Frauen 2010–2019, Neuenburg.