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Swiss to vote on paternity leave: Nice to have or essential?

The fate of a law mandating two weeks of paid leave for fathers will be decided at the polls after a conservative backlash forced a referendum.

September 27, 2020 / 12:12 PM IST
Lukas Inauen, who plans to vote against a new law that would mandate two weeks of paid paternity leave, in Switzerland. (Image by Clara Tuma © 2020 The New York Times)

Lukas Inauen, who plans to vote against a new law that would mandate two weeks of paid paternity leave, in Switzerland. (Image by Clara Tuma © 2020 The New York Times)

When Patrik Höfliger’s daughter Elea was born in April, his employer gave him just two days off. So the father of two, who lives near Zurich, took three weeks of vacation to support his wife’s recovery and take care of their other daughter.

“I think the time right after the birth is especially important,” said Höfliger, who works as a computer scientist at an IT services company. “If I couldn’t have been there, I would have missed out.”

Switzerland is the only country in Western Europe without some form of paid paternity leave, allowing biological fathers just one day off after the birth of a child — the same time given for moving homes. But that may change Sunday, when the Swiss will vote in a referendum that would mandate 10 days of leave for new fathers.

Although a paternity leave provision was set to go into effect last year after being approved by parliament, a group of conservative politicians opposing the law collected enough signatures to put the issue to a referendum.

Polls by local media outlets suggest that voters are likely to approve the law. But the process has highlighted just how deep conservative views on gender issues remain in a country that didn’t grant women the right to vote until 1971 and required wives to get permission from their husbands to work outside the home until 1988.

Organizations like Travailsuisse, a trade union federation, have been lobbying for paid paternity leave for over 10 years.

“Fathers today want to be a part of their children’s lives right from the start,” said Adrian Wüthrich, the group’s president. “It is also important that fathers can support their partners after childbirth.”

Travailsuisse, together with three rights organizations, in 2016 began an initiative proposing that the federal constitution be amended to require employers to provide four weeks of paternity leave. Parliament met them halfway, and later passed legislation mandating paternity leave of two weeks, stipulating that it had to be taken within six months of a birth.

But a group of conservative politicians, with Diana Gutjahr of the populist Swiss People’s Party driving the effort, quickly collected the 50,000 signatures needed to require a referendum on overturning the law.

“We shouldn’t be financing things that are nice to have but not essential,” Gutjahr, a lawmaker in the lower house of the Federal Assembly, said in an interview. She said that whereas maternity leave was important “because a mother has to breastfeed and physically recover from childbirth,” a father does not have a similarly vital role.

“The proposed law only focuses on giving fathers two extra weeks of vacation,” she said.

Gutjahr also opposes the paternity leave law because she believes the state should take a more hands-off approach regarding social issues.

“In Switzerland we have a flexible labor market, and I don’t want the state to introduce more regulations,” she said, adding that companies can voluntarily introduce paid paternity policies of their own.

One company that has done so is Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis, which last year announced that fathers would receive 18 weeks of paid paternity leave in the country.

Wüthrich of Travailsuisse, however, estimates that less than 20% of men now have work contracts including such clauses. “It tends to be the big companies that can afford it,” he said.

Under the law passed last year, fathers would receive 80% of their salary at a daily cap of 196 Swiss francs, or $213. Leave would be paid for in equal parts by employers and employees. The law would not apply to adoptive fathers. Parliament is in the process of separately deciding whether adoptive parents are to receive 10 days of parental leave.

For Wüthrich, the law is a step toward gender equality. “These two weeks may be a baby step, but a very important one,” he said.

Underlining Switzerland’s differences with its neighbors, President Emmanuel Macron of France said Wednesday that his country was doubling paid paternity leave to 28 days and that fathers would be required to take at least a week off work after the arrival of their babies.

Patricia Purtschert, a gender studies professor at the University of Bern, said that structural hurdles to equality persisted in Switzerland partly because women have been excluded as decision-makers for so long. Many Swiss schoolchildren eat lunch at home, meaning that many parents — often mothers — also need to be there for them.

“Although a lot has shifted in the past years, the traditional gender model is still very strong in Switzerland,” she said.

Another reason the country has been slow to change in terms of women’s rights is that “the family is still very much seen as a private matter that the state shouldn’t interfere with,” Purtschert said.

She said that traditional view was also evident in the way that opponents of the referendum have framed the vote. The German term used for paternity leave in Switzerland directly translates as “paternity vacation.”

“Taking care of a newborn is a vacation for no one,” she said.

If the Swiss population votes yes on Sunday, the ruling is likely to apply to fathers of children born from Jan. 1, 2021, onward. If the law is struck down, the matter will not be able to be brought before parliament again for several years.

Höfliger said he would vote in favor of paternity leave. “I think we owe it to our families,” he said.

But not all fathers with newborns agree. Lukas Inauen, who lives in the village of Siebnen in central Switzerland, took two weeks of vacation after the birth of his third child, Yael, in January after his employer gave him just one day off. But he plans to vote against the new law.

“If you want to have children, you have to be prepared to sacrifice your vacation time,” he said — although he added, “Of course, had I received the two weeks, I would have taken them.”

By Noele Illien

c.2020 The New York Times Company

New York Times
first published: Sep 27, 2020 12:12 pm