Updated: Thursday, 15 May 2014 13:53 | By Agence France-Presse

Conundrum of living on under $4,500 a month in pricy Switzerland

Surrounded by luxury at the high-end Geneva hotels where she works, Alcina Esteves de Almeida sometimes goes hungry -- her salary not enough to make ends meet in pricy Switzerland.


Conundrum of living on under $4,500 a month in pricy Switzerland

Supporters hold paper planes during a demostration to support the minimum wage of 4000 Swiss Francs, in Geneva, on May 7, 2014 - by Fabrice Coffrini

"I have to give up a lot, and I often can't eat properly," the 52-year-old Portuguese chambermaid told AFP.

While De Almeida's gross monthly salary of 3,400 Swiss francs ($3,840, 2,790 euros) might sound decent, it does not stretch far in the wealthy Alpine nation.

In fact, unions and leftwing parties in Switzerland insist that no one in the country should make do with less than 22 Swiss francs ($25, 18 euros) an hour, or 4,000 francs ($4,515, 3,280 euros) a month.

Their initiative to introduce the world's highest minimum wage will be put to a referendum on Sunday as part of Switzerland's direct democratic system.

A poll last week however hinted that two-thirds of voters in the country, which currently has no obligatory national minimum salary, will say "no".

Opponents, including the government and most of Switzerland's powerful business community, argue that requiring a minimum wage would make it more difficult for young people to enter the workforce and could prove deadly to many businesses.

But De Almeida, a youthful divorcee with a tight ponytail and dark eyes, insists a minimum wage should be established to ensure working people "can live a decent life."

"That is not the case for me currently," she said, sitting on a bench near the highrise on the outskirts of Geneva that she calls home.

After unemployment insurance and other social charges, De Almeida nets 2,800 francs a month, but when she has paid the 1,200 franc rent for her cramped studio, plus taxes, phone bills and a monthly bus pass at 70 francs, there is little left.

On top of that, she dishes out 400 francs a month for health insurance, which kicks in only after her medical expenses pass the 1,500-franc mark.

- Reluctant to see a doctor -

"I really have trouble living on my salary," she said, noting that she is reluctant to see a doctor, and always considers price over quality when food shopping.

She certainly cannot afford small pleasures like going to the cinema, which in Geneva costs 19 francs a ticket for adults and 14 francs for children.

De Almeida is not alone. One in 10 people working in Switzerland, an estimated 330,000 individuals, make less than 4,000 Swiss francs a month, according to promoters of the "Decent Salary" initiative.

Opponents stress that minimum pay is already written into collective bargaining agreements for many sectors, but the unions maintain that such agreements cover only about half of all workers.

And they point out that most sectors that are heavily dominated by women, such as retail, hotel and restaurant services and call centres, are not covered.

"Emma", a 30-year-old Italian citizen who wished to remain anonymous, said there were no such agreements regulating wages at the watchmaking subcontractor business she had been working at for the past three years as an administrative assistant.

Making 3,600 francs a month before social charges, she said she had no choice but to live with her boyfriend, who helps cover the 2,600-franc rent for her Geneva flat and the 500 francs she pays each month for her daughter's daycare. 

"When I go to the supermarket, I can't spend more than 100 francs a week," Emma said.

Giuliana Mion, a 31-year-old Venezuelan chambermaid at a luxury Geneva hotel, said the only way her family could afford to eat meat and fish was by shopping across the border in France, where her 3,400-franc monthly salary stretched much further.

"Mario", a 25-year-old Italian citizen also requesting anonymity testified to the difficulty of making ends meet even when working what most people would consider a good job.

Currently unemployed, he spent three years working as a private business pilot for a Geneva-based company, earning a gross salary of just 2,000 francs per month.

He had lived near the Geneva airport with two colleagues, each paying 700 francs a month in rent.

"At the end of the month, I basically had nothing left," he said, lamenting that saving up for the future, a holiday, or even a new pair of shoes was difficult.

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