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Migrant Workers Find Work but No Welcome


CONSTRUCTION season has started again in Switzerland, and with it came this year's first wave of migrant workers.

Each year several hundred thousand workers, mostly from the poorer nations of the European Union, wend their way here seeking jobs in the construction, agriculture and hotel industries.

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While these workers take on jobs often described as the "three D's" - dirty, difficult, and dangerous - they find little welcome here. Switzerland has some of the world's most restrictive legislation for migrant workers.

"The Swiss have allowed these workers not because they love foreigners but because they need the foreigners," says Pascal Reale, head of the Wood and Building trade union in Geneva. "No Swiss wanted to do that work."

In 1993, close to 1 million foreigners were employed in Switzerland, according to the Bureau of Foreign Affairs. Today, 60 percent of those work in construction, according to the International Labor Organization here.

But now Germany receives the most Eastern European migrants and is steadily replacing Switzerland as the destination of choice for construction workers from poorer EU countries, such as Ireland, Portugal, and Britain, says Roger Bohning, chief of migration at the ILO.

Yet there are few rewards to being a migrant worker in Switzerland or elsewhere in Europe. In Switzerland, for example, most migrant workers aren't allowed to bring their families here until they can prove that they have enough money and space.

Workers are assigned to an employer and can't change jobs unless of a medical emergency. Britain, Germany, and Sweden also have assigned work systems. In the early 1990s, the majority of new construction workers from Eastern Europe came into Germany as "project-bound contractees." In 1992, the German construction trade union estimated there were 500,000 of these workers.

Being a migrant worker differs little from indentured servitude, says Jean-Louis Streckheison, secretary of a Geneva-based agricultural union, adding that the system leaves virtually no way out and up. "It's manual, and poorly paid," says Mr. Streckheison. "Most of these workers are between 25 and 40 when they come. They give all their youth to this."

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These different laws have prompted several nations and organizations to push for nations to ratify the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families. The treaty won't come into force until 20 nations ratify it. And as of now, the three leading economies of the world, the US, Germany and Japan, are unlikely to agree to its conditions.

"They have the perception that granting rights to migrant workers will make more come," says Patrick Taran, of the World Council of Churches here. "It's a little difficult to see Western countries champion human rights and then not uphold rights for groups that aren't convenient to them."

In the past five years, more-restrictive policies against migrant workers have been implemented around the world, says Mr. Taran.

And while some may balk at the system of assigning employers, it's not uncommon. "You need to look into history to understand the situation here," Bohning explains. "Switzerland was the only European country to survive the war intact. Swiss industry was there, but there was a shortage of people, so they brought in Italians by the tens of thousands."

But the tide may be turning in some countries against letting migrant workers in at all. With unemployment in Switzerland at 4.5 percent - quite high by Swiss standards - some employers feel it's time to hire on the home front.

"I've had to turn the faucet off on seasonal and migrant workers," says Roger Maillart, head of the Society for Swiss Entrepreneurs, a Geneva-based group of managers. "I have to give priority to Swiss workers."

Yet the perception that migrants are taking jobs is misplaced, said Jeffrey Sachs, professor of international trade at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., in an interview. Most unemployment in Western countries comes because of economic restructuring and because many jobs can be performed by machines.

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