by Jo Fahy, swissinfo.ch
April 28, 2014 – 11:00
If you expect to meet Swiss people working in Zermatt’s hotels and restaurants, you might be surprised to be greeted by a German, a Russian or someone from any number of other countries. Why is that?
“Eighty per cent of our employees are non-Swiss,” Kevin Kunz, CEO of the Seiler Hotels group in Zermatt, tells swissinfo.ch. As he speaks, a German employee welcomes guests just inside the foyer of the five-star Mont Cervin Palace hotel and a Portuguese cleaner walks by, duster in-hand.
“We have around 40 nationalities working here. The labour market is really dictating where you can find the right people. Just out of the market in Switzerland, you wouldn’t be able to find enough to cover all the jobs.”
The large number of foreigners employed in tourism isn’t something specific to Zermatt. Across the country, ski resorts and holiday destinations are kept running by foreign labour.
Although foreigners only make up 23% of the population in Switzerland, 40.7% of workers in the hospitality sector are non-Swiss. One of these is Katja Oberndorfer, a German national who speaks five languages including English, Russian and Greek.
She’s lived and worked in Zermatt since 1996. Now Rooms Division Manager at the Mont Cervin Palace, she likes being able to use her language skills but admits there are downsides to the industry.
“In the past I worked long hours every day. It came sometimes to 10 or 12 hours a day. Even now, working part-time, I end up doing more hours, but I’ve never been someone who is always looking at their watch – this hotel is part of my life, time is not so important to me.”
Hiring EU citizens could become more difficult after quotas for foreigners, voted on in February 2014, are introduced. Oberndorfer adds, “If we only had Swiss employees we wouldn’t be able to run all of the Seiler hotels. Lots of the Swiss don’t want to work in the hotel industry…not to serve people. They want to work in a bank or in a higher position”.
In the Swiss job market where the unemployment rate is low – at 3.2% on average in 2013, where opportunities for well-paid, secure positions with regular hours are commonplace, it’s not difficult to see why a young Swiss person would opt for a career path other than tourism and hospitality.
Aside from the long hours or the split shifts when working in kitchens, the industry-specific minimum wage, for an unskilled worker is CHF3,407. For someone who has completed a full three- or four-year apprenticeship and achieved a federally recognised qualification, the minimum goes up to CHF4,108.
The figures pale in comparison to salaries in other sectors.
Tourism in training
“If you want to make real money, you don’t work in tourism. Compared to other professions the wages are definitely lower. And you work irregular hours and more of them,” admits Adrian Zaugg, who runs the department of tourism at the Feusi business school and further training centre in Bern.