Enterprising Germans make Switzerland home


Germans make up one of the fastest-growing foreign communities in Switzerland, as many head across the border to avoid the economic problems at home.

This content was published on March 1, 2006

Figures for 2005 show that the number of Germans coming to Switzerland grew by 12,716 and that they now account for 11.3 per cent of all foreign workers.

Germans have had a long relationship with Switzerland. In the 19th century Switzerland regularly relied on neighbouring Germany to provide university teachers, engineers, doctors and skilled workers.

The country also attracted entrepreneurs. In 1905 Zurich was home to more than 10,000 German businesses.

But the situation changed after the outbreak of the First World War. Many had to return home and those who remained quickly acquired Swiss citizenship.

German immigration ebbed and flowed during the second half of the 20th century, before speeding up after the fall of the Berlin Wall in the early 1990s.

Disappointed by the bitter fruits of Germany's reunification, many workers left the country in search of better opportunities. From 1990 to 2000, the German community in Switzerland grew by 25,000.

Labour accord

The free movement of people accord with the European Union, which gave citizens from the ten original EU countries access to the Swiss labour market in 2002, has also had a strong impact.

"German immigration has increased even more in the past five or six years," said Philippe Wanner, director of the Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies.

Statistics released on Tuesday show that by the middle of last year, there was a 10.6 per cent increase in German workers on 2004 - the largest rise from any country.

This compares with an overall rise of 1.5 per cent in the number of foreigner workers.

More than half (51.7 per cent) of the German were working in managerial positions or in academia, said the Federal Migration Office.

Among the Swiss, this number stood at just under 25 per cent and among foreigners coming from new EU countries or the Balkans this percentage fell to 6.9 per cent.

Germans now comprise 11.3 per cent of the foreign workforce.

But what makes Switzerland so desirable a place to live and work for Germans?

Good salaries

"When I ask this question, the response I usually get is that salaries are good and Switzerland is a fine country," Franz Jaeger, professor of economic policy at St Gallen University, said in a newspaper interview.

In addition, the German economy has been going through difficult times and the country's jobless rate is more than ten per cent.

"In Germany, conditions for entrepreneurs and the highly qualified are dire," said Jaeger.

Figures from the Federal Migration Office show that almost 900 German entrepreneurs and senior managers headed for Switzerland in 2003, possibly taking their cue from successful compatriots such as Christoph Franz, the chief executive of the airline Swiss, and Oswald Grübel, the chief executive of Credit Suisse.

Germans are also prevalent in the health sector and universities.

"Between two thirds and three quarters of the candidates for university professorships are German," said Jaeger.

There are also many German doctors in Swiss hospitals, which helps combat the doctor shortage in Switzerland, say experts.


Opinions are divided, however, as to how well Germans integrate into Swiss society.

Jaeger says that it is easy to work with Germans because they share a common language and way of thinking with the Swiss.

But language can be a source of friction as there are differences between standard German and Swiss-German dialect, which is more widely spoken in Switzerland than standard German.

Germans speaking standard German – which has a generally faster and sharper delivery than Swiss German - can often come across as arrogant to Swiss-Germans. Some experts even speak of a "David and Goliath complex" in describing the relationship between the two groups.

For the director of the think tank Avenir Suisse, Thomas Held, Germans represent an opportunity for Switzerland.

Possibly referring to such famous German immigrants as philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, author Hermann Hesse and scientist Albert Einstein, he told a Swiss newspaper "the Germans are Switzerland's cultural salvation."


Key facts

In 2004 there were 145,000 Germans (not counting those with dual nationality) in Switzerland.
In 1990 the figure was 86,000 and in 1970, 118,000.
Around a quarter of all migrant workers who have arrived in Switzerland in the past two years have come from Germany.

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In brief

German workers are also very present in the hotel, catering and building industries.

Waiting staff and housekeepers, particularly from eastern Germany, are prized for their sound training and specialised skills and also for their positive attitude to work.

One of the reasons so many builders come to Switzerland is that German legislation does not permit temporary employment in the construction industry.

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