Free movement with EU helped Switzerland through pandemic

Last year one in three specialists and general practitioners in Switzerland was an EU/EFTA national. Keystone / Alessandro Della Valle

Switzerland profited from the free movement of people with the EU/EFTA states during the Covid-19 crisis, a government report has concluded.

This content was published on June 25, 2021

The healthcare sector in particular benefited from the free movement of people and the recruitment opportunities in the EU area last year, said the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), which on Friday published its 17th reportExternal link on the impact of the free movement of people on the labour market and social benefits.

Some 63,000 people from EU/EFTA states were employed in the healthcare sector in 2020. These made a “considerable contribution” to meeting the strong demand for workers in this sector, SECO said. Nationals from third countries (non-EU/EFTA states) contributed to a much lesser extent (13,000 employees).

Overall, 22% of the roughly 540,000 employees in the Swiss healthcare sector last year were EU/EFTA nationals, including cross-border workers and short-term residents.

Medical specialists

Many highly qualified healthcare personnel and specialists from EU/EFTA countries work in Switzerland. Last year a third of all specialists and general practitioners in Switzerland were EU/EFTA nationals. For nursing staff the proportion was 19%, and for physiotherapists, dentists and pharmacists it was around 25%.

For the so-called mid-level health professions, such as nursing specialists or pharmaceutical assistants, the proportion was comparatively low. The report said demand in this area was well covered “thanks to education and training measures in Switzerland”.

Third countries played a “subordinate role” in the recruitment of highly qualified healthcare personnel. While many third-country nationals work in nursing assistance in Switzerland, these are people who either originally came to Switzerland as asylum seekers or immigrated via family reunification, SECO said.

“Switzerland has benefited particularly strongly from the free movement of people and the possibility of recruitment in the EU area, especially in the area of these workers who are in high demand worldwide, such as highly qualified healthcare personnel,” it concluded.

Stable immigration from EU countries

Net immigration from third countries last year fell by around a fifth to 17,400 people compared with 2019, also in connection with Covid travel restrictions. The last time immigration from third countries was this low was in the 1990s.

Immigration from the EU, on the other hand, remained only slightly below the previous year’s figure, at 29,900 people.

SECO said it assumed demand for foreign labour would rise again in 2021 and that immigration could increase accordingly.

The Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons between Switzerland and the EU/EFTA states came into force in 2002.

Last month the Swiss government decided to walk away from talks on an institutional agreement on relations with the European Union. The access of EU citizens to Swiss social security benefits was one of the sticking points for the Swiss.

The decision meant the end of seven years of efforts between Switzerland and the EU to craft an overarching treaty to replace the more than 120 bilateral deals which have regulated relations for decades.

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