BERN, Switzerland – Who turns down a long vacation? Known for their work ethic, Swiss citizens appear to be leading the way on European austerity, rejecting a minimum six weeks paid holiday a year.
Switzerland counted ballots Sunday for five national referendums, including one pushed by a union to raise the minimum holiday up from four weeks, which is the standard used in Germany, Italy, Russia and other European nations. Some of the nation’s 26 cantons (states) also held voting on local measures addressing issues as varied as demonstrators and prostitutes.
The Swiss heeded warnings from government and business that more vacation would raise labor costs and put the economy at risk. Swiss public broadcaster SSR said two-thirds of voters and all of the cantons had rejected the measure, which required majority approval of all federal and cantonal voters.
“In rejecting the initiative, citizens have kept a sense of reality,” said Hans-Ulrich Bigler, director of the Swiss Union of Arts and Crafts, which represents around 300,000 businesses.
The referendum, he said in a statement, could have added 6 billion francs ($6.52 billion) a year in labor costs to the Swiss economy, but the vote “clearly shows that the population continues to focus on individual freedom and responsibility of citizens.”
Though popular with young people, the referendum on vacation time tested how comfortable the Swiss feel about their traditional safe-haven economy.
The nation has fared better than most others in debt-saddled Europe, where the financial sector and governments are being forced to cut spending and pay for expensive bailouts.
But there may have been too much of a good thing for Switzerland: As international traders leery of other nations’ financial stability poured money into the safety of Swiss money accounts, the franc jumped in value, putting a dent in Swiss exports and tourism.
The Swiss central bank moved in September to put a lid on the currency’s rise by setting a target exchange rate of 1.20 Swiss francs per euro, but the Swiss economy is still expected to slow this year, because of turmoil in the global economy and the eurozone’s debt crisis.
As much of Europe struggles to control debt through layoffs, wage cuts and tax increases, Swiss campaign group Travail.Suisse argued more break time was needed to help people cope with rising workplace stress because of the fast pace and increased competition.
Travail.Suisse collected 125,000 signatures two years ago to demand a vote on whether the vacation quota needed to be raised.
It expressed disappointment at the result, but said it was proud it had raised the issue of workers’ anxiety. Many Swiss laws result from referendums.
Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said taking two more weeks of vacation is not the best way to fight stress and does not answer the question of “who will do the job of those who are on vacation.”
Employers also are wary of the doom and gloom – and more indulgent spending – found outside Swiss borders.
One TV ad run by Swiss employers before the voting depicted a neglected surgery patient who finds a Post-it note stuck on a medical monitor saying there was a staff shortage because of new vacation rules.
Posters could be seen in train stations, airports and public places warning that more vacation would mean fewer jobs.