New political upheavals and women alliances
Updated: Jul 28, 2020
Solidarity beyond “lock down” in Switzerland at times of a global pandemic
“Because people have to stay home and will be working less they won’t be able to afford their pension in the future. There will be payment gaps. Now the debate is on the interest rates, they are arguing whether people should retire at a later age. Why? Because we are under a crisis and we are all in the same ship, says the authorities. But this is not true - we might be at the same sea but not in the same ship. Some of us are journeying in a dingy boat, some in their ships, sailing boats, vessels and luxurious yachts, laborers are already drowning.”
(May 17th 2020, Emine Sariaslan)
Quoting Emine Sariaslan 1 a social worker at public health services, refers to the recent most heard metaphor “we are all in the same ship” and draws our attention to how people are not affected equally by the governmental measures taken against the increasing spread of the global pandemic COVID-19.
She speaks of the common human experience to be not taking place in the same ship but in the same sea. For some this is a matter of life and death. Those who are drowning she mentions later in our conversation. These are the health care, retail, service and logistics workers, among them who do not often have Swiss citizenship, lacking full political participation with limited possibilities to claim their rights.
“These are the people working on the frontline who make the system function amidst the devastating pandemic” also writes Sariaslan in her recent article at Horizonte 2. This is even more striking in a country where formal citizens can shape political decisions in a participatory way, where many referendums have been about migrants without their participation in the discussions.
At our interview on May 17th 2020, Sariaslan emphasises: “not having migrants to participate in the decision making processes diminish migrant backgrounds into apolitical beings, who are seen as either a surplus or a burden by nationalist parties, ripping them off from their very human rights”.
By addressing the ongoing inequalities in our society, we aim to show how women alliances in Switzerland could mobilize their forces and influence in shaping state policy. They have already reacted urgently and acted during the lock down. Scholars show how intersectional interests can be used to build coalitions within and across social movements increasing the number and diversity of activists (Fisher et all 2017:1; Carasthatis 2013; Cole 2008; ). We look at new political upheavals leaded by a women coalition between the already active 'Frauen*streik' movement 3, 'Frauen Alliance' 4 and Swiss Unions in Switzerland. We interviewed two members of the coalition; Muhterem Hülya Genis and Emine Sariaslan 5.
Our analysis based on conversations with the activists, informed how current activism around the pandemic is built on the existing social movement Frauen*streik. This helped mobilize a wide range of women with different backgrounds within the streets and the parliament and in areas in between, responding to those hit by the pandemic. The movement mobilized to meet the urgency of the COVID-19 impact particularly on labor rights; and in extending the criterion “willingness to participate within the economic life” from the Swiss Integration law (passed on 2019). The coalition shifted the discourse on how “work” has not become a matter of “will” - but is determined by “restrictions” and “inabilities to access”. As well as other complex processes affecting peoples’ participation into the economic life during the pandemic.
For those on the frontline but in the backyard of Swiss politics
“The oppressed are always the working class and laborers that also include migrants within these categories and these categories are also differentiated according to their residence permits from B, C to N. Last year according to the new migrants law the number one criteria for integration has become to have a job, second is to know the language, and permits are prolonged as such, if this person is not a burden to the state…
however since people are losing their jobs as of now, they will not be allowed to stay in Switzerland and won’t be able to apply to RAV (unemployment fund) either. As the UNION we have made a concentrated meeting on this issue and have intervened starting with the case of the Portuguese service providers in Zermatt whose rich employers wanted to fire them that would have resulted in their deportation , we did not let that happen.”
(Emine Sariaslan, May17th 20202)
According to unions there has never been such a record number of a majority of Swiss society (of working-age people) has faced the risk of unemployment 6 with applications to RAV (Regional Employment Centre) for claims to the ALK (Unemployment insurance fund). Many employers are reported to try cutting the unforeseen loss of their revenues by ending peoples jobs in these peculiar times. For those with temporary residence permits losing a job equally means to lose residence permit - without residence they are not allowed to benefit from their unemployment insurance. The self-employed (including citizens too), and those with daily contracts - are also not given the chance to apply for the unemployment funds.
“Migrants are losing their jobs but not only, they are also blamed for not being integrated as they cannot meet the number one criteria of integration - which is to have a job. So at our meeting we asked and proposed the Federal state (Swiss Union Confederation met the Federal Congress) that this should not be the case for the time being, especially those who were on the verge of applying to citizenship should still be able to do so.
The implementation needs to be at the cantonal level, if needed they should also be able to get funds from the state, so we as well proposed a bridging fund. We also started a petition for those families who have lost 10-20 % of their income (particularly for those families with one sole bread winner) to be able to apply to the social and to receive the entire salary, called Kurzarbeit 7.
This process has shown us how important it is to be a UNION member, and how important it is to act together… those who did not want to pay 10-20 francs subscription are now lined up at the door. We also give 15 mins free consultancy for those who are not members yet. We also published political responses and this created pressure for the employers.”
(Emine Sariaslan, May 17th 2020)
The coalition demanded the extension of the integration rule and made their proposition be accepted in the federal level. UNIA8 continues to consult non-union members for 15 minutes a day, and raises awareness through public discussions, newsletters, forums and webinars.
Our power is our movement
Another dimension of care, supported by political decisions where citizens without Swiss passports are often affected but have not been part of the political decision making, is child care. Child care, especially for young children is little supported and institutionalized by the state. This is particularly hard, for people working in 24/7 health care and retail jobs lacking parents and grandparents for care support close by. Muhterem Hülya Genis, originally from Turkey - today a Swiss citizen, organizing committee member of Bern Frauen*streik and a kindergarten care worker (kita worker) - highlights;
“Women’s burden was quite heavy already now it is even more with having to work from home and take care of the child at the same time under such hostility…
The System should see that it cannot produce anything without us, the women, the world is experiencing the invaluability of currency and that one needs to respect labor. Those who have a contract can stay home but among my friends who are day laborers as child care takers got fired. You can apply to RAV but with a reduction of 20 % of your usual salary, that is nearly thousand francs difference, enough to destroy your entire livelihood.
The weight of the virus is on the top of the poor. At least our taxes can be given back, there should be a difference in the way rich and poor are being treated in terms of taxes. We need concrete steps into securing work contracts and making sure working conditions are safe.”
(Muhterem Hülya Genis, May 17th 2020)
Touching on the inequalities between higher incomes and lower, Hülya stresses the state need to treat those of limited income and precarious working conditions differently. Emine supports Hülya’s concerns about how “staying at home” for women can have fatal consequences for their mental wellbeing and socio-economic welfare:
“Whenever there is a crisis, women are immediately given the task to stay home anyway. They should be taking care of domestic work, and as they withdraw from their jobs their economic independence is shaken. This also has to do with their pension frames, since they can work less they can pay less for their pension and when they retire they will be getting less in return and will perhaps struggle to meet the ends in the future.
Since this crisis seems to go in the long run, the situation is going to affect their economic independence on the long run too. Women’s dependence for men will affect women’s psychology and that will have an impact on their children’s education and homeschooling if necessary…this is the Domino effect.”
(Emine Sariaslan, May 17th 2020)
According to the activist duo, street presence is very important. Emine affirms the need to be able to continue gathering in streets as the way to overcome the Domino effect is to unite and move together in the most physical stance. Furthermore, “togetherness is our insurance”, adds Hülya;
“We managed to collect 500.000 women all across Switzerland for the strike, with 70.000 of them in Bern. With one year of intensive labour we managed as the coordination group,20-30 of us. Our movement had a novel impact on the politics, we have increased women participation into the parliament by 40% 9.
This is a huge success, our power is our movement. We have a power of 500.000 women. Our togetherness is our insurance, if we do not have that then we are deemed to creep and suffer.”
(Muhterem Hülya Genis, May 17th 2020)
Talking of those without an insurance, “insurance” is provided by “togetherness”. It is among the core motivations behind the active solidarity beyond the lockdown. Building on one of the largest political demonstration 10 in the recent history of Switzerland that took place on the 14th of June 2019, Frauen*streik will possibly go digital on 2020. It will then take creative forms of online protests, talks, artistic performances and webinars, says Hülya that is still yet to be decided and implemented.
Continuing to address and redefine what the pandemic has yet to bring and transform, the Frauen Alliance came up with a new agenda to four different target groups to be collectively supported; 1) Under-represented and under paid women, 2) Women facing domestic violence, 3) Migrant women and asylum seekers and 4) Women in politics.
Lastly, Emine Sariaslan speaks of the importance of science, the need for it to be independent from state politics and the role it plays in contributing to national and international solutions to the benefit of people underrepresented in political debates and decisions.
“Science is very important particularly now, they were making fun with professors before, now everyone looks into what science has to say. Politics and science is in a conflict, politics look into economy but the independence of scientists are so important, for whom am I making science? All scientists should be questioning that, they should be doing this for humanity. The problem being more then global it is international, so the solution should also be international. All this requires drastic and integrated action and makes it critical to start planning for a post- COVID-19 world as soon as possible.”
(Emine Sariaslan, May 17th 2020)
In the most urgent sense, the coalition calls on Switzerland to treat all people living in Switzerland (with or without a Swiss passport); or when confronting the COVID-19 pandemic. This requires the co-creation of an evidence-based policy-making structure that urges decision makers to take into account the research of not just one but many disciplines, including social sciences such as mobility and migration scholars. As academic scholars, we are convinced that this policy vision will lead to more sustainable, equal and diverse societies based on national and international solidarity, and to ones that can better prevent and deal with shocks and pandemics to come.
We perceive a contradiction; on how the so called global pandemic requires a globally concerted action - but at the same time is converted into a national security problem. We do not only close borders (within and beyond the lockdown) to feel protected; but also we measure and value workforce, intellectual capacity and contributions to our society not on an equal basis but measure through formal citizenship. This becomes the decisive category to be “in” or “out” of the society.
Most of the research being done on the pandemic in Switzerland is done in collaboration with researchers without Swiss passports, and the underrepresentation of the majority of the academics in this field is even more striking. It is here where sadly and gratefully social movements and alliances remind us the importance of international solidarity in the fight of recognition.
This is not only true for the most precarious workers but also for scholars facing precarity with short term contracts and no Swiss passports who are working and contributing to the high international standards of Swiss universities. Their situation is put on hold at the moment due to their citizenships. Acknowledging those hardest hit by this peculiar crisis, we urge politicians, policy-makers and the general public to respond to the need of redefining formal citizenship, representation and further visibility , so to be able to govern a much inclusive, participating and healthy society.
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Susan Thieme is professor for geography and critical sustainability studies at the University of Bern, with a particular interest in the role different forms of (im)mobilities play in the context of education and work. She is also co-chair of the mLab at the Institute of Geography, a collaborative space that encourages researchers to develop new modes of collective work and to critically use arts, media and digital research methods. She can be contacted at susan.thieme AT giub.unibe.ch
Eda Elif Tibet is an independent documentary film maker and a visual anthropologist from Istanbul. She filmed and directed award winning documentary films under her own label www.karmamotion.com , a non- hierarchical collective run by academics, artists and activists. She is currently a guest Post-Doctoral researcher at the Geography Institute (University of Bern) and works towards a sensorial ethnography film on a transhumant family among the Ait Atta tribe of the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Her research and teaching encompass the relations between postcolonial thought and mobilities, the application of critical pedagogies, to social movements and the promotion of participatory action research. She can be contacted at eda.tibet AT giub.unibe.ch
This piece was first published in Interface: a journal for and about social movements. Reproduced with the author's permission.
1 Emine Sariaslan is a voluntary board member at UNIA , a commissioned writer at the Horizonte, originally from Turkey and a Swiss Citizen. See her profile at https://public-health-services.ch/portfolio/emine-sariaslan/
3 Women across Switzerland took to the streets by about 500,000 on June 14 2019 in a historic strike called as Frauen*streik, demanding equal treatment and conditions compared with their male counterparts, See: https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/equal-treatment_women-s-strike-gets-underway-across-switzerland/45030950 and the official web page.
4 Frauen Alliance is an umbrella organization for over 100 women's organizations, established 120 years ago in Switzerland. It defines itself to be the voice of women in Swiss politics and does advocacy to achieve equality between women and men - in society, in business and in politics. Alliance F is non-partisan and its’ members include women (and men) from all major political parties, including active and former national, state and federal councilors. See their website:
5 Both participants did not see a need to anonymize their voices and gave consent to publish their points of view.
8 UNIA is a trade union in Switzerland that operates as the largest unemployment fund in Switzerland and a member of the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions. It has around 190,000 members from all sectors of the private economy, offers individual advice, legal protection and further services to its members. With more than 50 % of UNIA members not having a Swiss passport UNIA is the largest organization for workers without Swiss citizenship. See the official website.
9 Starting with a number of only 20 to 30 organization members made Frauen*streik come into life and made thousands of women to participate across Switzerland (70.000 women gathered only in Bern). A further claim by the activists is that the strike ended up increasing women’s political participation into the parliament by 40 % on 2019. As of now there remains no official data or research to verify the very connection between the strike and the increase ratio of women in the parliament, but we suggest to keep an eye on the recent studies to follow up the claim.
10 June 14, 2019 goes down as the largest political demonstration in the recent history of Switzerland, bigger than the women's first strike in Switzerland on 1991 according to "the Swiss Trade Union Federation"