Geneva wants to legalize its many illegal immigrants who have long filled in gaps in the labor market. But the idea faces resistance from the Swiss parliament, which is dominated by a right-wing party.
One of Geneva's invisible workers
On a sunny winter afternoon in Geneva, one of the world's most affluent cities, the elegant boulevards are packed with fur-clad women wandering among the upscale boutiques. They seem to have plenty of time on their hands to shop, hardly surprising considering most of them either have a babysitter or a cleaner at home taking care of things while they're away.
One of them is Jenny, a woman from the Philippines who came to Switzerland eight years ago. Jenny works as a cleaner, does all the household work and babysits when needed.
But Jenny is in Switzerland illegally. She left the Philippines in search of better paid work and to pay school fees for her three children. She’s got plenty of work in Geneva, but no work permit, which means she can’t travel, and she hasn’t seen her children in 8 years.
"As a mother of course I miss them," she said. "I long to see them but I can’t without a permit."
Jenny isn't an isolated case. It’s estimated there are up to 10,000 illegal workers in Geneva, and 130,000 across Switzerland. If the authorities find them, they could be deported. Anxious to avoid any contact with officialdom, most live inconspicuously, subletting rooms and often going without health insurance.
Plugging in the gaps
But, there's little doubt that Geneva's illegal immigrants are filling an important gap for low-skilled work in the Swiss labor market.
So much so that Geneva is now asking the Swiss government for permission to give long-term illegal workers the chance to legalize their status. Canton Geneva’s president Martine Brunschwig Graf said an amnesty made sense.
"The proposal is to legalize people who are working in Geneva for a long time," she said. "It’s not a humanitarian operation, it’s an economic operation to say we need legalization in such a market because we have this problem."
But, finding people to do unskilled work is not just a problem in the big cities. Even the tiny village of Bassin just outside Geneva is grappling with the problem.
Adem, who is clearing snow, is Bassin’s official road sweeper and path keeper -- a position village mayor Didier Lohri had difficulty filling.
"We’ve spent years looking for someone to do this work – it’s practically impossible in Switzerland," said Lohri. "But since we had Adem things have been great, he does a good job and the whole village benefits. All he wants is a permit so he can visit his family in Kosovo, and then come back here to work – what’s the problem with that?"
Adem’s been in Switzerland for 10 years, a quarter of his life. With the money he earns in Bassin, he supports four children in Kosovo. But he too is an illegal immigrant, and if the authorities order his deportation, Didier Lohri will have no choice but to obey since he can't flout the law as an elected official.
Adem is aware of the perils. "I don’t see a future, I don’t understand why I can’t get a permit," he said. "I’ve worked all my time in Switzerland, I’ve paid taxes, but still no permit. I’m just waiting and waiting, I’m sad all the time."
But in Switzerland’s parliament there’s little sympathy for Adem’s situation and little support for Geneva’s idea of an amnesty. Yves Perrin of the right-wing Swiss People's Party said the solution to illegal workers is simple. "We have laws in Switzerland, these people have to go back to their countries – if we legalize them everyone around the world will see and they’ll all come," he said.
Nevertheless, workers like Jenny are investing their hopes in Geneva’s proposal. "I’m just here, waiting and hoping, I can feel it, the time will come, I’ve been waiting a long time but I still wait," she said.
But so far, no other Swiss cantons have taken up Geneva’s idea, and Geneva alone is unlikely to persuade the Swiss government to agree to an amnesty. At the same time no one wants to order the deportation of so many people. It’s a stalemate that is likely to keep Jenny, Adem, and the tens of thousands like them in a legal limbo with the threat of deportation hanging over them for some time to come.