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Swiss vote on no-strings basic income

June 5, 2016

Voters in Switzerland have been asked to decide whether to provide the entire population with a basic, unconditional income - an unprecedented idea. The issue is a contentious one calling into question the value of work.

Symbolbild Schweizer Franken
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Polls opened on Sunday in which Swiss voters were being asked whether an "unconditional basic income" should be provided for every man, woman and child.

The ballot doesn't give a figure but economists project a minimum of 2,500 Swiss francs ($2,560, 2,225 euros) per month is needed to make ends meet in the expensive Alpine country. Children would need about a quarter of that amount.

The question was placed on the ballot after the necessary 100,000 petition signatures were gathered to force the issue.

Opponents to the initiative warn a mass payout would explode public spending and the Swiss government advised voters cast their vote against the measure.

But proponents insist the time has come for a minimum monthly wage as sweeping technological changes and advances in automation continue to displace manual workers.

"Our parents, grandparents and beyond worked hard so that we could produce more by working less, with machines and so forth," Ralph Kundig, president of the Swiss chapter of the Basic Income Earth Network said. "The only thing that they did not foresee was that this wealth would only benefit the owners of the means of production."

Revolutionary or wacky?

Schweiz Absimmung über bedingungsloses Grundeinkommen
Voters also will decide on a range of issues, including whether to allow genetic screening of embryos and a plan to speed up the country's asylum process in Sunday's referendumsImage: Reuters/D. Balibouse

That argument doesn't sway many economists, who say the fear of poverty is largely what motivates a workforce.

"If you pay people to do nothing, they will do nothing," Charles Wyplosz, economics professor at the Geneva Graduate Institute, told the AFP news agency.

Not so, argues Kundig, who says some pilot projects indicate most people wouldn't sit idle even if they could, and that entrepreneurship could be boosted if people weren't so afraid of the financial risk.

"Basic income is much more of a stimulant to employment and the economic activity of a country," he said.

Observers are watching with interest to see how the vote will go. International Labor Organization Director General Guy Ryder said he expected interest in the issue to swell, as technological advances make more and more jobs obsolete, and a growing number of people remain in the ranks of the working poor.

"We are going to have to find ways of distributing national income which are not directly related to the work that we do," Ryder said.

At this point it's all theoretical and it will be up to Swiss voters to decide.

So who would pay for it?

Different models have been posited, including fees on salaries of people who earn more than the minimum, savings from welfare programs that would be discontinued and taxes or spending cuts in the state budget.

jar/jr (AP, AFP)