$3,400 a month to do nothing? Swiss expected to vote against it

A campaign group backing the basic income plan set a Guinness world record for the world's largest poster this month.
A campaign group backing the basic income plan set a Guinness world record for the world's largest poster this month. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

ZURICH • The Swiss are discussing a plan under which they would be paid 2,500 francs (S$3,484) a month for doing nothing.

The country will vote next month on whether the government should introduce an unconditional basic income to replace various welfare benefits.

It sounds good, except for two things. It would barely get you over the poverty line, typically defined as 60 per cent of the national median disposable income, in one of the world's most expensive countries.

More importantly, it's probably not going to happen anyway.

Switzerland's People Power Plebiscites are a common part of the country's direct democracy, with multiple votes every year.

The basic income initiative is taking place after the proposal gathered the required 100,000 signatures, though current polls suggest it won't get any further.

The idea of paying everyone a stipend has also piqued interest in other countries, such as Canada, the Netherlands and Finland, where an initial study began last year.

The initiators say the sum they have mentioned would allow for a "decent existence".

Still, on an annual basis, it would provide only 30,000 francs - just above the 2014 poverty line of 29,501 francs.

Nearly one in eight people in Switzerland were below the level in that year, according to the statistics office.

That's more than in France, Denmark and Norway, where one in five over 65 were at risk of being poor.

"It's not like you see abject poverty in Switzerland," said Dr Andreas Ladner, professor of political science at the University of Lausanne.

"But there are a few people who don't have enough money, and there are some people who work and don't earn enough."

Among the proponents of basic income is former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, who says it is necessary as automation and robots increasingly eliminate jobs.

"A rich country like Switzerland has the great opportunity to try out this great experiment," he said.

The initiative does not lay out the conditions under which non-citizens would qualify.

The proposal is opposed by the government, which says the stipend would mean higher taxes, create disincentives to work and cause a skills shortage.

The economy is already hamstrung by the franc's strength, with businesses warning they may move production to less pricey locations to reduce costs.

"We've come to the conclusion that such an initiative could weaken our economy," said Interior Minister Alain Berset.

That view has struck a chord with the electorate: Polls show some 60 per cent also oppose it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2016, with the headline '$3,400 a month to do nothing? Swiss expected to vote against it'. Print Edition | Subscribe