The Swiss have approved a “fat-cat referendum" to limit executive pay by a crushing 68 percent to 32 percent, no great surprise perhaps given the current mood on bankers and other superrich around the globe. Yet this is Switzerland, not Greece, Italy or Spain and the vote isn't the end of it. Switzerland is unhappy, and it is changing.
The referendum was the brainchild of Thomas Minder. The independent legislator began his struggle to give shareholders in Swiss-listed companies the right to control the pay of executives and board members in 2006. The anger that turned him into the man many Swiss see as an avenging angel was sparked as long ago as 2001, when Swissair, the national airline, went bankrupt.
Minder’s company, which supplied toothpaste to Swissair, was almost driven to the wall because its invoices initially went unpaid. Mario Corti, the chief executive officer of Swissair's parent Sair Group, left the company after a few months, pocketing 12 million Swiss francs (then $7.5 million) in an advance payment he didn't have to return.
Minder’s "yes" campaign in the referendum received a huge boost on Feb. 15, when it emerged that Daniel Vasella, the outgoing CEO of pharmaceuticals company Novartis AG, was to be given a $78 million payoff over six years in exchange for not working for any of the company's competitors. Vasella renounced the payoff once the story broke, but it was too late.
On the face of it, with low unemployment and one of the best standards of living on the planet, ordinary Swiss have little to complain about. Still, they are worried about how long they can fend off the crisis that has engulfed the rest of Europe, and dissatisfied with a feeling of being ripped off by their elites.
“It is scandalous. No one deserves to be paid such monstrously high salaries, especially when their employees get paid not much in comparison,” Marianne Lecoultre, a pensioner who lives in a modest flat on the outskirts of Geneva, told me.
Business lobbies warned before the March 2 referendum that restricting pay and bonuses could lead to an exodus of companies from Switzerland. That threat lacked punch, though, because the European Union is moving in the same direction.
The vote also seemed to bear out Paul Rechsteiner, the president of the Swiss trade union confederation, who says that in opposing Minder’s plans, the government “underestimates the problem of low salaries" in Switzerland. He was speaking last week in the capital, Bern, about the results of a University of Geneva study his union commissioned, which found that 437,000 people, or 11.8 percent of employees, work for a subsistence level salary.
The result of the fat-cat vote will put wind in the sails of two more referendum initiatives. One would set a legal minimum wage of 4,000 Swiss francs a month; the other is the so-called 1:12 initiative, which would restrict the highest salary in a Swiss company to no more than 12 times the lowest one. Joseph Jimenez, Vasella's replacement at Novartis, earns for example, 266 times more than the lowest paid employee in the company, according to data compiled by the BBC.
Socialist Party President Christian Levrat said last week that people didn't care about the details of the legislation that will follow from the fat-cat referendum, and just wanted to “send a message and express their anger.” After the vote, he said, it was his party’s job to follow up. “Alone,” he said, the referendum is "not enough to reinforce social justice. It is just the beginning.”
The Swiss like to think of themselves as an egalitarian people, brought up on the legend of William Tell, who struck a blow for liberty and famously shot an apple from his son’s head so as to win their freedom. If some of their prosperity came from turning a blind eye to the source of some of the money that came to Switzerland from abroad, then that was all right, too.
Switzerland feels different now. The Swiss don’t like huge salaries, and they don’t like that many of the fattest cats earning them are foreigners. At the other end of the employment scale, they think that foreigners are the worst social security cheats, and that thieves from France pop over the border to burgle their homes.
Swiss from Geneva also blame overpaid executives, diplomats and United Nations employees for driving the price of property so high that many locals can no longer afford to live in their home town or even the surrounding canton.
The Swiss also made more complaints last year than ever before about high retail prices, according to “Monsieur Prix” (Mr. Price), as the government’s consumer protection bureau chief is called.
At the same time, this is a moment of introspection for the Swiss. They don’t like that much of the rest of the world sees them in a less benign light that they once did, accusing the Swiss of letting the country's bank secrecy rules turn the country into a lucrative haven for foreigners to evade taxes and launder money. Thanks to pressure from abroad, new legislation is in the works to restrict cash purchases, for example of property, in order to prevent money laundering.
It isn't just foreigners who are piling on the pressure. Temps Present, the flagship documentary program on Swiss public television ran a piercing investigation last week into Nestle SA, one of Switzerland’s biggest companies, suggesting that it bears some responsibility for the killings of trade unionists who had worked for it in Colombia and the Philippines. Nestle denied the allegations.
It seems that all of Europe is angry. In the Italian elections last month a quarter of voters cast their ballots for Beppe Grillo's protest movement. In the U.K., 28 percent of people voted for the anti-immigrant, anti-EU U.K. Independence Party in a Feb. 28 by-election. Both of these political parties were marginal just a few years ago. Minder's referendum in Switzerland proves that even the citizens of one of the richest countries on the continent, aren't immune to the frustration those results demonstrate.
Sure, the Swiss aren't angry like the Greeks yet, they're just annoyed. But clearly the times are changing even in Switzerland.
(Tim Judah, the Europe correspondent for the World View blog, is a correspondent for the Economist and author of several books on the Balkans. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed are his own.)