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University of Basel

The lives of cross-border commuters.

Text: Tobias Ehrenbold

Some 320,000 commuters – twice as many as 20 years ago – cross the border into Switzerland for work. Sociologist Cédric Duchêne-Lacroix takes a closer look at the complex lives of cross-border commuters.

When his Swiss co-workers sign off at the end of the working day and go out for a drink together, he, unfortunately, has to catch the train; otherwise, he wouldn’t get back home to his family in France until after ten in the evening. By crossing over the border he was sadly missing “plein de choses” (all kinds of things), one respondent explained to the authors of the study “The Situation of Cross-Border Commuters in Switzerland”. Generally speaking, maintaining friendships, living a family life, or pursuing hobbies is quite a challenge for cross-border commuters, explains Cédric Duchêne-Lacroix, who conducted the study in collaboration with colleagues at Basel and Luxemburg universities as well as the Geneva School of Social Work. According to the study, cross-border commuters tend to be better qualified, highly mobile, and well integrated in Switzerland.

International Northwestern Switzerland

Cross-border commuters have existed as long as there have been borders. Since 2000, the number of cross-border commuters in Switzerland has more than doubled to almost 320,000 today. In other words, more than 6% of all employees reside abroad; in some regions, this figure is even as high as 25%. This significant rise in numbers had already started to manifest itself even before the introduction of the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons (AFMP), following a decline in cross-border commuters in the 1990s, explains Duchêne-Lacroix. This trend is not related to a slackening of work permit regulations, but rather to Switzerland’s economic stability.

Basel is the third most important destination in Switzerland for employees whose usual residence is abroad. The canton of Basel-Stadt now has just short of 37,000 cross-border commuters, while the canton of Baselland has an additional 21,000 plus. One in six employees here lives either in Germany or France. There are other border movements in the Basel region, says Duchêne-Lacroix, citing shopping tourism as an example. Movement here is in the other direction, with Swiss consumers shopping in nearby towns across the border, often resulting in traffic jams in German border towns. According to a study, Swiss-German shopping tourism makes up as much as 70% of business in the border towns. Besides international cross-border traffic, there is also cross-border movement within the different cantons in Switzerland. The city of Basel alone, for instance, attracts 50,000 employees from the Basel region. Interestingly, these commuters are rarely referred to as cross-border commuters.

Here, Duchêne-Lacroix is referring to a peculiarity that borders have—the fact that we perceive them differently because their significance often only unfolds in our minds. In Basel, the notion of borders would appear to be less strong than elsewhere. Here, chance meetings with people from a neighboring country, for example, are part and parcel of daily life. What has changed in recent years, however, is the origin of the cross-border commuters. In the 20th century, most came from the Alsace and often worked in factories and retail stores, whereas now an increasing number of people who live in Germany have office or lab jobs in Basel.

At present, the number of French and German crossborder commuters in Basel is roughly equal. The German workforce tends to be highly qualified and, having German as a native tongue, they have the edge over the French, says Duchêne-Lacroix. Swiss salaries—which are often significantly higher than across the border—are without a doubt one of the decisive factors here. It would be oversimplifying matters, however, to say that the motivation behind the cross-border movement of labor is purely financial. More important, for example, is the prospect of an international career, explains Duchêne-Lacroix. Employment mobility among young people, in particular, is very high, with young workers changing their residence situation to suit their job and some not infrequently even setting up home in several locations at the same time.

Competition from across the borders

In his research, Duchêne-Lacroix has observed how different the perception of cross-border commuters is from one part of Switzerland to the next. In the north, for example, political reactions are barely discernible, whereas in Geneva and Ticino, cross-border workers or frontaliers, as they are commonly referred to, are very much a political issue. “These regions are seeing the biggest increase in the number of crossborder commuters,” explains Duchêne-Lacroix, adding that “while cross-border commuters go practically unnoticed in the north-west, on the labor market here they are seen as foreign competition.” In the two cantons frequented most by cross-border commuters—more than 84,000 in Geneva and almost 65,000 in Ticino—right-wing populist parties have long since been urging for action to be taken. According to the Geneva Citizens’ Movement (MCG), which began in 2005, the frontaliers are partly to blame for the persistent traffic jams in Geneva.

Meanwhile in Ticino, the movie Frontaliers Disaster (which roughly translates to: The Misadventures of a Cross-border Commuter) sheds a comical, humorous light on this phenomenon. Such negative portrayals of cross-border workers played a decisive role in securing victory for the “yes” vote in the 2014 referendum on mass immigration in Switzerland. Slogans such as “Prima i Ticinesi!” (“Ticino First!”) served to underline the new dichotomies during the referendum campaign: Swiss/Frontaliers – Us/Them – Legal/Illegal.

Despite the fact that the referendum sought to set a limit on cross-border commuters as well, their numbers continue to rise. As various economic studies show, the labor market in Switzerland relies on them. It’s as simple as that, explains Duchêne-Lacroix, citing the example of the healthcare sector, which would have significant bottlenecks to deal with if it weren’t for cross-border workers. Even considering the many care jobs carried out predominantly by women from across the border, there has been little impact on the structure of the cross-border workforce, with almost two-thirds being male. Having roots in your home town or city tends to be more important for women than for men, Duchêne-Lacroix says. According to a study, female cross-border workers are less likely to pursue new friendships in Switzerland than their male counterparts.

Statistics do not reflect the reality

One hundred years ago, the situation was the opposite, with more Swiss workers crossing the border for work than foreigners. With the exception of Liechtenstein, where more than 10,000 Swiss are employed, the daily commute between Switzerland and abroad has been completely reversed. In Baden, which is located in the German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, for example, the ratio of Swiss to German cross-border commuters is 600 to 35,000.

There may be more and more statistics, explains Duchêne-Lacroix, but cross-border commuters continue to be poorly recorded. The different methods used by the various offices mean that it’s often impossible to compare figures. Many cross-border commuters are also often too mobile to be recorded at all. The Swiss Federal Statistical Office, for instance, only records cross-border commuters with crossborder permits who return to their homes across the border at least once a week. The number of unrecorded cross-border commuters with more than one place of residence is, in all probability, rather sizable, adds Duchêne-Lacroix.


More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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