“Fight for your rights” is the slogan of the campaign for the rights of young workers in Switzerland organized by the Socialist Youth (Juso).
The campaign was proposed by the Marxist tendency within the Juso gathered around the paper “Der Funke - L’etincelle” and won the vote between five different proposals at the Juso national congress last December. This campaign is taking place during a national election year and is a milestone in organizing young workers and in strengthening resistance against the unworthy working condition of apprentices in Switzerland.
The Swiss apprenticeship system has its roots in the late Middle Ages, where craftsmen took in apprentices to both exploit cheap labour and to pass down their skills to the next generation. Usually these apprentices did not receive a salary, but lived in the master's house and were provided with food and clothing. This system of education survived the capitalist transformation of society and, particularly in German speaking Europe, has proven very popular amongst the ruling classes of these countries. Ultimately it remains a very cheap way of educating new generations of the workforce, considering the ridiculously low wages of apprentices when compared to their important participation in the productive process during their education. It also allows the capitalists to educate new generations according to their direct needs, be it simply cheap labour, or highly specialized experts.
The apprenticeship system is often considered to be one of the main pillars of success of the Swiss economy. Even if this is not entirely wrong, it is primarily a success for the Swiss bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie of several other countries (the US, Spain, etc.) are envious to learn about this system and implement it in their national economies. An apprenticeship in Switzerland usually takes 3-4 years and consists of 3-4 days of practical training in the workplace, and 1-2 days of theoretical education in vocational schools per week. Apprentices are often a very cheap workforce, which are exploited almost at will. The well-being of the apprentices and of society in general hardly plays a part.
Apprenticeships are a popular topic in the Swiss media, but little is written about the working conditions of apprentices. Not long ago the Swiss tabloid Blick headlined: "Pupils too stupid for apprenticeships". This disgusting article once more propagated the position of the representatives of the economic elite - it is the position of the bourgeoisie, which does not always see its often absurd demands on apprentices fulfilled.
Simultaneously, a totally distorted picture of reality has been drawn. The 1,000 posts for apprentices in Switzerland which have not been filled this year, are evidence enough for Blick that "many graduates are too stupid for apprenticeships". The aim is to make young people believe that it is their own fault if they can't find a job as an apprentice. What is not mentioned is that a big part of these soon-to-be apprentices cannot actually find an apprentice position to begin with.
The tabloid also fully ignores the tremendous expectations the companies have on 15 and 16 year olds. Depending on the sector, countless tests, preliminary investigations and pre-internships are required. The 100 and more applications which are handed in by often desperate students are used by the corporations in a clinical way to select completely at will. The young students are under enormous pressure to adapt as they are told by their entire environment that they won't have any future prospects without an apprentice position. Free choice of the profession only exists for a tiny minority with excellent educational and communicational abilities. The choice of profession is often actually made by the corporations and not by the apprentice. Many have to simply take the apprenticeship they can get.
Working conditions during apprenticeships
Those lucky enough to have found an apprenticeship quickly and brutally learn what it is like to be on the lowest level of the hierarchical company structure. If the apprentices have no master craftsman who absorbs the pressure on “their” apprentices, the young workers will quickly we be treated like the company's doormat. If a department head has to distribute dull auxiliary work, the burden is often put on the apprentice. If it is necessary to replace a cleaner, for example, the apprentices will become a “cleaning crew”.
It is widely and conveniently ignored by the corporations that Swiss law prohibits forcing apprentices to labour, which is not part of their profession. The companies themselves have declared that in the first year of their apprenticeship these young workers spend 50 percent of their time doing things that have nothing to do with the profession they are actually training in. In addition, some 55 percent of apprentices have to work more than 9 hours per day at least once a month, although this is clearly forbidden by law. 25 percent of the apprentices don’t even get this illegal overtime paid.
Safety regulations at work are also often ignored, for example one out of every eight apprentices has an accident at their workplace every year. Three apprentices die every year from accidents at the workplace. Occupational accidents are often a consequence of high pressure workplace conditions, alongside a general disregard for safety regulations by the bosses in order to cut costs. Again, it becomes apparent that the conditions during apprenticeships are determined by the interests of the exploiters, rather than by the interests of the apprentices or of society at large, which benefits from a good professional education.
Although apprentices’ level of productivity is on a comparable level to that of trained workers, their wage level is considerably lower. According to the recommendations of the branch associations’, the highest wages are between 600 and 800 Swiss francs in the first year of the apprenticeship and 1,200 to 1,400 Swiss francs in the last. The differences between the branches are big and there is mostly no obligation to stick to those recommendations.
These scandalous incidents of wage dumping have nothing to do with the real performance of the apprentices. 80 percent of the apprentices estimate their productivity in the last year of their apprenticeship as more than 75 percent of the productivity of a fully trained worker. Meanwhile the companies make an overall annual profit of more than 500 million francs through exploiting the apprentices. At the same time, it is barely possible to survive on an apprentice’s wage. Note that the minimum budget for a young person living alone in Switzerland is roughly 1,500 francs. Being that under these conditions most apprentices have to stay in the household of their parents, it is them that subsidize the profits of the exploiters.
Who resists, gets attacked
As we have seen, the laws and directives for the protection of apprentices are not worth the paper they are written on. Those responsible for the surveillance of the labour conditions of apprentices often feel more committed to the bosses than to the apprentices. They often announce controls beforehand and turn a blind eye towards abuses. And even if they wanted to help the apprentices, their room for doing so is very small.
The last solution to “solve” a conflict is often the termination of the apprenticeship which pushes the apprentices into unemployment. Legal consequences for the corporations are very rare. If you legally, financially or personally contest unjust conditions, you are often told to shut up, to clench your teeth and to finish your apprenticeship. Young workers who defend their interests are considered to be traitors to their workplace. They are being beaten down and those who are not able to bear these attacks lose their jobs. In this case you have to change the apprenticeship or to start it all over again. 28 percent of all apprenticeships in Switzerland are terminated prematurely. It is often stated that the high school requirements are the problem. If you ask apprentices from the building industry why they cancelled their apprenticeship, the answers you get all point in one direction and it's not very flattering for the bourgeoisie: 52 percent of all dropouts stated that they were ranted at for errors – even though they were actually there to learn something. Likewise 52 percent stated that they felt unchallenged and treated like henchmen.
The conditions mentioned above are neither random, nor the fault of individual companies. The exploitation and oppression of apprentices is part of the capitalist system we are living in. With ridiculously low wages and at the whim of the arbitrariness of their bosses, apprentices have always been one of the most exploited sectors of the proletariat.
The superstructure of this exploitation is the belief that it is important for young adults to witness miserable working conditions as a rite of passage. To justify this capitalist daylight robbery, the tabloid media present themselves as the colporteur of the image of a youth which does not know how to work hard. The perfidiously fabricated headlines of the tabloid press draw the picture of a lazy youth which needs to be disciplined through labour to become valuable members of society. The significance of this hustle against the young generation is not to advance society further, but is only to reproduce an economic system which is based on the exploitation of the many by the few.
But the often miserable conditions during apprenticeships are not written in stone. They are above all an expression of the lack of pressure from the organizations of the working class. The rights of apprentices have been widely neglected or ignored by trade unions for decades. There were movements of apprentices in the 1970s which conquered improvements for young workers, but today there is hardly any movement among the apprentices. In the context of the crisis of capitalism and the consequences of the strong Swiss franc, it is necessary to organise the apprentices in the workers’ movement as they will be under more pressure from the capitalist class while they seek to maximize the exploitation ratio during the crisis.
A campaign for the rights of young workers
About 73 percent of all young Swiss take an apprenticeship nowadays. But most political organizations ignore the severe working conditions which apprentices face in their everyday life. Because of these facts the Marxist tendency “Der Funke – L’étincelle”, proposed to the ranks of the Socialist Youth to adopt and carry out a campaign towards the apprentices. It aims at organizing these young workers as part of the working class movement and at fighting to improve their working and living conditions. To many people's surprise, a majority of the delegates of the Socialist Youth annual congress decided to support the proposition of the Marxist tendency, which aims at organizing 500 apprentices within the ranks of the Socialist Youth within a year. The reaction of the political representatives of the bourgeoisie came immediately: the henchmen of the exploiters sent their youth organizations to claim that it would be irresponsible to organize young workers, that young workers who fight back could be a danger for Switzerland as a business location, etc.
The hustle which set in after the apprentices’ campaign had been announced shows that we are attacking the ruling class at a vulnerable spot. Large layers of the youth are angry at being misused as cheap labour. As a part of the campaign, activists all over the country started to visit vocational schools, collect signatures for a petition and to start discussions about the apprentices’ working conditions. The vast majority of people at vocational schools are easily convinced that it is necessary to stand up against an apprenticeship system which only satisfies the needs of the ruling class. The feedback we are getting with the campaign among young workers is extremely positive.
What we fight for
The primary approach to the question of apprentices must be the demand for the abolition of apprenticeship itself. We want to wrest the control over the education of young workers away from the claws of the individual capitalists and put it under the democratic control of the working class so that it can serve the needs of society as a whole.
For this purpose the Marxist tendency has published a transitional programme for young workers. Starting from the demand to enforce the existing laws like limited overtime, prohibition of auxiliary work, safety standards and the prohibition of physical and psychological abuse, arises the need of creating democratic organs of the workers and unions to control and enforce these laws and ensure the overall quality of education.
Furthermore, we need to stop the outrageous exploitation of the apprentices by significantly raising their wage to an amount that allows them to pay for their own expenses. We demand a wage of 2,000 Swiss Francs per month in the first year progressing to 2,500, 3,000, 3,500 in the following years, which would bring apprentices’ wages closer to the minimum wage levels currently accepted. We demand 13 weeks of vacation, the same amount that high school students have at that age.
These are only a few of the demands we need to pose, but capitalism is not able to provide even these basic demands aiming at ensuring the dignity and safety of the young workforce in this country. The implementation of these demands would undermine the profitability of the apprenticeship scheme itself and therefore lead to a sudden halt of firms providing jobs for apprentices. This would directly pose the question of democratically planning the education of young workers, for which purpose and for whose benefit production is run and ultimately question the role of private property itself.
The most important step to ignite the struggle for this programme amongst young workers is however the organization of the most advanced and radicalized apprentices. The “fight for your rights” campaign is a vehicle to reach these young workers. So far we have produced a paper named “Rebellion” for the schools and an extensive pamphlet that deals with the situation of apprentices in Switzerland. With this we are regularly present at the schools in seven regions of the country.
As Marxists, we understand that this campaign conducted by the Socialist Youth over a period of six months, can only be the beginning of a permanent presence in the apprentices’ schools, with the objective of gaining a real base amongst young workers in Switzerland and so strengthening the workers’ movement and the revolutionary forces of Marxism in Switzerland.