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Women in Swiss Watch Making

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20 November, 2012IndustriALL’s Swiss affiliate UNIA has published a history of women in Swiss watch making compiled by Stéphanie Lachat. It relates the history of women who have made the Swiss watch making industry what it is since the 19th century.

From the end of the 19th century women made up between one-third and one half of the work force of Swiss watch makers. At that time women were supposed to stay home. Nevertheless most of the elite at the time saw the women’s work as an opportunity to beat poverty. The companies, however, mainly considered the women to be cheap labor and workers who kept their mouths shut. Working in the watch factories apparently was less harmful to health than doing the same work at home, where the women were exploited more, paid less and did the work together with their children. Some employers took advantage of them to cut prices and at the same time produce lower quality merchandise than what was made in the factories.

A local journal praised the creation of a crèche in 1883 in Saint-Imier, the aim of which was to enable the two parents to work and live more decently and protect their children. Charitable foundations also created kindergartens, primary classes and vacation centers for the workers’ children.

The idea to encourage women to work was based on the desire to avoid impoverishment which was feared to lead to socialism or communism or even anarchy. At the time it was mainly the emerging trade unions who were opposed to women working. They were afraid of the competition from women and women lowering pay standards, what we would call dumping today. The Left and the trade unions were more interested in raising men’s pay to make it superfluous for women to work.

From the very beginning there was job segregation in watch making. That sill did not keep men and women from working together in the same factory, in spite of some moralists preaching against promiscuity. Women nevertheless were supposed to leave work a half hour earlier to tend to their household chores as well as to take Saturday afternoons off. Night work and Sunday working were forbidden.

In the meantime the struggle is for equal pay between women and men. Women in watchmaking earn 5161 francs and men 7269.

UNIA women who work in industry met on 19 October to demand real progress in terms of equal pay. They adopted a resolution demanding detailed audits of women’s and men’s wages in the engineering and metal working sectors, calling upon the industry to participate in the dialogue on pay equity, an instrument which aims to close the pay gap. The women are demanding access to information on pay systems, classification and promotion in order to allow corrective measures to be taken. They are also demanding training and retraining. In order to raise women’s low wages, they are in favor of introducing a minimum wage in the industry. Finally, they want the Federal Council to give political priority to pay equity.