Switzerland to vote on the world's highest base wage

Switzerland is already known for a high quality of life, with more disposable income per household than many other developed countries and ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world.

But now the Swiss will head to the polls on Sunday to vote on what would be the world's highest minimum wage. The measure would create a national baseline pay of 22 Swiss francs per hour, or about $25. That would guarantee a monthly rate of 4,000 francs a month, or almost $4,500. The U.S. minimum wage, by comparison, is less than one-third of what Switzerland is proposing, at $7.25 per hour.

The campaign was prompted by Switzerland's largest trade union, the SGB, which told CNBC that the measure is seeking to protect the majority of Swiss workers, given that the country doesn't currently have a baseline wage. Nevertheless, the Swiss possess one of the highest standards of living, with the average household enjoying per-capita disposable income of almost $31,000 per year, or about 28 percent higher than the average for all countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The proposal faces opposition from both businesses and Swiss citizens, while the government warned earlier this year that a 22-franc baseline wage would threaten the country's competitiveness and likely inadvertently hurt low-income workers.

"It's obviously going to drive up labor costs and we would expect the unemployment rate to go up as a result," said Richard Dutu, an economist at the OECD, told CBS MoneyWatch. "Besides, Switzerland has a good track record in the transition between education and the labor market. A high minimum wage would threaten this smooth transition."

The SGB argues that the lack of a minimum wage hurts about 330,000 workers, most of whom are female and earn less than 4,000 francs per month, which the group says is too low to live on given the country's high cost of living. The SGB didn't immediately return a request for comment.

Geneva and Zurich are among the world's most expensive cities, according The Economist's Worldwide Cost of Living 2013 report. The average cost of a loaf of bread is more than $6 in Zurich, the survey found.

Still, it's unlikely that the vote will be successful, given concern from many in Switzerland about how a the world's highest mandated wage would impact the country's competitiveness, Dutu said.

"It's unlikely that this is going to go through" because many voters "are afraid it is going to jeopardize the attractiveness of the Swiss economy," he noted.

The push echoes growing global concerns about wage inequality and the plight of low-wage workers. Fast-food strikes expanded globally this week, with workers at McDonald's (MCD) and other restaurants protesting what many say are poverty wages.

In the U.S., President Obama is pushing for a $10.10 minimum wage, which some economists have said would lift 5 million Americans out of poverty. While the debate continues at the federal level, some states, such as Vermont, have already passed legislation to raise their baseline wages above the country's $7.25 minimum wage.

  • Aimee Picchi

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