ZURICH – When Patrik Höfliger’s daughter Elea was born in April, his employer only gave him two days off. The father of two, who lives near Zurich, took a three-week vacation to support his wife’s recovery and to look after their other daughter.
“I think the time immediately after the birth is particularly important,” said Höfliger, who works as a computer scientist for an IT service company. “If I hadn’t been there, I would have missed it.”
Switzerland is the only country in Western Europe without paid paternity leave, where birth fathers only have one day off after the birth of a child – the same time to move. However, this may change on Sunday when the Swiss vote in a referendum that provides 10 days vacation for new fathers.
Although a paternity leave clause was supposed to come into effect after parliamentary approval last year, a group of Conservative politicians who opposed the law garnered enough signatures to put the issue under a referendum.
Local media polls suggest voters are likely to endorse the law. The trial, however, has revealed the deeply conservative views on gender issues in a country that did not give women the right to vote until 1971 and required women to have their husbands permission to work outside the home until 1988.
Organizations such as Travailsuisse, a trade union federation, have been promoting paid paternity leave for over 10 years.
“Today fathers want to be part of their children’s lives from the very beginning,” said Adrian Wüthrich, the group’s president. “It is also important that fathers can support their partners after the birth.”
In 2016, Travailsuisse started an initiative together with three legal organizations that proposed changing the federal constitution so that employers must grant four weeks of paternity leave. Parliament met her halfway and later passed a law requiring two weeks of paternity leave, which provided that it must be taken within six months of the birth.
However, a group of conservative politicians, spearheaded by Diana Gutjahr of the populist Swiss People’s Party, quickly collected the 50,000 signatures required for a referendum to repeal the law.
“We shouldn’t finance things that are nice but not absolutely necessary,” said Ms. Gutjahr, a legislator in the lower house of the Federal Assembly, in an interview. She said that while maternity leave is important “because a mother needs to breastfeed and physically recover from childbirth,” a father does not have a similarly important role.
“The proposed law only focuses on giving fathers two extra weeks of vacation,” she said.
Ms. Gutjahr is also against the Paternity Leave Act because she believes that the state should take a more straightforward approach to social issues.
“In Switzerland we have a flexible labor market and I don’t want the state to introduce more regulations,” she said, adding that companies can voluntarily introduce their own guidelines on paid paternity.
One company that has done this is Swiss pharmaceuticals giant Novartis, which announced last year that fathers would get 18 weeks of paid paternity leave in the country.
However, Mr. Wüthrich from Travailsuisse estimates that less than 20 percent of men now have employment contracts with such clauses. “It’s usually the big companies that can afford it,” he said.
Under the law passed last year, fathers would get 80 percent of their salary with a daily cap of 196 Swiss Francs or $ 213. The leave would be paid equally by employers and employees. The law would not apply to adoptive fathers. Parliament is currently deciding separately whether adoptive parents should receive 10 days of parental leave.
For Mr Wüthrich, the law is a step towards gender equality. “These two weeks may be a small step, but a very important one,” he said.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday underlined the differences between Switzerland and its neighbors, saying that his country would double paid paternity leave to 28 days and that fathers would have to take at least a week off after their babies arrived.
Patricia Purtschert, Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Bern, said that structural barriers to equality in Switzerland still exist, also because women have been excluded as decision-makers for so long. Many Swiss school children eat lunch at home, so that many parents – often mothers – have to be there for them.
“Although a lot has changed in recent years, the traditional gender model in Switzerland is still very strong,” she said.
Another reason the country has been slow to change when it comes to women’s rights is that “the family is still seen as a private matter in which the state should not interfere,” said Ms. Purtschert.
She said the traditional view was also evident in the way opponents of the referendum had shaped the vote. The German term for paternity leave in Switzerland directly means “paternity leave”.
“Taking care of a newborn baby is nobody’s vacation,” she said.
If the Swiss population votes yes on Sunday, the ruling will likely apply to fathers of children born on or after January 1, 2021. If the law is repulsed, the matter cannot be brought before parliament for several years.
Mr Höfliger said he would vote for paternity leave on Sunday. “I think we owe it to our families,” he said.
But not all fathers with newborns agree.
Lukas Inauen, who lives in the central Swiss village of Siebnen, took a two-week vacation in January after the birth of his third child, Yael, after his employer had given him just one day off. But he plans to vote against the new law.
“If you want to have children, you have to be willing to sacrifice your vacation time,” he said – although he added, “If I had got the two weeks, of course I would have taken them.”