Italian workers arriving in Brig in 1956.
Italian workers arriving in Brig in 1956. Swiss National Museum / ASL

Switzerland: the reluctant host of Italian guest workers

In the 1960s, Switzerland faced a dilemma regarding its Italian guest workers: their labour was desperately needed, their presence in society less so...

Noëmi Crain Merz

Noëmi Crain Merz

Noëmi Crain Merz is a historian at the University of Basel.

Max Frisch’s famous 1965 quote “we wanted workers, but we got people instead,” exposed Switzerland’s attitude with regard to its 1948 recruitment agreement with Italy. The country’s booming economy needed foreign labour but ‘excessive immigration’ was to be avoided at all costs. Switzerland’s southern neighbour also hoped to benefit from the agreement. Amid rampant unemployment in Italy, the ruling Christian Democrats encouraged young people to spend some time outside the country and avoid falling into the clutches of the communists. The ‘rotation model’ was designed to bring Italian workers to Switzerland – as needed and on a short-term rotating basis – without them staying in the country permanently. The economic boom in Switzerland meant that demand for workers rose steadily during the 1950s. It was not long before hundreds of thousands of Italians were working on building sites, in factories and in private houses. They couldn’t even apply for a residence permit until they had been working in Switzerland for at least ten years. And those who didn’t work were not allowed to stay – with devastating implications for children who had to stay illegally or grow up separated from their parents.
Portrait of Max Frisch, 1990.
Max Frisch criticised Switzerland’s attitude to Italian workers. Swiss National Museum / ASL
Yet the subject of domestic political debate in Switzerland around 1960 was not the precarious situation of Italians, but that of the Swiss themselves. The general consensus was that the country was seeing ‘excessive immigration’, with disastrous consequences for the Swiss people. Various sides called for immigration to be limited, both the National Action for People and Country, which was founded in 1961, and the Swiss Trade Union Federation. The latter called for controls to “preserve the political, cultural and linguistic uniqueness of the Swiss people” in its work programme in 1961. The Swiss economy, however, was keen to retain the system that had contributed to its success. So as not to jeopardise it, the Federal Council entered into negotiations for a revision of the agreement with Italy, where the legal situation of Italians in Switzerland was increasingly coming under fire. In November 1961, an ‘informal visit’ by the Italian labour minister caused a frenzy in Switzerland. Fiorentino Sullo wanted to see the living and working conditions of his compatriots for himself. He visited factories, spoke to Italian workers, and attended official engagements hosted by cantonal and municipal authorities. The warm reception was intended to reinforce the good relations between the two countries. But diplomacy wasn’t exactly Sullo’s strong suit. In a tone described by the Catholic Basler Volksblatt as “not going down well with the Swiss”, he criticised the working conditions of Italian guest workers and the backwardness of the social insurance system. By openly threatening that Italy would make it more difficult to recruit workers unless his demands were met, Sullo managed to alienate his hosts.
Italian guest workers pass the waiting time at the railway station with a card game, 1956.
Italian guest workers pass the waiting time at the railway station with a card game, 1956. Swiss National Museum / ASL
The Federal Council expressed its astonishment “in a reasonable manner” – the two ambassadors were summoned by the respective foreign ministers, and both sides were keen to put the whole affair to bed. But in political circles and in the media, emotions were running high. While Sullo received backing from Italy, the knee-jerk reaction in Switzerland was to point the finger back at Italy. For example, Social Democrat Oreste Fabbri, himself the son of immigrants from northern Italy and a member of the Basel Grand Council, railed against Sullo, saying he should take a look around the slums of his native Naples and start by making sure that everyone in Italy had enough to eat. Both the Swiss left-wing and right-wing media immediately looked southwards, with reports of people in Sicily “walking around with empty stomachs and having to eat herbs and snails.” One report quoted a woman in Italy who had “given blood, sweat and tears her whole life” and still didn’t get a pension. The general feeling was that if this “man named Sullo” really cared about the fate of Italian workers, he had “plenty to do at home”.
Fiorentino Sullo (second left) on his working visit to Switzerland in 1961. Photo from the newspaper Die Tat.
Fiorentino Sullo (second left) on his working visit to Switzerland in 1961. Photo from the newspaper Die Tat. e-newspaperarchivs
It was not until 1964 that the “Italian Agreement” was passed. It brought slight improvements in family reunification and shortened the period for converting seasonal residence permits into annual residence permits. Although other Italian demands were not met, the agreement was harshly criticised in Switzerland, including by trade unionists and social democrats. This irritates the Italian left. When the Zurich SP, in line with the trade unions, demanded an upper limit on the number of foreign workers in Switzerland, without which it would recommend rejecting the agreement, the socialist Libera Stampa headlined: “Quo vadis Svizzera?” In the formerly cosmopolitan neighbouring country, it even identifies tendencies reminiscent of the Hitler era. A “guest worker” from Zurich complained in the communist Unità that the Swiss socialists had slapped the emigrants in the face. While the Parliament was still debating the ratification of the agreement, anti-Italian demonstrations took place. The Nationale Aktion continued to grow, and in 1967 it sent its first National Councillor, James Schwarzenbach, to Bern. His popular initiative to limit the foreign labour force to ten percent of the population was put to the vote in 1970. The all-male electorate rejected it, but the initiative, which was opposed by all the parties in the Federal Council and business organisations, was widely supported.
TV documentary on the Schwarzenbach initiative of 1970 (in German). YouTube / SRF
The trade unions were deeply divided. Millionaire James Schwarzenbach’s narrative of the fight of the ordinary folk against industry representatives went down well with the working classes. He argued that it was not the fault of foreigners “but of those who got them to come” and proposed an initiative to limit the number of foreign workers. The Social Democrats – whose representatives spoke out against the initiative with the exception of the cantonal party in Zug – lost some of their traditional voters to the far right for a long time over the issue. Meanwhile, Milan-based daily Corriere della Sera asked how it was possible to see such a massive and irrational wave of xenophobia in 1970 in a country at the heart of Europe that had already managed its own European unification centuries earlier. Schwarzenbach’s rhetoric shook Switzerland’s image abroad. Sullo’s tone, however, which had got people so worked up in Switzerland, hardly raised an eyebrow. Nowadays, Italian influences are omnipresent in Switzerland and descendants of Italian immigrants are a common feature in the workplace and in public life. It’s hard to believe the extent to which Italians were painted as a threat to Swissness just half a century ago. But the policy of marginalisation, which culminated in Schwarzenbach’s initiative, did not disappear; it was just directed at people from other places instead. As historian Angelo Maiolino says, “the roles are the same, only the actors have changed”.

Experiences of Switzerland — Italianità

16.01.2024 14.04.2024 / National Museum Zurich
A southern European attitude to life is part of Switzerland today. This Italianità stems mainly from Italian immigrants. At the same time, Switzerland has its own home-grown Italianità in Ticino and Graubünden. Many Swiss have adopted the Italian lifestyle over the years, and it is now in evidence across the country – from Basel to Vevey and Sitten, and from Zurich to Biel’s old town. It is part of the country’s intangible cultural heritage. Nonetheless, the path to today’s Mediterranean Switzerland was not always a smooth one; it is littered with both uplifting and sad life stories. Ten contemporary witnesses share their personal accounts in the new 'Experiences of Switzerland – Italianità' exhibition.

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