On 19 August 2015 Le Temps reported that Amazon is again being accused of making life hell for its employees.
How does the situation in Switzerland compare? Swiss companies, and the workplace in general in Switzerland are no better. Cases of employee harassment, including managers and executives, are frequent.
Switzerland offers little protection legally. When it comes to the employees of multinationals, court proceedings can be a nightmare. It is very expensive, time consuming, tedious and painful, with uncertain outcomes and often derisory compensation. It is also incompatible with obtaining new employment.
If employees resist the urge to commit suicide, they suffer terribly, many becoming ill. Unemployment and legal proceedings then complete the mental and physical damage leaving employees irreversibly broken. Some are left unable to work. A study by the University of Zurich, which focuses on the period from 2000 to 2011, found that 45,000 suicides out of a total of 230,000 annually across 63 countries were linked with unemployment. This is around one in five. While Switzerland was well placed in this study, with only one suicide out of seven linked to unemployment, there were still 150 such cases per year.
Victims experience a descent into hell: loss of career, depression, family conflicts, divorce, illness and financial problems can all be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Depending on the severity of the situation, it can take years before they recover from the toxic effects of the abuse suffered. The gnawing sense of injustice eats away at their soul while those around them cannot see or understand their pain.
For their part, employers are rarely convicted or penalized commensurately with the mistreatment they have committed. In one case, a malicious employer even recommended an employee turn to the justice system, knowing that the individual would get bogged down in the process.
Therefore few try their luck in court, especially when they are vulnerable and unemployed. Nor do they necessarily have the financial means to pursue their employer. Reluctantly, injured parties accept amicable agreements, which does nothing to stop the perversity of the situation. The triumphant employer becomes even bolder and less empathetic. Employees become pawns unable to manage their professional futures, their lives, and even opinions. In multinational companies, managers are moved to various projects around the world. Such transfers are attractive to young people in training, curious to discover the world, however for older staff they can be very inconvenient and disastrous for their family life. Others are subjected to very stringent working conditions, and sometimes impossible to live with situations.
Why not leave? There is a misconception that employees always have a choice. What do you do when you get older, when you are a single parent or have specific expertise in a narrow field?
It is also wrong to justify abuse because employees receive high executives salaries. Nothing justifies the violation of human dignity. Never forget that abused employees, working under duress and the fear of tyrannical employers, are more concerned about their own fate than the quality and safety of the products and services they produce or manage.
And just because the media only occasionally speak about this does not mean it is rare. Some cases of abuse can be so subtle that employees are unaware of it until they are burned out. It’s like putting a little poison in their coffee every day.
Mistreatment of employees at all levels is unacceptable in a country as civilized as Switzerland. This topic resurfaces periodically but without politicians reacting and taking effective action. The tragedy is that in Switzerland there is no real structure to help victims, and for various reasons, employees are unable to organise and defend themselves. Those who have experienced workplace abuse prefer to remain silent because they have been humiliated and want to protect their reputation. Many do not dare to mention their situation to their family and friends from fear of being perceived as a failure.
Make no mistake about it, it is not because the media only occasionally reports cases of harassment that it is a rare phenomenon in Switzerland or elsewhere. Instead, it is so widespread that it is considered commonplace. The silence of society, especially the political class, has allowed such practices to become a standard and integral part of work culture. Today more and more young people intuitively feel that this management culture is unhealthy and are already experiencing disgust […] We urgently need to take a critical look at the situation in Switzerland, and take effective action.
By Yasmine Motarjemi
Yasmine is a former Senior Scientist at the World Health Organization and former executive head of food safety at Nestlé.
The original French version of this article was published in the Swiss newspaper Le Temp on 26 August 2015.