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Wage gap widening in Switzerland, says trade union

Top company chief executives took home an average of 148 times more in salary than the lowest paid workers at the same firms last year, says Swiss trade union Unia.

The wage gap at Switzerland’s largest 37 companies increased from a ratio of 142:1 ratio in 2018.

Pharma firm Roche’s CEO Severin Schwan was the worst offender with his CHF15.1 million earning ($15.9 million) weighing in at 308 times greater than the lowest salary in the group. Bank UBS’s Sergio Ermotti was in second place with a wage gap ratio of 241:1, followed by Ulf Mark Schneider of food company Nestlé who got 230 times more than the lowest wage earner.

Unia also says that some companies are bending rules that ban excessive severance packages. So-called “golden handshake” deals have been outlawed in Switzerland following the acceptance of the “Minder initiative” by a nationwide vote in 2013.

The trade union accuses both Credit Suisse and ABB of twisting the spirit of the popular vote by awarding departing CEOs excessively generous parting gifts. Former Credit Suisse CEO Tidjane Thiam is likely to receive some CHF30 million in deferred bonuses after leaving the bank under a cloud following a “spygate” scandal.

Former CEO of ABB Ulrich Spiesshofer will be paid CHF13 million two years after stepping down, because of a non-compete contract, says Unia.

The trade union also sharply criticised some companies for awarding the lowest paid workers so little. This could be as low as CHF4,000 per month, which Unia considers below the minimum level to subsist in Switzerland.

In contrast, shareholders enjoyed a bumper year in dividend payments and share buyback schemes totaling some CHF63 billion among the companies surveyed. Nestlé led the way with just over CHF17 billion while Novartis paid out CHF12 billion. In some cases, the payments went into the pockets of family owners who are also the largest shareholders.

Unia reserved its most stringent condemnation for companies that put workers on shortened working hours during the coronavirus pandemic yet still paid out dividends.