After having observed that about 75% of internships must be considered as "problematic", mainly from the point of view of the salary conditions, the Geneva authorities take action in order to prevent further abuse.
There are no specific rules in the Swiss Code of Obligations (CO) applying to interns – or trainees – when they are hired to work for a local company. The only provision concerning younger employees is art. 329a CO, which states that employees younger than 20 years old benefit from a minimum of five weeks per year of paid holidays (instead of the usual minimum of four weeks). Furthermore, the Federal Labour Act imposes obligations to the employer if he hires "young workers", i.e. workers under 18 years old, which will often not be the case of interns.
Similarly, the regulations applicable to the contract of apprenticeship, which rose to fame last year when the press related that the United States were interested in our dual vocational training system, are only applicable to apprentices, the main element of the contract being the training of the apprentice for a specific profession and not the actual work provided for the employer in exchange for a salary. Other than these very specific rules, no provision of federal law (or of cantonal law in the case of Geneva) distinguishes between an intern and a regular employee.
In Geneva, the OCIRT (which is part of the Department of employment, social affairs and health) is the cantonal authority in charge of labour inspection. It has the mission of controlling the installations, the organisation and the measures implemented to protect the health and safety of workers in a company. It is allowed to conduct monitoring visits and, in case of breach of the law, to order that the breach be corrected. It can also issue recommendations, but in that case cannot bring any sanctions if they are not followed.
Furthermore, a tripartite commission (CSME) is in charge of the general policy of the labour market in Geneva. Among others, it is responsible for fighting against salary dumping. If it notices an abuse in a certain profession or sector of the economy, which cannot be resolved within two months by way of negotiations, it may propose to the competent authority to edict a standard contract fixing minimal salaries for that particular sector.
It must be said in this respect that such measures only apply to local companies, international organizations such as the UN being not subject to the Federal Labour Act.
In a press release dated September 16, 2016, the CSME issued a list of criteria allowing to determine whether an internship can be considered problematic or not. It explained that many denunciations were made to the OCIRT regarding questionable circumstances and that it was decided to put internships under stricter surveillance to avoid situations of abuse. In particular, the CSME indicated that problematic practices such as the hiring of trained and qualified professionals as interns, the systematic use of trainees or the repeating of internships for a same employee were observed.
Therefore, it stated that internships would only be considered unproblematic if they fulfil the following criteria:
- Mandatory or optional internships carried out in the framework of a certified training (organized by Swiss or foreign institutions);
- After obtaining a first degree (e.g. Bachelor), orientation internship towards a second degree (e.g. Master) provided the training institute offering the second degree confirms the utility of such internship;
- Internships aiming at the professional or social reintegration of the employee, provided that they are set in place by a federal or cantonal body.
According to the CSME, any internship which does not fall under these criteria will be considered as a first job and should be remunerated as such. In order to determine the amount of a fair salary, the authorities apply the statistics of the salary calculator provided by the OGMT (http://cms2.unige.ch/ses/lea/oue/projet/salaires/ogmt/), stating that if the employer does not have sufficient resources to hire the employee on a full time basis, it should choose a part-time contract.
This implies namely for companies subject to a collective labour agreement (CCT) or which have agreed to follow the standard practice in the branch that the work conditions of such employees (which cannot be qualified as interns) will have to be in line with the agreement. If the branch is covered by a standard contract, the minimal salaries set out must be respected. In case of breach, the OCIRT will be allowed to impose sanctions on the company.
For companies who are neither subject to a CCT, to a standard contract or to standard practices of the branch, there is at the present time no risk of sanctions. However, should a problematic situation be denounced to the OCIRT, the authorities will initiate conciliation proceedings, which could put the company under increased scrutiny.
Ultimately and if these measures do not prove efficient, it cannot be excluded that a standard contract could be issued by the Geneva authorities to impose minimal salaries for all types of internships.