The Swiss Social Security (Insurance) System
In discussions about a reform of the pension insurance in Germany designed to guarantee a safe future reference is often made to systems of neighbouring countries, above all to the Swiss ‘Three Pillar Concept’ for retirement pensions. The Swiss concept is interesting for a number of reasons, not least because it comprises, apart from basic state pensions (Pillar 1), compulsory occupational benefit pensions for employees granted by pension funds (Pillar 2) and, in addition, voluntary individual pensions to cover personal needs (Pillar 3). The following contribution focuses on the history of this social insurance scheme, its financing and old age pensions as well as on current problems. An overview of further elements and characteristics of the Swiss system will also be presented.
The Swiss social security system today comprises measures aimed at providing for the old age, cases of invalidity, sickness, accidents, unemployment, burden on families or death of the provider (Figure 1). In most cases the benefits are granted by social insurances; for many risks, however, private insurances have a complementary function. To provide for neediness that may occur nonetheless, additional structures had to be set up, particularly social assistance. In most cases the responsibility for these structures lies with the state or with charitable organizations. All social insurances are supervised by the Federal Social Insurance Office (BSV) except for the unemployment insurance (Office for Economy and Work) and the largest part of family allowances (cantons).
Socio-political Developments Before World War II
An effective social insurance system developed in Switzerland only after World War II. With the exceptions of the Sickness and Accident Insurance Law (KUVG), all important social security laws still in effect were created after 1945. Up to that time a welfare system subsidized by the state prevailed. However, in the branches of social insurance—which were regulated by the state only at a late stage—public and private insurances had partly existed at the level of cantons and/or on a voluntary basis for decades.
The fact that the establishment and extension of welfare measures were realized in relatively small steps in Switzerland and that the country, seen in an international context, was increasingly lagging behind regarding its social security legislation is, above all, a result of the direct and indirect impacts of the plebiscitary powers of the people. ‘The compulsory referendum strongly hampers the creation and development of social insurance and has partly given it a different direction than that ‘programmed’ by the authorities’ (Maurer, 1981: 823).
A number of progressive initiatives and proposals—inspired by the German example—aimed at the construction of a comprehensive system of social security as early as the 19th century did not gain a majority among the predominantly conservative electorate. With Art. 34bis of the Federal Constitution (BV), the state became responsible for and had the task to create a social insurance in 1890. Proponents came from radical-democratic circles around Ludwig Forrer. His ambitious sickness and accident insurance law, however, was rejected in a 1900 referendum. The ‘Lex Forrer’ would have laid down the establishment of a Swiss accident insurance institution or public and private health insurance resp., compulsory for most of the dependently employed; guaranteed medical care and income compensation, subsidies from the state and employers’ and employees’ contributions.
In a second attempt the compulsory accident insurace was introduced, the sickness insurance, however, reduced to a subsidy regulation. The KUVG of 1911, which had formed the basis of sickness insurance up to 1995, laid down that funds that were supervised by the federal state would receive federal contributions, provided that they guaranteed certain minimum benefits and offered—at different rates—equal conditions of admission to both sexes. It also enabled the cantons to introduce full or partial compulsory coverage. The voluntary sickness insurance took effect in 1914; the Swiss Accident Insurance Office (Suva) was established for and in charge of the accident insurance and started operating on the 1st of April 1918. The responsibility for the realization, establishment and planning of new social insurance branches was taken over by the Federal Social Insurance Office (BSV) in 1913.
The middle course between compulsory coverage and subsidization of existing private funds steered with the KUVG, coupled with the possibility of introducing full or partial compulsory coverage in the cantons, was to form the basis of the gradually developed Swiss social security law. This was accompanied by a growing legislative fragmentation, a large variety regarding insurance carriers and the financing of insurances, and—due to the coexistence of voluntary and compulsory insurances—regarding the insured as well.
A mixed system of social assistance and partially regulated subsidization of private funds developed in the field of unemployment insurance as well. Initially, the major funds in this area were administered by the social democratic trade unions. On the eve of World War II they had about 44,000 members in 14 funds; other occupational associations’ funds had around 7,500 members, the public funds only 3,000. Ten years later (1923/24), 57 funds had 157,000 members, about 80 per cent of them were in trade union funds, and 14 per cent in public funds (Degen, 1998).
Since World War I, The Federal Government had paid subsidies to the unemployment funds of the cantons, communes, and labor unions and to joint employer-employee insurance. A federal law on contributions to the unemployment insurance (17th of October 1924) regulated the conditions a fund had to fulfil in order to be able to claim federal contributions. In general, the cantons remained responsible for shaping the unemployment insurance, also concerning full or partial compulsory coverage.
When the deficits of voluntary unemployment insurance became evident during the crisis in the 30s, social assistance had to be expanded once more. The unemployed who could not claim benefits from funds had to be supported; partly, they were not insured at all, partly, the limit of 90 days, the maximum number of days determined by federal law for receiving benefits, had been reached. In 1936, 204 funds covered 552,000 employees (28 per cent).
Indeed, in mid-1942 the unemployment insurance was standardized based on the special authority of the Federal Council for the duration of the war, the system of subsidizing unemployment funds, however, was maintained by the Federal Council. Regulations concerning qualification for membership and entitlement to claims were set out; in addition, a compensation fund was established to be able to grant compensation payments to funds with a larger number of claims. At the same time the basic features of unemployment assistance (Nothilfe) were outlined.
The legislative procedure concerning pension insurance proved particularly difficult. Under the pressure of political unrest in 1919/1920, the Federal Council had presented a message ‘concerning the introduction of legislative competence in the fields of invalidity, old age and survivors’ insurances’ and had submitted a proposal on how to procure the necessary federal means. As a consequence, the National Council obliged the government to introduce the old age and survivors’ insurance (AVH) and empowered the government to establish the invalidity insurance afterwards (Art. 34quater BV). The Swiss people approved the resulting draft law in the vote of the 6th of December 1925 with a strong majority of 410,988 yes votes and 217,483 no votess (Maurer, 1981: 793). The law on AHV presented four years was accepted by the Parliament, but was rejected in a referendum held on the 6th of December 1931, because it rather constituted the basis for assistance to the poor than for effective social insurance.
After this failure the government focused on old age and survivors’ assistance, for instance by means of federal contributions to the private foundation for old-age provision (47.5 million francs between 1929 and 1942) and to cantons; however, the federal government was not able to grant adequate financial support to the elderly, survivors and invalids. Compulsory old age insurances only existed in Glarus (1916), Appenzell, Ausserrhoden (1925) and Basel City (1932), voluntary insurances in Neuenburg (1898) and Waadt (1907).
Establishment and Expansion of Old Age Insurance
The fact that it was possible to establish within a relatively short time a compulsory old age insurance in Switzerland after World War II can be put down to two factors: on the one hand, the introduction of the Federal Law on the income compensation plan for persons liable for military service. The basic novelty consisted in financing the plan from contributions by employees, calculated in proportion to the salaries. Special compensation funds, created by the employer associations and the cantons, administered the plan. This system of financing and organization served later as the basis, not only for the income compensation plan, but for the old age and survivors’ insurance (AHV), the disability insurance (IV), and the family allowance plan for agricultural employees and small farmers. On the other hand, the experience made during the war when it became evident that regulations based on solidarity were necessary, which made the implementation of compulsory old age insurance easier.
The federal law on AHV that became effective in 1948 was the result of a constitutional initiative and several cantonal initiatives in 1942. The Federal Council and the Parliament adopted to a large degree the AHV proposal presented in March 1945 by an expert committee that had been constituted in May 1944. Two months later the Federal Council put forward its message and draft for an AHV law to the Parliament, which was finally approved by both chambers on the 20th of December 1946. The new referendum against it failed clearly.
Even though a constitutional basis for the invalidity insurance (IV) had also been established, its realization was slowed down as for a long time data on the extent of invalidity in Switzerland were not available; therefore there were doubts regarding its financing. The Invalidity Insurance Law (IVG) was approved as late as 1959 and took effect in 1960. Nonetheless, today AHV and IV can be regarded as parts of one single insurance, as they have been coordinated to a large extent and the persons insured and persons paying contributions are identical in both insurance branches.
Apart from some structural principles, not many of the original regulations contained in the AHV have been maintained. The law of 1948 had to undergo, apart from minor changes, ten revisions that led—affected by the economic upswing and relatively favourable demogra-phic conditions—to a considerable expansion of the largest Swiss social insurance scheme. It was mostly extraparliamentary constitutional initiatives that forced the federal administration to act.
Up to the 9th AHV revision, which—for the first time—focused on long-term coordination instead of a reduction of benefits, most amendments were partly aimed at massive increases in pensions. The contributions, however, calculated as a percentage of gross earnings, remained stable at a relatively low level for a long time. The reforms decided in the late 60s and early 70s were particularly important. The 7th AHV revision alone, effective from 1969, affected approximately 80 AHV constitutional articles and decrees. It introduced the indexation and dynamization of pensions and, for the first time, brought an increase in contribution rates from 4 to 5.2 per cent. Since the AHV was often insufficient for guaranteeing an adequate minimum income, in 1966 the entitlement to supplementary benefits (EL) for people with very small pensions had been established. The Swiss supplementary benefits were based on cantonal regulations concerning old age and invalidity benefits. There was, however, great diversity between the cantonal regulations, and often they could not guarantee the existence minimum, thus forcing the federal government to take action.
The 8th AHV revision constituted the decisive step from basic pensions to pensions guaranteeing the existence minimum. It was triggered off by demands for a people’s pension that were widespread in the late 60s. The pressure coming from this initiative led to a new Art. 34quater BV in 1972, formulating the three pillar concept for pensions. The Federal Law on Occupational Insurance (BVG) required for implementation took effect in 1985.
The Three Pillars of Old Age Pension
The first pillar, the Swiss social insurance (AHV, IV EL), is designed to guarantee an adequate minimum income for the insured. The second pillar, the occupational insurance, supplements the federal insurances. It is aimed at enabling the insured to maintain their accustomed standard of living, covering old age, invalidity, widows and orphans, and is compulsory for most employees. These two pillars guarantee at least 60 per cent of the last annual income. The third pillar serves as a means for individual provision, is voluntary, publicly subsidized, and is meant to supplement the two other pillars according to personal needs. Thus it does not qualify as a social insurance.
The old age and survivors’ insurance is an insurance covering the total population, without exception, and foreign residents who are employed in Switzerland and—on a voluntary basis—Swiss citizens living abroad. It represents an outstanding solidarity of the nation, particularly with regard to the proportion between contributions and pensions. The AHV is financed through contributions of the insured as well as through public subsidies on a pay-as-you-go basis. All persons insured have to pay contributions: the employees pay 8.4 per cent of their earnings, half of which is paid by the employer. The self-employed pay contributions at a rate of 7.8 per cent of their income. According to a ‘descending contribution scale’ this rate is lower for the self-employed with a small income, namely between 4.2 and 7.8 per cent, depending on the size of their incomes. The contribution must be paid on the full income, and no maximum level is set. But contributions paid on incomes higher than about 36,000 francs do not affect the amount of the pension.
The economically non-active of employable age pay contributions depending on their financial situation or a flat rate. Their annual contribution in 1996 ranged from CHF 324 to CHF 8,400. Since the 1st of January 1997 non-employed spouses of employed, insured persons do not have to pay contributions, neither do non-employed elderly people who are over 62/65 years old.
According to the federal constitution, the contribution paid by the state must cover a maximum of 50 per cent and a minimum of 17.5 per cent of expenditures. This share was reduced in 1993 within the framework of saving measures. Up to the end of 1995 the federal share accounted for 16.625 per cent of expenditures, in 1996 for 17 per cent. It was financed out of general revenue, tobacco levies and taxes on hard liquor. Since 1985, the share of cantons has made up 3 per cent of expenditures. In 1997, the insured paid 18,588.8 million francs (73.7 per cent of the revenue), the state contributed 4,386.4 million francs (17.4 per cent) the cantons 774.1 million francs (3.1 per cent), and income from capital interest amounted to 1,469.8 million francs (5.8 per cent).
Revenue is credited to a compensation fund; as a rule, its balance should not drop below the expenditure of one year. The administration of the fund and the management of the central register of the insured and the pensioners rests with the Central Compensation Fund in Geneva, while more than 100 compensation funds administered by associations, the cantons and the state collect the contributions and award benefits.
The AHV revenue (Figure 2) was always—except for a period of five years in the 70s and after 1996—higher than the AHV expenditure. Thus, a financial reserve of over 24 billion francs could be accumulated in two stages. In the first 26 years after it started operating, the compensation fund increased strongly; in the beginning, this increase was even higher than the total expenditure. The fund, in the 60s many times higher than the annual expenditure, fell below the level of the annual expenditure in 1978. It was only in 1991—due to a record surplus of 2.3 billion francs—that it reached again the level of annual expenditure, a level required ‘as a rule’ by the AHV law. Since 1996 the AHV has been in a new deficit phase. In 1997 it had a deficit of 583 million francs, in 1998 it amounted to 1,394 million francs, and by the end of this year the AHV fund covered only 81.7 per cent of its expenditure. In such a situation the Federal Council can raise the VAT by a maximum of 1 per cent. This measure was taken by the Federal Council on the 1st of January 1999.
According to the insurance or equivalence principle, retirement pensions depend on the amount of contributions paid (which, in turn, depends on the average annual income) and on the period which the beneficiary has paid contributions for. The principle of solidarity, however, takes priority over and limits the principle of equivalence: the contributions of those with higher incomes are higher than is required for financing their own pensions.
The basis for calculating pensions is the ordinary full pension. It consists of a basic amount to which a share of the pension-relevant annual income is added. This ascending pension scale is limited by a minimum and a maximum pension. At this time, the minimum pension amounts to 1,005 CHF a month, the maximum pension amounts to 2,010 CHF. If both spouses are entitled to pensions, they receive individual pensions instead of the former spouses’ old age pensions; it is, however, limited to 150 per cent of the maximum pension (3,015 CHF a month). The average of all AHV pensions (old age, supplementary and survivors’ pensions) paid in Switzerland was 1,842 CHF in the beginning of 1998.
The retirement pensions are adjusted according to price and wage developments. As a rule, they are adjusted every two years according to a so-called mixed index (medium of consumer price index and wage index of the Federal Office for Economy and Labour (BWA)). If price increases within one year exceed 4 per cent, adjustments have to be made earlier.
The benefits and services provided by the invalidity insurance (IV) comprise integration measures, pensions and social assistance payments. Only those persons are entitled to IV pensions who have been seriously disabled for a certain minimum period of time and whose invalidity has a qualified degree of invalidity. IV pensions are granted only if the working capacity is reduced by a minimum of 40 per cent; in addition, the IV pensions are graded. As a rule, a reduced working capacity of 40–50 per cent entitles the insured to a quarter pension, a reduced working capacity of 50–60 per cent to a half pension, a reduced working capacity of over 60 per cent to a full pension. The calculation of a (full) IV pension corresponds with AHV regulations. In 1997, about 28 per cent of all disabled pensioners received supplementary benefits out of supplementary funds. The invalidity insurance urgently needs to be reformed. Annual deficits amount to 700 million francs at the moment, with a tendency to rise.
The financing systems primarily used in the second pillar (occupational insurance) are based on the origins of provisions in support of employees during early industrialization, when employers with a social consciousness provided for their employees financial means for the vicissitudes of life through different forms of provision measures. They financed these measures completely on their own on the basis of funding. With the extension of certain benefits and the introduction of regulations, the insured had to participate increasingly in financing these benefits. Today, the benefits granted by occupational insurance, which is compulsory for the dependently employed, are mainly financed through employers’ and employees’ contributions as well as through income on interest. Employers have to pay half of all contributions, often they even pay more of their own accord. The average total monthly contribution rate is about 9–10 per cent of the income (Table 1).
Most insurance funds are organized according to private law provisions and predominantly apply the funding. The financing of public funds in the field of public administration or enterprises, however, is often based on a partial pay-as-you-go basis. Funds that participate within the framework of the compulsory coverage must be listed in the register for occupational funds. Considering its revenue (including income on capital) and its basic capital, the occupational insurance is by far the most important social insurance branch in Switzerland (Figure 1). In the development stage, BV revenue is constantly higher than BV expenditure due to the financing procedure. In the last few years, more than 20 billion francs new capital were accumulated every year.
In 1996, a total of 3,147,504 persons were insured in 11,513 occupational insurance institutions. Almost 650,000 qualified for pensions (353,000 for retirement pensions). The average benefits per beneficiary amounted to 19,368 francs per year (Swiss Social Insurance Statistics, 1999: 102).
The individual old age provision (3rd pillar) on a public basis is encouraged by means of tax deductions. The Swiss legislation takes two possibilities into account regarding this restricted (as opposed to the free) form of provision: an insurance policy with insurance companies and an old-age provision account in the form of a savings account at a bank. (The share of the third pillar in the total amount of life insurances amounted to approximately 91 per cent in 1996.) The size of tax deductions varies; it depends on whether the individual concerned has an occupational insurance (2nd pillar) or not. Persons without income cannot participate in the third pillar. The self-employed do not have access to the second pillar. For them the third pillar is the only possibility to supplement old age benefits.
Numerous attempts to reform the KUVG of 1911 were repeatedly rejected in a referendum up to the 90s, except for one amendment in 1964: it revised the old law in some respects (standardization stipulated in federal law, legally fixed minimum benefits, right to a doctor, free movement of the population). In the early 1970s, a constitutional initiative of the Swiss Social Democratic Party (SPS) concerning ‘a social sickness insurance’ with compulsory coverage on a federal level as well as several reform models worked out by experts were debated. However, the initiative and the counterproposal were rejected in the 1974 vote. Another expert committee then prepared a partial revision. This draft law was finally presented in 1987, including, among other things, a maternity insurance; but it was also rejected in a referendum. Faced with the financial problems of the sickness insurance, in 1985 the sickness insurance funds, and in 1986 the SPS and trade unions, submitted further initiatives that were also rejected in 1992 and 1994 respectively. On the other hand, temporary measures to combat cost increases, taken by the authorities in 1993, were approved by the required majority.
With the Sickness Insurance Law (KVG) of the 18th of March 1994, which took effect in 1996, for the first time a fundamental reorganization was approved by a (narrow) majority of electors. This law regulates the compulsory basic insurance (supplementary insurances qualify as private insurances) and introduced the compulsory sickness insurance for the whole population of Switzerland. Regarding the financing of sickness funds, the following changes were introduced: the contributions of the insured are now standardized and can only vary by canton and regionally (previously: differences according to entry age, place of residence and gender). For children and young people a reduced rate is established. The insurance funds are no longer directly subsidized by the state, with the size of subsidies depending on the number of insured. Instead, these resources are used to reduce the contribution rates individually for persons with a small income, with the cantons being obliged to share the costs according to their financial situation.
An important aspect of the new KVG was the definition of the measures aimed at reducing costs in the health sector, measures that had been forced by the Federal Council since the beginning of the 90s. One of these measures worth mentioning was the definitive introduction of new insurance forms: insurances with a partial restriction to the free choice of doctors and hospitals (e.g. Health Maintenance Organizations—HMO), ‘bonus insurance’ (reduction of contribution rate if refunds are not claimed), and insurance based on an annual franchise that can be selected (changes the share of costs of the insured, reduction of rates compared to ordinary franchise). The sickness insurance is financed on a pay-as-you-go basis. The contributions paid by the insured and the employers accounted for 84.3 per cent of revenue in 1997, public subsidies for 12.6 per cent, interest on income for 2.9 per cent.
Unemployment Insurance (ALV)
Due to the economic upswing after World War II and continuous full employment, the unemployment insurance lost importance in Swiss social policy, and a large part of the gainfully employed population was no longer insured. In 1974 the voluntary unemployment insurance had no more than 545,000 members (18 per cent). The recession of the 70s, however, revealed the deficits of voluntary unemployment insurance. Therefore Art. 34novies BV was formulated in 1976, which provided for compulsory coverage for all employees and financing through contributions calculated in per cent of gross earnings. After the adoption of the law in the vote on the 13th of June 1976, the Federal Council established in a very short time a transitional regulation (decision of the 8th of October 1976). It was justified with the necessity to relieve the strain on public finances and with the time needed for creating the legal basis for compulsory coverage.
After the new Unemployment Insurance Law (AVIG) had taken effect on the 1st of January 1984, at low contribution rates reserve capital could be accumulated that amounted to six times the annual expenditure in 1989/90. In 1990 the contribution rate had been lowered from 0.6 to 0.4 per cent of gross earnings. Only two years later—the unemployment rate had increased steeply in the winter of 1991/92—this reserve capital was used up. Since then the unemployment insurance in Switzerland has considerable financial problems (Figure 3).
In raising the total contribution rate twice, the Federal Council tried to counteract this development: starting with the 1st of January 1993, 2.0 instead of formerly 0.4 percent of gross earnings had to be paid, by the 1st of January 1995 the contribution rate was raised to 3.0 per cent, with the result that the balance was positive in 1995. However, by the end of 1995 the situation on the labour market had worsened again, a fact that led to more deficits from 1996 onwards. In 1997 the ALV closed with a minus of 2.3 billion Swiss francs; the debts that had to be paid off by the ALV compensation fund amounted to more than 7 billion francs. Until these debts will be paid off, the contribution rate will remain at 3.0 per cent of gross earnings. In addition, a contribution of 1 per cent must be paid on earnings between 97,000 and 243,000 francs since the beginning of 1996.
Faced with this precarious financial situation the number of claims had to be reduced. The revised ALS law, which had taken effect in two stages in the beginning of 1996 and 1997, provides for a five-day waiting period for employees with an insured income higher than 3,000 francs (plus 500 francs per child). Daily benefits are awarded for a maximum period of time which is now age-related. It ranges from 150 days for beneficiaries under 50 years to 400 days for those over 60.
In 1985, only 96,000 persons claimed benefits from the ALV; in 1984, however, the number of claims had risen to 315,000 and in 1997 to almost 354,000. The number of days benefits were awarded rose from 5.35 million days in 1985 to over 31 million days in 1994 and to almost 37 million days in 1997. 56 days in the mid-80s to 105 days in 1994 per beneficiary. The average number of days benefits were awarded increased from 56 days in the mid-80s to 105 days in 1994 per beneficiary (Swiss Social Security Statistics, 1999: 144).
Basically, the legislator tried to act according to the motto ‘from wage compensation to active job creation’. New tighter measures regulated the conditions under which a new job could be expected to be accepted, participation in ‘labour market measures’ was promoted, and the cantons had to provide 25,000 jobs for the implementation of these measures. In addition, the cantons established regional job centers.
Faced with profound demographic, economic and societal changes, the Swiss social security system, too, is under increasing pressure to make adjustments, above all in the following areas: the ageing of the population and the impacts on care for the elderly; a changing life style and its impacts on household structures and family forms; a changing labour market and its consequences for employment, the duration of employment and working conditions.
The 10th AHV revision therefore did not focus on an expansion, but on the adjustment of the AHV to societal changes. Important elements of this revision (its last part entered into force on the 1st of January 1997) were the shift from spouses’ pensions to individual pensions according to the splitting system (pension claims independent of civil status), the awarding of educational bonus, the increase in widows’s pensions, the possibility for men to receive early-retirement pensions, compulsory contributions payable by non-employed widows. In turn, the pensionable age of women was raised to 64 years (effective from 2005).
Apart from making the pensionable age flexible, the 11th AHV revision provides for a standardization of widow/ers’ pensions, resulting in savings of 867 million francs; in addition, the adjustment of pensions to increases in the cost of living is carried out every three instead of every two years (savings of 150 million francs). These savings of about one billion francs are increased by 550 million francs annually due to the adjustment of contribution rates payable by the self-employed to the rates paid by the employed, to the abolishment of the descending contribution scale for the self-employed and the abolishment of the contribution exemption for employees who have reached pensionable age. Finally, the VAT for AHV/IV is to be increased by 1.5 per cent from 2003 onwards, from 2007 onwards by another per cent.
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Dr. Günter Braun
Günter Braun is political scientist at the MZES. Currently he is engaged in research on trade unions, labour relations and social security in Europe.