Despite its high standards, the Swiss social security system still has gaps. When children suffer from severe illness or people drift into poverty, when people with disabilities need aid or refugees want to integrate themselves into society, charitable organisations provide considerable support.
Although poverty knows no seasons, the colder months still create additional pressure. ‘Today, the winter months are still tremendously challenging for people affected by poverty, which is often invisible,’ says Monika Stampfli, Managing Director of aid agency Winterhilfe Schweiz. The agency helps people affected by poverty, paying urgent bills and providing benefits in kind. Warm clothing, heating and a festive setting for the end-of-year holidays all require money that those affected do not have. In addition, social life increasingly takes place indoors, further isolating people in precarious social circumstances. ‘Financial poverty often results in social isolation,’ says Stampfli, adding: ‘Poverty requires a lot of energy.’
In the shadow of wealth
According to the 2021 Global Wealth Data Report, Switzerland’s wealth amounts to USD 4,689 billion. As such, it ranks 15th in the world’s wealthiest countries – a fact that makes poverty all the more challenging. ‘Very few people realise that there is poverty in Switzerland,’ says Stampfli, ‘as it is often invisible.’ Many people are afraid and ashamed, and therefore wait too long before getting help, she explains. This means that they run the risk of falling into debt before asking for help. The aid agency therefore believes it is important to encourage people to contact it early on. However, this is particularly difficult in areas in which social control is high; for example, in more rural areas, says Stampfli. ‘Luckily, our branch managers have excellent networks and take the initiative in rural areas, approaching those who are in great need.’ But invisible poverty exists within our cities and urban areas as well. The relief organisation Sozialwerk Pfarrer Sieber has become well-established in the banking and insurance city of Zurich, and its employees have noticed that those affected by poverty often hesitate to ask for help.
‘This makes it quite difficult to offer support, as reaching those in need can be challenging,’ says Walter von Arburg, Head of Communication at the organisation. However, his assessment of this is nuanced. ‘People feel ashamed because they have lost control over their lives; this in turn means that they try to maintain their autonomy for as long as possible rather than have to depend on outside help. Which is a positive aspect,’ he says. With its low-threshold offer, the social welfare organisation not only tries to secure the survival of those in need, it also supports a gradual improvement in their living conditions. In the best case, they can be reintegrated into the labour market and society, which ideally enables them to lead a self-reliant life.
Walter von Arburg is also aware of the additional challenges winter brings, with cold and damp conditions meaning a rise in demand for emergency shelters and warm clothing. But he feels it is important not to equate need with material things, as he sees isolation as a central problem area: ‘We work on building relationships, which helps people believe in themselves and others again. This is a crucial aspect that enables people in need to start making plans for the future and to realise them,’ he says. Stampfli focuses on one particularly vulnerable group: she believes it is particularly fatal for children to grow up in social isolation, which is why the aid agency aims to prevent this with a special funding programme. ‘It allows disadvantaged children to take part in leisure activities, such as sports and music lessons, along with their friends,’ she says.
Money, lack of knowledge, organisation
Children are particularly exposed; if they become ill, family life can change abruptly. ‘Having a child diagnosed with cancer will always put a strain on “normal” families, including from a financial perspective,’ says Paul Castle, Vice President of Regio Basiliensis, a foundation for children with cancer.
And thinking of Switzerland as a wealthy country can be deceptive in this case. ‘This country has a great healthcare system,’ he says. ‘Many people think health insurance companies cover the costs for all medical and nursing services when someone has been diagnosed with cancer, but that is by no means true.’ Health insurance companies focus on immediate cancer treatments, some of which are extremely expensive. However, these are by no means the only challenges facing a family with a child who has cancer. ‘We’re not even talking about unusual, exotic therapies here, but more about buying a mattress that meets the needs of a child who is in extreme pain, for example,’ he says.
This is where organisations such as the Basel-based foundation help out. Paul Castle knows from first-hand experience just what support they can provide and what families need in this situation. When his son was diagnosed with cancer 16 years ago, there wasn’t a lot of information on child leukaemia available on the internet. Looking back, he says: ‘For me, the key topics – and I think they were typical – were my lack of knowledge and how to organise our time, money and my son’s scholastic future.’ At school, the family was able to count on the support of the class teacher and some of their son’s friends, who were particularly helpful when he returned. He had been unable to go to school for six months, which is why Castle emphasises how important follow-up care is for teenagers. And of course the financial and organisational situation put a strain on the family. His son’s hospital did not have a foundation; however, a house for parents offered affordable accommodation nearby. Nonetheless, Castle had to pay off his debt over a long period of time. When it came to organising his time, his boss and the entire company proved extremely accommodating, something that for many parents is not a matter of course. And during the pandemic in particular, families have faced additional challenges. ‘When some sectors introduced short-time work or had to make employees redundant in 2020, the situation became even more precarious for some parents,’ says Castle.
Pandemic increases social pressure
Stampfli has noticed that the pandemic has made poverty visible. At the same time, it has driven people into poverty or has increasingly exacerbated fragile situations. She talks about a single mother who took on cleaning jobs to earn a living in addition to receiving maintenance. When these jobs disappeared, the mother turned to the aid agency, as she had run out of food. The aid agency was able to help her by providing food vouchers and covering her rent. ‘This case is a prime example of someone who was able to support themselves without the aid of others before the pandemic. In many cases, including this one, our aid agency has provided emergency support to tide people over until they receive government support.’ Walter von Arburg also observed how the fear of losing their financial foundation led to a sense of insecurity in many individuals, which was particularly high in people in unregulated employment. ‘And for people who were already marginalised, such as the homeless, addicts and socially isolated people, the pandemic has primarily been such a challenge because shelters have had to develop and implement hygiene concepts,’ he says. ‘In reality, that means less space for at least the same number of visitors.’ This has resulted in an additional increase in social pressure: shelters and soup kitchens are essential to these groups, as they provide social contact. To meet the demand, Sozialwerk Pfarrer Sieber restructured its offer of spaces at the Pfuusbus emergency shelter in accordance with pandemic-related restrictions within days.
More flexible than expected
The pandemic also meant that the Züriwerk foundation had to adapt its housing and employment offers. The foundation supports persons with disabilities in different spheres of life, helping them to find housing, employment and vocational training, with a range of offers at various locations in the city of Zurich, the surrounding urban area and the Zürcher Oberland. Clients’ autonomy was restricted in order to maintain their health, meaning they could no longer do their own shopping or use public transport. To compensate, Züriwerk organised more exercise options in accompanied groups. The teams formed effective clusters that largely prevented different internal and external persons from mixing.
‘But we also have clients with multiple, severe disabilities,’ says Alexandra Elser, Head of Fundraising at Züriwerk. ‘They rely on professional help when it comes to wearing masks.’ Proximity and distancing were major topics, particularly at mealtimes. Nonetheless, Elser notes: ‘Our clients were more flexible than we expected.’ As a result, the foundation was able to complete orders and meet customer requirements. However, it faced the challenge of ensuring that all changes were affordable.
Here, Züriwerk was able to count on tremendous solidarity, with donors very often proving more generous during the pandemic. Conversely, there was a decline in income as certain orders dried up; however, support from the canton remained stable.
Close to the economy
Residents of the Plankis foundation experienced similarly drastic changes to their everyday lives. Plankis offers people with disabilities a place to work and live in Chur.
For months during the first lockdown, residents were no longer able to visit their families at weekends. ‘And their families weren’t allowed to visit them, either,’ says Managing Director Beda Gujan. ‘It was a terrible situation. At one fell blow, our clients felt set back by decades in terms of participation, autonomy and their position in society during lockdown.’ However, their clients were able to implement the new rules almost automatically, as they are used to following instructions in their daily lives.
‘I was truly impressed by how exemplary and patient people with disabilities behaved,’ he says. He also observed a societal discrepancy: although the regulations became mired in controversy, people with disabilities had no difficulty adapting flexibly to the new situation. And the foundation also experienced a positive economic effect during the pandemic, with a significant increase in customers for its self-produced, local products. Plankis owed this increase to its deliberate proximity to the economy, which allowed it to generate about 60% of its budget through the sale of products and services, including earnings from housing. This proximity has also made it easier to integrate clients into the primary labour market: ‘We usually manage this in six to nine cases a year.’ The foundation aims to break down the differences between protected and non-protected workplaces as far as possible, with employees with disabilities treated exactly the same as other employees, wherever possible. If the situation allows, Plankis specifically employs people with disabilities in shops and restaurants. ‘Many of our customers and visitors have to look twice to be able to tell who is a client and who is a carer,’ says Gujan. Acceptance in society is accordingly high. Gujan believes that the best way to communicate the foundation’s work is to ensure its clients are publicly visible, allowing them to present themselves as an established part of society. ‘Once a person has experienced what people with disabilities can do, they are able to recognise the value of protected workplaces,’ he says. Elser also has no doubt: ‘If our foundation is to continue to have economic success, we have to be in line with the market.’ She has noticed that more and more companies are assuming their corporate social responsibility (CSR) on different levels, which has had an impact on orders. ‘We have been able to continuously expand our offer,’ she says. ‘Young entrepreneurs at start-ups in particular make a deliberate choice to work with us.’ Some of the jobs that Züriwerk typically takes on include creating and supporting web stores and providing logistical services. In general, customers show a great deal of goodwill, be it in the field of integrated workplaces or industrial orders. And there is a sense of openness, with a mental ‘credit bonus’, as it were – without the expectation that professionalism will be lower. An experience Gujan shares: “We are aware that our customers see the social component as an argument in our favour. At the same time, customers will not make a repeat purchase if the quality is not right.’
Meanwhile, foundations collaborate with industry and commerce in a number of different ways. Züriwerk, for example, benefits from a campaign with Swiss department store Jelmoli. Instead of holding a sale on Black Friday, the store will take part in Giving Tuesday, donating CHF 5 to the Züriwerk foundation for every purchase of CHF 50 or more between 26 and 30 November 2021. Züriwerk also offers companies a very special experience: the opportunity to change sides. This encourages employees to leave their comfort zone and spend a day with people with cognitive impairments. The aim of the campaign is to overcome fears, provide information, and experience inclusion. ‘A lot of companies feel nervous about this day because they don’t know how to approach people with disabilities. But after they have had this experience, they keep coming back,’ says Elser. They see the joy and pride with which people with cognitive impairments do their work. ‘I too am fascinated by the tremendous satisfaction they feel,’ she says. The value of work to a person’s self-confidence and integration into society is the focus of Powercoders. The charitable organisation aims to help refugees and migrants enter the labour market. The meaning of work to this group of people is tremendous.
‘They really want to work,’ says Christina Gräni, responsible for communications at Powercoders. They are motivated by their search for appreciation, a sense of belonging and the desire to demonstrate their potential. And they do not want to depend on social help, something that has not changed during the pandemic, says Gräni. However, work has become more challenging: with people working from home, social integration within teams has become more difficult. But additional challenges are not a threat to the Powercoders concept, as it solves two problems simultaneously.
‘Many refugees in Switzerland have great potential,’ says Gräni. “And the IT sector has a shortage of skilled workers.’ One advantage is that as a universal language, computer science contributes to overcoming cultural differences.
A sure-fire success
The Powercoders programme has four phases. The association looks for the right candidates when recruiting. Many of the programme’s participants – which, thanks to Powercoders’ specific efforts in this area, comprise more than 25% women – have a degree in computer sciences or a natural sciences subject, obtained in their country of origin. ‘Our participants had often completed adequate training and lived good lives before they were forced to flee their countries,’ says Gräni. However, computer or natural sciences training is not a prerequisite for acceptance: fast learners are also welcome. Tests help to determine learning curves and comprehension. Once participants have been accepted on to the programme, they take part in a boot camp that conveys IT skills. Here, they are also taught social and communicative skills, which are just as important on Switzerland’s labour market. Afterwards, participants have to prove themselves on the labour market over the course of a 12-month internship. Finally, Powercoders sits down with the company offering the internship to find a long-term solution, whether in the form of a permanent position or an apprenticeship in IT, depending on the participant’s age. ‘The biggest challenge is finding the right candidates,’ says Gräni. To meet this challenge, Powercoders works with NGOs and refugee organisations throughout Switzerland. On the company side, the programme is a success, as there is definite demand. ‘After five years, the programme has become a sure-fire success. Word-of-mouth recommendations are a great help,’ she says. But it takes numerous volunteers to run the programme, some of whom act as job coaches. ‘They have to really know Switzerland’s labour market,’ says Gräni. However, Powercoders has already established an extensive alumni network. Implementing the project required extensive development work; for example, Powercoders negotiated an agreement with each canton, which bears part of the costs.
Stampfli views the fact that authorities and social services work well as one of Switzerland’s major strengths. ‘And yet there are still gaps, which is where we come in.’ And she emphasises: ‘We do not provide any services that another body, authority or insurance is obliged to provide.’ Walter von Arburg agrees: ‘As an aid agency that provides emergency support, Sozialwerk Pfarrer Sieber takes over when no one else can help – not the government or another non-profit organisation.’
The aim is always to help those affected as sustainably as possible, adds Stampfli: ‘Again and again, several aid agencies are involved in providing support for one individual case.’ Regio Basiliensis, the foundation for children with cancer, focuses on targeted collaboration in its work. ‘Everything we do is in some way associated with University Children’s Hospital Basel (UKBB) and the oncology ward there. Excellent cooperation is key – combined with the necessary distance and decision-making independence for our Board of Trustees.’ This is an essential factor that allows the foundation to support parents. ‘We regularly advise the hospital to ensure that no families are prevented from asking for our help due to lack of knowledge or because they feel ashamed,’ says Castle. The fact that the foundation has a very specific purpose is also helpful when it comes to fundraising. ‘It means that conversations with potential donors do not veer off course. Instead, they stay on a topic that touches a lot of people,’ he says. ‘People who donate know exactly where their money is going.’