A woman enters a polling station in Bern, Switzerland, on May 18. / Peter Klaunzer, AP
Swiss voters overwhelmingly rejected a nationwide referendum Sunday that would have set the nation's minimum wage at $25 an hour and created the world's highest paid unskilled workforce.
Final results from Sunday's vote showed 76.3% of voters opposed the Decent Salary Initiative, which would have had the greatest impact on immigrants working in such jobs as agriculture, housekeeping and catering.
The vote came days after hundreds of fast-food workers walked off their jobs in many U.S. cities and in more than 30 countries in a protest for higher wages.
Union leaders in the nation of 8 million people promised to continue to fight against low pay. Trade Union Federation chief economist Daniel Lampart said the results do not mean that the Swiss back wages that would keep people in poverty.
"People want collective bargaining agreements to guarantee good salaries," he told the website swissinfo.ch.
The average household income in Switzerland is about $6,800 a month, government statistics show. In the USA, where the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, the average is roughly $4,300, Census Bureau figures indicate. A recent effort to raise the U.S. minimum to $10 an hour failed to gain congressional traction
Switzerland, however, features some of the world's highest prices. The country does not have a minimum wage law, so pay scales are determined by employment contracts or collective bargaining. However, 90% of Swiss workers earn more than the proposed minimum and are already among the highest paid in the world.
The Swiss Business Federation, Economiesuisse, said the results show that the Swiss people wouldn't tolerate government intervention in a free-market economy. "We were able to show that the initiative hurts low-paid workers in particular, the group's president, Heinz Karrer, told the website.
Forcing employers to hike wages can mean other cuts - including jobs. At 3.2%, Switzerland's unemployment rate is among the lowest globally.
Swiss Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann warned that "if jobs are being cut, the weakest suffer most." Some workers who make less than $25 an hour had opposed the referendum.
Luisa Almeida is an immigrant from Portugal who works in Switzerland as a housekeeper and nanny. Almeida's earnings of $3,250 a month are below the proposed minimum wage but still much more than she'd make in Portugal. Still, she did not support the referendum.
"If my employer had to pay me more money, he wouldn't be able to keep me on and I'd lose the job," she told USA TODAY days before the vote.
But Patrick Belser, Senior Economist in the Wage Group of the International Labor Office in Geneva, says the initiative had some merit.
"International experience has shown that minimum wages can prevent labor exploitation without any negative effect on the economy," he said.
Last year, Switzerland passed a measure to curb "excessive" bonuses for executives, but later voted down a proposal to reduce the income gap between lowest and highest salaries.
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