Switzerland: An Italian expat's views on the German-speaking labour market

Expat interviews
  • Switzerland
    pixabay.com / suju
Published on 2020-12-15 at 07:56 by Francesca
Sara is a pharmacist specialising in medical cannabis, who comes from Abruzzo. She has been living in Thurgau, Switzerland, for nearly two years now, where she works in an elderly care home. She talks to us about how hard it is to find a job in this part of the country as a non-German-speaking expat, and about the importance of learning the language before relocating.


Can you briefly introduce yourself?

I'm 30, from Abruzzo in Italy. I moved to Switzerland in April 2019, following a job offer. I joined a company in German-speaking Switzerland after a Skype interview and a one-week trial. But I soon realised that my salary didn't reflect what I had negotiated initially. When I approached the company's HR department for help, I was fired. They found that I wasn't a good fit since I couldn't speak German. But that's not all. It took me four months to find a job that, however, I wasn't familiar with. Refusing this offer would have compelled me to return to Italy riddled with debts, like that of my rental contract.

For how long have you lived abroad?

I moved to Portugal when I was 25, and then to Berlin. I have been in Switzerland for a year and a half now.

Where are you currently working?

I work in an elderly care home where I am a cleaner. On weekends, I work at the home's laundry, cafe and restaurant. I have just applied for the recognition of my Italian diplomas in pharmacy. I'm also following a German language course to obtain a B2.

What are the different types of visas for living and working in Switzerland, and what are the conditions to be met for obtaining them?

I obtained the B residence permit through my first employer who took care of the paperwork. But there are other types of permits for those who wish to live and work in Switzerland.

Expats who have a fixed-term employment contract, generally less than one year, are eligible for the L permit. EU / EFTA citizens who are looking for a job in Switzerland can also qualify for the L permit, which allows them to stay for three months. However, they are required to register at the nearest local employment bureau.

The B permit is intended for expats who have an employment contract for an indefinite period, or at least 12 months (in my Canton, they are required to work at least 3 to 4 days a week). This permit is valid for five years but can be extended if all conditions are met. However, the extension period can be limited to one year if the person remains unemployed for more than 12 months.

The B permit is intended for expats who do not intend to work in Switzerland as long as they have the means to meet their needs during their stay. Self-employed workers are eligible for a residence permit which is valid for five years, provided they can justify their income.

Citizens of the 15 ex EU and EFTA states are eligible for the C permit for an indefinite period, usually after five years of uninterrupted stay in Switzerland.

What are the steps for getting your qualifications recognised in Switzerland?

I've already sent the required documents to the Federal Office of Public Health in Bern. Information on the conditions and procedures is available on the official Switzerland portal. The costs range from 800 to 1,000 CHF. For pharmacists, the original certified copy of the professional qualification is required. I obtained this following an exam in Italy.

I'm currently looking for a pharmacy internship with specialisation. But I'm aware it's going to be difficult in German-speaking Switzerland since I don't know the language. Besides, there isn't more meritocracy in Switzerland than in Italy. It's hard to find a job here without having a good command of the language, even if you are highly qualified.

How is the cost of living in Thurgau? How much do monthly rent, bills, grocery shopping and transportation cost?

You can rent a studio for a minimum of CHF 800, excluding bills. Flatsharing isn't common here. Bills vary from one municipality and from one Canton to another, but they are usually expensive. For the TV license fee, count 450 CHF per year. I pay CHF 320 per month for health insurance with a high deductible. This means that I have to pay for my medical consultations and medication myself. This year, I spent over CHF 6,000 on healthcare alone. Shopping is also costly. Regarding transport, the bus and train pass is valid for the whole country and costs CHF 340 per month. Also, count around CHF 2,500 per month for different fixed costs. All this excludes leisure such as dining out, go shopping, movies and gym subscription. And if you need German languages courses, you better plan your budget. Mine cost around 3,600 CHF.

What are don'ts for expats relocating to Switzerland?

Avoid renting a whole apartment through a real estate agency. Flat sharing is not only cheaper, but it will also help you grow your circle. Regarding health insurance, check with different companies and opt for a low deductible. Besides, I would advice soon-to-be expats to settle in cantons like Zurich, Basel, Bern where there are more career prospects and a huge expat community. It will be easier to adapt there. This is from my experience in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. I don't know the Italian and French-speaking regions well. Also, get rid of your illusions before moving and do not take everything for granted. It takes a lot of effort to fit into this rigid system.

Have you made any new friends since moving? Are the Swiss a welcoming nation?

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to make real friends even though I've met a lot of people. Most of them have misconceptions about expats. Switzerland is a very economically driven country, and this reflects on the locals' behaviour. I'm a very outgoing person, and I miss having friends. That's why I recommend living in big cities. I'm also looking to move to another canton soon.

Do you think your B2 in the German language will open up new career paths for you?

I'm already aware that I've no chance of finding a pharmacist job without solid German language skills. Until now, I haven't been able to land a job that matches my profile due to this shortcoming. All job posting requires a minimum B2 level. So you're lucky if you are a native speaker or know Swiss German. English and French are the most sought-after foreign languages here.

Have you ever felt like leaving Switzerland?

Very often. But I have many reasons for staying. Switzerland is a well-planned with a wide range of services. For example, trains are always on time, and you'll always find a seat on the bus. The roads are perfect, without potholes, and everywhere is clean. Drivers pay attention to the speed limit, so the streets are safe. You hardly have to queue up at public offices. It's very calm here. People never lock their cars or houses. Besides, the Swiss are very eco-conscious.

There are many beautiful places in the mountains as well as lakes to relax during your free time. There are places where you can build a wood fire, with wood available, as well as benches and tables in excellent condition. Animals are protected. Even though the Swiss are not very outgoing, they are respectful and generally smiling. It almost looks like they have no worries at all. Poverty is almost non-existent. Also, the people here are less arrogant and ignorant than in Italy. The Swiss are art lovers, and the forest helps them unleash their creativity.

What are your plans for the future after all these ups and downs?

I'm hoping to find a job that matches my skills as soon as possible and to get my B2. I initially moved to Switzerland to work in the medical cannabis industry. Italy has slow legislation that is difficult to change, while Switzerland is a country that is open to change. There are great opportunities for those who are looking to work and integrate society. There is hope, although I'm yet to figure it out.

I have many projects, but it is still early to know if they will come true. In Italy, medical cannabis is still prohibited by law. In Switzerland, some cantons have already legalised medical cannabis. Also, some clinics are already carrying out pilot projects with medical cannabis for epilepsy treatment, for example. In Italy, pharmacists don't get this opportunity.

Besides, you don't find independent pharmacists in Italy. After specialising in hospital pharmacy, we can only work at a hospital pharmacy. Only physicians can decide on patients' therapy and follow up. Regarding heroin, Switzerland has opted for a socially sustainable drug policy, with controlled distribution of heroin and methadone. Most opioid addicts in Switzerland are on methadone treatment while some are on heroin. Many countries are following this model since it brought about favourable change.

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