By Samuel Jaberg
Scorned as cheating the tax office and social security, moonlighting is often also a way of preserving human dignity and keeping skills up to date.
That’s the finding of a study carried out in the French-speaking part of Switzerland by a team of sociologists. The survey came four years after parliament tightened legal provisions, and followed an information drive aimed at clamping down on undeclared work practices.
Moonlighting is a legitimate means to get by if money is scarce, according to those questioned.
“There is nothing wrong, in my opinion, about seeking an undeclared paid activity if you’re struggling to make ends meet every month,” said Fabio (not his real name), a 30-year-old man who works as a stringer in the culture sector.
He is one of about 60 people interviewed by a team of researchers from Neuchâtel University for a study published by the National Science Foundation in January.
Compared with other European countries – notably in the south and the east of the continent – Switzerland has a relatively low rate of moonlighting.
Undeclared cash-in-hand work has always existed to some extent, according to François Hainard, director of the Sociology Institute at Neuchâtel University and co-author of the study.
“But since the 1990s it has gradually become an issue for the state as it seeks to consolidate its revenue. The same goes for social security insurance, which has come under financial pressure,” he explained.
Hand in hand with increased efforts to fight social security fraud came cuts in unemployment insurance payments, just as a growing number of people were struggling to find jobs.
The authors of the study say the combination of the three elements explains to a large degree why moonlighting has become attractive, even for people who have all the necessary work permits.
Considered mainly an issue for the hotel and catering industry and the construction sector, the researchers found that moonlighting is also practised in cultural and artistic circles, for helpdesk services in the information technology and for typically intellectual activities, notably translations.
“More flexibility in the labour world and a lack of job security are the main reasons for the growing popularity of undeclared work practices,” concluded Hainard.
The researchers were particularly struck by a recurring justification for cash-in-hand activities: Many of the respondents stressed the importance of human dignity in their often turbulent lives.
Such as 35-year-old Anne (not her real name) who told the researchers that she eventually took on a job as waitress following a long period of joblessness when she had to rely on welfare payments.
“I wanted to find a way into the working world again. At the same time it was a boost for my ego. My experience as a welfare recipient had made me bitter.”
Hainard says many people turn to moonlighting to escape social stigmatisation. “Undeclared work is considered a minor offence and can even be approved of as showing resourcefulness.”
He says that staying in the working world, albeit thanks to illegal practices, has an importance that should not be underestimated. It allows an individual to keep up professional skills, know-how and a network of contacts – indispensable if they are to react quickly to a job offer.
There are also cases where moonlighting is justified by low salaries in the regular job market, according to Hainard.
“It is a perfectly normal strategy to try and better your income with some moonlighting if your take-home salary is not enough to make a living,” he explained.
The issue was highlighted in January when trade unions handed in enough signatures for a nationwide vote on the introduction of a minimum salary.
Then there are those who prefer to take the law into their own hands instead of relying on the state or on charities.
“How do you expect me to survive on SFr2,000 ($2,195) a month? I know what I’m doing and I need the money after all,” said 30-year-old Pascal (not his real name), who works in a hotel.
In their report the researchers point out the issue of wage-related state subsidies and the negative impact they can have on beneficiaries.
“Some people are better off hiding a certain income so they do not lose their entitlement to state subsidies for mandatory health insurance,” said Hainard.
The authors of the study are critical of a nationwide law on moonlighting, saying it is too restrictive and ignores the real reasons why many people resort to undeclared work. But they do not deny that such practices are a serious problem both for the economy and for employees.
It is a notion backed by a welfare beneficiary interviewed as part of the National Science Foundation project.
“I’m all for hunting down social security fraudsters. But there is no need to go after the babysitters, the domestic helps and office cleaners who are just trying to make ends meet.”
There is no point in the state unnecessarily antagonising people, critics say.
“It makes much more sense to inform people about the risks they take in accepting undeclared work. Because they are not paying their contributions to the social security insurance,” said Hainard.
He says many people could be dissuaded from moonlighting when they become aware of the financial setback for their old age pensions.
(Adapted from French by Urs Geiser)