A discussion on racism & xenophobia in Switzerland

Published: 22 Sep 2020

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In an emotive event, chaired by Felipe Stevenson, Communications Lead at Roche Services and Solutions, speakers from across the industry highlighted their experiences of racism and xenophobia in Switzerland.

Filipe’s introduced the topic of racism and xenophobia by contextualising it within the global context, drawing on the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, but drew on his own experience as an immigrant.

Following Felipe’s introduction, Urs Baertschi, CEO Reinsurance EMEA at Swiss Re and Global Sponsor for Diversity and Inclusion, discussed the importance of diversity and inclusion to him. Having worked in the US where he lived in a small, prominently black community, he highlighted that even then he saw first-hand some of the problems that were still happening and noted how little things had changed. He then highlighted Swiss Re’s firm stance on a diverse and inclusive workplace culture. As a company that does not tolerate discrimination for any reason, the insurance company promotes the need for allyship and awareness building.

Martine Brunschwig Graf, President of the Swiss Federal Commission Against Racism then took to the virtual floor, saying: “Switzerland is not a racist country, but it has racists issues just the same as other countries and we need to recognise that and work on it.”

She revealed shocking statistics that 28% of the Swiss population consider themselves a victim of discrimination and violence and in 2018, a third of Switzerland’s population said they were uncomfortable when faced with differences and otherness. She highlighted how racism and xenophobia in the workplace could be addressed. Actions include setting targets for the recruitment of migrant labour as well as better recognitions for foreign credentials, sponsorship and measurements to promote equality.

Felipe then introduced four participants from various stages of their career who discussed the racial discrimination and xenophobia they experienced in Switzerland. The speakers included Suba Umathevan, CEO of Plan International, a refugee from Sri Lanka who moved to Switzerland; Adam Buyondo, Commercial Apprentice at Swiss Re, born and raised in Uganda and moved to Switzerland to study business; Celeste Vogel, Senior Legal Counsel at Legal Reinsurance, Swiss Re who was born in Uganda and moved to Switzerland through marriage; and Marijana Maric, Senior Underwriter at Chubb who was born in Bosnia and came to Switzerland when she was seven.

The panel discussed their own personal experiences of discrimination which ranged from name discrimination to being racially profiled and targeted by the Swiss police. Marijana even remarked on being made to feel ashamed of her own heritage and Suba highlighted how she was not recognised as Swiss due to the colour of her skin, despite growing up here.

The lack of acknowledgement for racial and xenophobic prejudices, the panel discussed, had led to minority groups feeling the need to internalise regular microagressions to the point that they are now blind to it. When asked how to end discrimination, the panel was unified in the view that racism and xenophobia needs to be recognised and addressed. And it has never been more important to be an ally.

To close the event Jorg Thews, Partner at Insurance Advisory PWC, Switzerland highlighted an initiative by PWC called Colour Brave. The initiative focuses on embedding three sets of behaviours within organisations to improve self-reflection on racism and xenophobia – Be Curious, Be Bold and Be Forgiving.