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Swiss law aimed at attracting top EU talent lures prostitutes

Switzerland entered a treaty with the European Union to import workers, seeking more bankers, managers and academics. What it got was an influx of prostitutes.

The number of people offering sex for money has risen by a third in Zurich and 80% in Geneva since Switzerland opened its borders to workers from the 15 EU-member states at the start of 2004, police estimate. Some lawmakers predict prostitution will grow even more after the government last year removed work restrictions for residents from 10 newer EU countries as well. „A lot of families are leaving the neighborhood,” said Maximilian Kuenzig, who has lived in Zurich's working-class Kreis 4 district his entire life. „Just yesterday in my building, a young Swiss family with a kid said they would leave. There is noise the whole night.” While Swiss officials say the new rules are spurring economic growth, anti-immigrant groups argue that the rise in prostitution shows the treaty isn't attracting the educated professionals Switzerland needs. The Swiss People's Party, which opposed opening the labor market and is part of the ruling coalition, says it may seek a referendum on the treaty in 2009. Prostitution is legal in Switzerland, and its residents have the world's highest purchasing power, according to a study published in December by UBS AG. Prostitutes from the EU don't need a work permit for the first three months of residence and can offer their services as self-employed workers, provided they register with police and comply with tax laws.

The lack of restrictions, combined with the country's wealth, has pushed the number of prostitutes per capita in Zurich to the highest among industrialized countries, estimated Rolf Vieli, a city employee heading a project for improvement of the Langstrasse area, Zurich's red-light district. Based on police figures, Zurich has about 11 prostitutes per 1,000 people, similar to the rate in Amsterdam, known for its sex trade. „The neighborhood is degenerating more and more,” Vieli said at his office at Zurich's police headquarters. „The process of becoming a slum is accelerating with the increase of prostitution.” The decision to open the labor market to workers from the EU, adopted in 2000, is part of a series of covenants Switzerland agreed to in exchange for reduced trade barriers with the economic and political union. The federal government is looking on the bright side. The accords will boost gross domestic product by as much as 0.5%, with half of that generated by the arrival of much-needed professionals, Switzerland's federal offices for migration and economic development said in August. „The increasing prostitution is for us a side effect and irrelevant for the labor market,” said Rita Baldegger, a spokeswoman at the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs. „The positive effects prevail.”

The number of registered prostitutes in Zurich rose to almost 4,000 at the end of 2005, from 3,000 in 2004, police there said. Police haven't released 2006 figures for Zurich. The number in Geneva increased to about 1,500 at the end of 2006, from 837 in 2004, police said. Most of the new sex workers came from neighboring Germany and France. Switzerland doesn't track the number of registered prostitutes nationally. The influx of sex workers has cut prices for „quickie” sexual intercourse to a range of 30 to 80 francs ($24 to $65) from 150 to 250 francs ($122 to $203), said Adrian Klaus, a social worker with Basta, a support group for prostitutes.

The Swiss People's Party is concerned that increasing prostitution may become a serious problem, and the party may collect signatures for a referendum on the treaty, spokesman Reto Jaeggi said. A clause in the treaty allows a national vote in 2009 on whether to continue the labor agreement with the EU. „This and the influx of unskilled workers in the construction industry and in the agriculture sector isn't really an intellectual improvement,” he said. While the surge in prostitution is testing residents' tolerance in Zurich and Geneva, women's rights groups say it helps prevent the abuse of women by human smugglers. „We expect a decrease in the illegal trafficking of women,” said Doro Winkler of the Frauen Informationzentrum, which specializes in issues related to women trafficking. „A main reason for trafficking of women was the restrictive law” on foreign workers. Kuenzig, the Kreis 4 resident, said prostitution has long been present in the neighborhood, but in smaller numbers and with less impact. „There weren't all the side effects of noise and fights like today,” he said. (Bloomberg)