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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Oldenbourg September 11, 2019

The social desirability of offshoring: a Swiss consensus (1945–1975)

Sabine Pitteloud


This article focuses on the evolution of the rhetoric and practice of corporate offshoring in Switzerland from the post-war economic boom to the industrial crisis in the mid-seventies. The virtue of a historical perspective on the issue of offshoring is to show how recent controversies have their roots in previous decades, suggesting the need to reassess recent debates about structural change in light of earlier experiences. Relying on the cultural and narrative perspective in business history, the article shows the emergence of an unexpected consensus about the legitimacy of corporate offshoring between employers, Swiss authorities and even Swiss labour unions after 1945. The explanation for that counter-intuitive alliance is found in the actors’ representations and discourse about what they considered to be excessive economic circumstances. Indeed, during this golden age of considerable economic expansion, demand exceeded supply and the Swiss firms constantly complained of labour shortages. Offshoring was therefore seen as a cure for the lack of workers within Switzerland and allowed multinational companies to focus on the most lucrative production activities. Swiss workers and unions shared this view, preferring some low-skill activities to be done outside the country rather than seeing the arrival of more foreign workers, who tended to be less unionised and who were accused of aggravating the housing shortage. In response, the Swiss authorities supported the offshoring process by providing some tariff favours to allow textile firms in particular to relocate their production abroad and to reimport it to Switzerland without paying taxes. Finally, the article shows how the consensus broke down after the economic downturn of the mid-70 s and how changing historical circumstances induced new diverging narratives about the social desirability of the offshoring phenomenon.

Published Online: 2019-09-11
Published in Print: 2019-09-01

© 2019 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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