This was a very shocking documentary about the practice of using “contract children” as farm labourers in Switzerland, from the 19th century to the 1960s and in some cases even as late as the 1980s. Many of the surviving “contract children” have never felt able to talk about their pasts, partly because of the emotional trauma and partly because having been a “contract child” has generally been considered shameful, but there is now a movement to obtain apologies and compensation for those affected.
These children were taken away from their homes and sent to work on farms, often working long hours, doing heavy labour, and in some cases beaten and or sexually abused. The removal of the children from their homes and their placement on farms was organised by governmental bodies; and, whilst this BBC programme only spoke to people from German-speaking areas, it seems to have been prevalent in French-speaking areas too, and in both mainly Catholic cantons and mainly Protestant cantons. (I’m just saying that because taking babies away from their families has been associated with the Catholic church in Franco’s Spain and shutting women up in institutions for allegedly immoral behaviour has, in the past, been associated with Calvinist authorities in the Netherlands.)
There seem to have been two main elements to what happened. One, with echoes of events in other countries, for example Aboriginal children being taken from their families and placed with white families in Australia and newborn babies being stolen from parents not considered to be loyal to the Catholic church and Franco’s regime in Spain, was a form of social engineering: some of the children taken were the offspring of single mothers or mothers with social problems. Some of them were taken just because their families were poor. Those involved in their removal claimed that they were doing them and their families a favour. Shockingly, there are reports of desperate parents who’d had their children forcibly removed from them being forced to pay towards their children’s upkeep. Even more shockingly, some of the websites set up by the survivors mention cases of parents deemed “unsuitable”, usually unmarried mothers, being shut up in institutions and or forcibly sterilised. That’s the sort of thing we might perhaps associate with Nazi Germany, but certainly not with Switzerland.
Switzerland is a country of which people tend to have a very positive view. Stunning lakes and mountains, wonderful air, cities unaffected by the ravages of the Second World War, amazing chocolate, cakes second only to those in Austria, home of ski resorts and boarding schools for the rich and famous and their offspring, headquarters of numerous international organisations, different linguistic and religious groups living together in peace and harmony (hmm, not quite always), and probably the answer that would immediately spring to most people’s minds when asked to name a wealthy country. However, it was pointed out in this programme that, as late as the 1940s, rural Switzerland wasn’t wealthy at all, and a lot of the work on the farms had to be done by hand. Not to mention the fact that women didn’t even have the vote at federal level until 1971, and in some cantons were only given the vote at local level in 1990. Yes, 1990. These poor children were a source of cheap labour – some of them were actually auctioned off – and their poor mothers had very little chance against the state.
A farmer interviewed by the BBC denied all the allegations of abuse made against him by the former “Verdingkind” (contract child) who’d worked on his farm. As Mandy Rice-Davies might say, he would, wouldn’t he?
It’s just so frightening and horrifying how much of this sort of “social engineering” has gone on. Sometimes the intentions were (are?) good, but terribly misguided – the system of sending children from Britain to former colonies was supposed to be a way of relieving poverty. Sometimes it was (is?) purely economic, or political. Or a combination of all three things.
A petition’s been launched for compensation to be paid to the surviving “Verdingkinder”, and hopefully that will succeed. It’d be something, at least.