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Rights and obligations of apprentices and companies providing apprenticeships

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After attending school for nine years, an apprenticeship is the start of a new chapter in the lives of teens. They are not only confronted with interesting challenges on their journey to the working world, but rather also with many rules, questions, and uncertainties which they never had to deal with before. 

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    Leo Loosli

    Leo Loosli is a legal expert and works at AXA-ARAG in Market Management and as an expert in the areas of contract, inheritance, family, and personal law. In this blog, he answers questions regarding the rights and obligations of apprentices.

How many hours is an apprentice allowed to work per day?

According to law, the maximum number of daily working hours for an apprentice under the age of 18 must not exceed the working hours of other employees at the company and must not be more than 9 hours (including overtime) per day. This 9-hour maximum must be performed within a 12-hour period.

Can a company offering an apprenticeship require apprentices to work overtime?

Yes, an apprentice can also be obligated to work overtime, but only insofar as this is necessary for operational reasons. Moreover, the company must generally make every effort to prevent the need for overtime.

How can overtime be compensated during occupational training?

The same applies for apprentices as for “normal” employees: Overtime must be compensated equally with time off or paid out at a premium of 25%.

In general, however, it makes more sense for the apprentice to compensate the overtime with time off. It is important that sufficient recovery is guaranteed and that the apprentice can focus on their training.

How many vacation days do apprentices in Switzerland have?

According to the Swiss Code of Obligations (Obligationenrecht), the company providing the apprenticeship must grant apprentices 20 days or five weeks of vacation for every year of the apprenticeship until the apprentice’s 21st birthday. Older apprentices are entitled to at least four weeks.

What absences can lead to a salary deduction during an apprenticeship?

The company offering the apprenticeship may decrease wages, especially in the case of unexcused absences. This means that if the apprentice does not come to work and does not have an appropriate reason for doing so (e.g. train delay or car trouble), then they must expect the missed time to be deducted from their pay.

Can a company require an apprentice to take care of appointments, for example a dentist appointment, during off-peak hours?

Yes, in general the apprenticeship company can require the apprentice to take appointments, such as a dentist appointment, during off-peak hours or before or after work. However, in the case of urgent personal matters, the employer must allow the apprentice to deal with the situation during working hours.

However, this is only the case if these doctor’s appointments cannot be taken outside of working hours. One example of this would be a severe toothache that requires immediate treatment and thus cannot be put off.

Does the apprenticeship company have to ensure there is a vocational trainer for every apprentice?

It depends. A company can only offer an apprenticeship if it has at least one employee with the necessary knowhow and personal skills. The number of apprentices who this person is allowed to train at the same time is defined in the training ordinance of each profession. As a rule, there is one vocational trainer for each apprentice.

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What can apprentices do if their contact person does not coach them sufficiently? For example, if their performance review is repeatedly postponed?

In cases like these, we recommend talking with the contact person directly. If necessary – but possibly only as a second step – the line manager can also be consulted. If a solution cannot be found, then the vocational training office must also be consulted. This is to ensure that apprentices receive sufficiently professional training.

Can the company offering the apprenticeship refuse to pay a salary at all?

An apprenticeship agreement is a special type of employment contract. Unlike individual employment contracts, the training and not the performance of work against payment of a salary forms the decisive content of the contract. The work serves “only” as a means to an end, i.e. for the purpose of training.

In general, the “salary” must be defined in the apprenticeship agreement. However, since in the case of this employment relationship the training and not the performance of work against payment of a salary is paramount, an agreement can theoretically be made that no salary will be paid. Such an agreement must nevertheless be explicitly governed in the contract.

What salary can apprentices expect to receive? Is there an official recommendation?

As indicated above, companies that offer apprenticeships are not obligated to make salary payments. For this reason, companies can generally set the amount of salaries at their own discretion.

In practice, however, many industries and sectors have formed associations, which usually issue recommendations regarding the salary level of apprentices in each year of the apprenticeship. These recommendations are usually taken into account when the salary amounts are defined.

If you want more information before signing an apprenticeship agreement, please contact the corresponding industry association. The information can also be found online.

How long is the probationary period of an apprenticeship?

By law, the probationary period for apprenticeship agreements cannot be less than one month or exceed three months. The company can freely set the term within this range. If nothing has been agreed regarding the probationary period, then it is defined by law as three months. In exceptional cases, the probationary period can be extended to six months prior to expiration and with the consent of the cantonal authorities.

During this time, the agreement can be terminated by either party with a notice period of seven days. 

The apprenticeship agreement forms the basis of the apprenticeship employment relationship. It must at least govern the type and duration of the training, salary, probationary period, working hours, and vacation.

Leo Loosli, legal expert at AXA-ARAG

When can the company offering the apprenticeship terminate my contract during the probationary period?

During the probationary period, it is possible for either party to dissolve the apprenticeship agreement at any time with a notice period of seven calendar days. However, even in the case of apprenticeship agreements, there is the obligation to report the reasons for termination in writing upon request. The terminating party must also notify the vocational training office immediately.

Is an oral apprenticeship agreement valid?

No. An apprenticeship agreement must be concluded in writing for it to be legally valid. It also must include the following minimum information: the contractual parties, type and duration of training, salary, probationary period, working hours, and vacation.

If these points are included and there is mutual and unanimous agreement regarding the abovementioned points, then the apprenticeship agreement is legally valid.

What does an apprenticeship agreement have to include by law?

  • Type and duration of occupational training
  • Parties
  • Salary
  • Probationary period
  • Working hours
  • Vacation

When does an apprenticeship agreement end?

An apprenticeship agreement is a fixed-term contract. In other words, the agreement ends upon expiration of the agreed term or apprenticeship. It also ends if the apprentice does not pass their final exams and an additional apprenticeship year becomes necessary to complete the apprenticeship. In this case, the parties must come to a written agreement regarding the next steps – namely, conclude a new agreement for an additional apprenticeship year.

Most apprentices are minors at the start of their apprenticeship. Do their parents also have to sign the contract?

Yes. Since minors have only a restricted capacity to act, the agreement must be co-signed by the legal representative – i.e. the custodian of parental care – for it to be valid. However, as a rule, it is enough for one parent to sign in the case of parents who share custody.

Can a high school graduate choose to start an apprenticeship against the will of their parents?

No, by law an apprenticeship agreement with minors is only valid if the legal representative or parent co-signs. If the parents refuse to sign the apprenticeship agreement, then the young person cannot start the apprenticeship.

However, as soon as the young person has turned 18, they can freely choose which vocational training they would like to start. For this reason, it is advisable for parents to take their children (who are of sound judgment) seriously and support them in their choice of apprenticeship – thus helping them have the best possible start to their adult life.

Do apprentices also have to comply with a company’s dress code?

Yes, apprentices also have to comply with the dress code.

The rules regarding work attire are usually set out in written guidelines. This means that the employer unilaterally stipulates the content and can also make changes at their discretion when necessary. The limitations of this directive lie in good faith, privacy protection of the employees, mandatory provisions of law, and other agreements, such as collective labor agreements.

In other words, the authority to issue instructions ends if the regulations are of a harassing nature or there are already rules/regulations that take precedent.

Specifically, this means that, for example, in industries with customer contact and in which a respectable appearance is important, a mini skirt ban or suit obligation is allowed.

What if an apprentice absolutely refuses to wear a blazer or suit jacket?

As explained above, dress codes are often set out in guidelines.

The employee – and this also applies for apprentices – is generally obligated to comply with justified guidelines of the employer. If they fail to do so, the employer can issue a warning or reprimand. In the case of repeated or serious offenses, termination without notice is also possible.

If the company offering the apprenticeship terminates the apprenticeship, however, there is a peculiarity that must be noted. Before the company can issue a termination, it must ensure the apprentice’s legal right to be heard. This means that the apprentice must have the opportunity to respond. If the apprentice is still a minor, then their legal representatives must also be heard. A termination without prior discussion with the apprentice is invalid.

What damage/loss can an apprentice be held liable for?

In general, employees are liable for damages/loss that they inflict on the employer, either intentionally or through negligence. The degree of liability (and thus also the scope of compensation) is measured by fault, which is why the situation must always be assessed individually.

In the case of apprentices, it must also be taken into account with regard to the damaging act whether they had the necessary knowledge and whether support/care was sufficiently provided.

Regarding the issue of liability, the risk linked with the occupation is also a decisive factor. Based on these criteria, a decision is made regarding whether and to what extent there is liability in a specific case. 

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Under what circumstances can an apprenticeship agreement be terminated without notice?

When it comes to apprenticeship agreements, the Swiss Code of Obligations stipulates that termination without notice for “good cause” can be issued if:

  • The specialist responsible for the training lacks the necessary professional or personal skills to train the apprentice;
  • The apprentice does not possess the necessary physical or mental capacity or is physically or morally vulnerable;
  • The training cannot be completed or can only completed under significantly modified conditions.

This list is not conclusive, which is why other grounds that would justify a termination without notice could be possible.

If the company terminates the apprenticeship, it must take into account that the apprentice must be able to exercise their legal right to be heard prior to the termination without notice. If the apprentice is not yet of age, then their legal representative must also be included. If the apprentice and, where applicable, their parents have not been heard, then the termination is invalid.

In practice, apprenticeship agreements are often terminated by the company offering the apprenticeship if the apprentice does not pass their vocational school exams, exhibits extremely inappropriate behavior at the workplace, or there is no prospect that the apprentice will successfully complete the apprenticeship.

Can the company offering the apprenticeship prohibit the apprentice from taking optional courses at the vocational school or completing a vocational baccalaureate?

In general, apprentices who fulfill the requirements of the company offering the apprenticeship and the vocational college can attend optional courses without a deduction to their salary. However, the company offering the apprenticeship must consent to their attendance. If the company and the apprentice cannot reach an agreement, then the cantonal authority is responsible for making a decision. Nevertheless, optional courses must be set in such a way that attendance is possible without causing any significant restriction to the occupational training. The scope may not exceed an average of half a day per week during working hours.

However, if the apprentice needs to take remedial courses and the successful completion of the apprenticeship is at risk, the apprentice is not entitled to attend optional courses.

With regard to the occupational baccalaureate, the company must grant its consent for attending the corresponding courses in the apprenticeship agreement. This means that the company decides whether or not it offers an apprenticeship agreement with which an occupational baccalaureate can be completed. If the apprentice wants to complete a job-concurrent vocational baccalaureate, then they must look for an apprenticeship at a company that will consent to this. 

If the apprentice’s performance within the company and at school are sufficient, then they can usually attend optional courses for up to half a day per week.

Leo Loosli, legal expert at AXA-ARAG

What rights do apprentices have who almost exclusively perform unskilled labor in the company?

An apprenticeship agreement is a special type of employment contract. Unlike individual employment contracts, the training and not the performance of work against payment of a salary forms the decisive content of the contract. The work serves “only” as a means to an end, i.e. for the purpose of training. The apprentice thus has the right to receive proper training.

As part of the apprenticeship agreement, apprentices must especially carry out work that serves as part of the training in their area of specialization. Unskilled labor is thus allowed if it is connected to the profession and the corresponding training. However, if only unskilled labor is carried out, the apprenticeship should seek dialog with the responsible trainer or line manager.

If a solution cannot be found, then the vocational training office must also be consulted so as to ensure that the apprentice receives professional training.

What if the apprentice refuses to carry out certain tasks?

Just like every other employee, apprentices have a duty to work and to be loyal: They must comply with justified instructions of the employee. However, within the scope of the obligation to be loyal, the apprentice is not obligated to follow instructions that would lead to a breach of contract, break the law, or be immoral. However, instructions that merely seem to be unsuitable from the view of the apprentice must be complied with.

If the apprentice breaches a justified rule of the company offering the apprenticeship, then disciplinary measures are usually taken as a first step. These may include a warning or reprimand. In the case of repeated or serious offenses, termination without notice is also possible. 

When can an apprentice terminate their apprenticeship agreement?

During the apprenticeship and after expiration of the probationary period, a dissolution of the apprenticeship agreement is only possible in the following two situations:

  1. By mutual consent: The trainer agrees to the dissolution of the agreement; they must inform the cantonal office for occupational training and the vocational school. Such mutually agreed solutions, which are often paired with a reassignment of the apprentice, are frequent.
  2. Unilaterally for good reason: This is the case, for example, if the line manager does not possess the necessary specialist skills or knowhow. If the apprentice’s skills do not suffice for completing training. If the health of the apprentice is at risk at the workplace, in the event of sexual harassment, or if the conditions no longer correspond to the apprenticeship agreement.

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