GENEVA - The Swiss government has decided to reimpose quotas on immigrants from Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and five other central and eastern European nations, officials said Wednesday.
The Swiss Cabinet announced that residents from these countries -- which also include Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia -- will be subject to quotas starting in May when they apply for residency permits needed to work more a year in Switzerland.
The decision reflects a longstanding uneasiness about immigration and rising concerns about integrating workers and employers' compliance with wage and labor requirements, along with a desire to hold unemployment to 3 percent even during a time of economic turmoil.
"In weighing its interests, the Federal Council took into account the fact that the free movement of persons provides a good number of advantages to the Swiss economy," the government said.
"Over the past months, however, the Federal Council has noticed that the complexity of the immigration theme necessitates a debate on measures in the domains of the job market (including accompanying measures) and integration, and that such a discussion must unfold taking into full account the considerations of economic policy," it said in a statement.
The government said the quotas fall under a "safeguard clause" of an agreement with the European Union.
However, Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, said Switzerland's decision would "discriminate" against eight EU member nations and "goes against the spirit and letter of what Switzerland has already signed up to."
"Switzerland is the EU's third largest trading partner, and there are no clear legal or economic justifications for such a decision against eight EU member states," he said.
The Swiss had let the quotas on the eight nations lapse in May 2011. Since then, Swiss officials say they granted about 6,000 residency permits to those nations' workers -- almost triple the average 2,075 permits a year granted before then.
The government says as many as 1.1 million EU citizens are living in Switzerland, which has a population of about 7.9 million.
Last month, the government said a referendum will take place on a nationalist-led proposal to introduce annual quotas for immigrants after a campaign group called Stop Mass Immigration gathered the necessary 100,000 signatures to force a referendum.
The nationalist Swiss People's Party also has promoted the campaign with posters of black boots marching onto the Swiss flag.
The plan foresees caps for all types of foreigners in Switzerland and calls for Swiss citizens to receive priority for new jobs and limits on what kind of social services foreigners can enjoy. But critics say it would breach Switzerland's treaties with the EU.