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Formula One racer Michael Schumacher’s tire troubles are threatening his chances of adding his seven world championships this year, and now one of Switzerland’s best-known tax exiles is at the center of a political flap over construction of his new 35 million Swiss franc (US$28 million; euro23 million) villa. Swiss authorities have detected foreign craftsmen working for substandard wages at the site on picturesque Lake Geneva, officials confirmed Tuesday. Schumacher is now at the front of the grid of a national debate over whether the Alpine country should further open its borders to foreign workers. “Caught. Black-market laborers in Schumi’s villa. They work for starvation wages,” headlined Blick, Switzerland’s leading German-speaking tabloid on its front page. The contractor for Schumi was caught paying six French stonemasons 13.50 francs (US$10.65; euro8.74) an hour — less than half the Swiss standard wage for such work of 29.38 francs. He was fined 5,000 francs, Roger Piccand, who heads the labor office in Vaud canton (state), told The Associated Press. A repeat offense could lead to a five-year ban for the contractor in Switzerland, Piccand said. Eight German craftsmen — also underpaid by Swiss standards — were found building his wife’s two new 5 million franc (US$3.9 million; euro3.2 million) horse stables. But a judgment is pending on that case. Schumacher was unaware of any wrongdoing, his lawyer said. “The Schumachers were not in the know,” Bertrand Gros told the AP. “It is not the responsibility of our client to ensure that the architects and builders comply with Swiss regulations,” the Geneva-based attorney said. But labor officials said the fact that the underpayments were discovered is a sign that Switzerland needn’t fear bringing in more foreign workers. “We don’t want the free circulation of workers to lead to wage dumping, but this episode highlights that if there are sufficient controls, the advantages to opening our country are bigger than the disadvantages,” Piccand said. The Swiss will vote in a Sept. 25 referendum on whether to extend to the European Union’s 10 new member states the freedom to work in Switzerland now enjoyed by other EU citizens. “This is a great showcase because of Schumacher’s interesting name,” said Ewald Ackermann, who heads the Swiss federation of trade unions. “What people should learn from it is that it does not pay to break local laws, and our union members should be encouraged that Swiss wages will not be undercut.” Like many celebrities, the German native benefits from Switzerland’s low tax rates. He has lived in rented property in Switzerland since 1996. After much courting by different Swiss cantons, Schumacher decided to build his own villa on a 13-hectare (32-acre) site in Vaud, the canton bordering on Geneva. His new lakeside residence will have eight bedrooms, two indoor swimming pools, a home cinema, a separate room for Schumacher’s trophies and an underground parking lot for 19 cars. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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