Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Stockholm from the Inside out

My best friend is coming on Friday and she'll be here for 10 days. What should we see/do that's non-obvious? Already got things like a boat trip in the archipelago, the Vasa Museum, the view of the Old Town and Södermalm from City Hall on the list, but would appreciate any suggestions for out-of-the-way things to see and do.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Maid in Sweden

There is nothing like coming home to find your apartment spic and span, especially if you're not the one who did the cleaning. But short of having Mr. Clean around to do the dirty work, where do you turn?

There has recently been a debate in the Swedish media about introducing a tax deduction for "household services." In essence, the question is whether or not the state should either subsidize household work or give a tax break to people who hire someone to come in and clean their private homes. Some Swedish bloggers even argue that the so-called "maid debate" could be a deciding factor in the upcoming Swedish election in September. The idea is that subsidizing household services creates more jobs in the formal economy, moving them from the informal (i.e. untaxed) sector. Theoretically, it also makes it easier for low income groups, such as older people, to afford home help.

The dilemma is that taxes on services in Sweden are so high that most people – including average middle class families – can't afford it. For example: A person starts a sole proprietorship (enskilda firma) that offers household services. The total price he or she charges must cover approximately 30% for social expenditures (including pension and unemployment insurance) and approximately 30% for income tax. So at an hourly rate of 300 kr, that leaves 120 kr take home and 180 kr that goes to the state. If you want to take home even a moderately reasonable salary, you have to change an exorbitant hourly rate. That means three things: 1) there is little encouragement for people to do things "by the book" when more than 60% of their income isn't really theirs; 2) even when people do declare all of their income, they are going to get really creative when it comes to tax deductions (i.e. I'd like to see what Skatteverket says when I tell them that cat food REALLY is a business expense since Ullrick doesn't get fed unless he earns his keep by cleaning my computer screen); and 3) household services that are offered "above the table" are priced so high out of the market that nobody, except the very wealthy, can afford them. So there is clear incentive for both the people who do the cleaning and the people who hire them to do it "under the table."

The debate is further compounded because it often intersects with another politically sensitive issue: immigration. A large percentage of people who work "svart" are either illegal immigrants, or legal immigrants who can't find a job doing anything else because they don't speak the language. The argument goes somewhere along the lines that those working "black" take jobs away from the formal economy and/or they are living off the Swedish welfare state and taking advantage of the system by not paying their fair share of taxes. (Of course, being able to take advantage of the system presumes one is already in the system). Furthermore, they are working in terrible conditions and are being exploited by wealthy bourgeois housewives who don't want to mess up their expensive manicures by doing dishes.

Certainly, there are individuals who exploit the disadvantaged situation in which many immigrants find themselves. But the fact is that most people who need help at home are just busy people who simply don't have the time or energy to "do it all." If you work 40+ hours a week, even if it's just sitting in front of a computer, the last thing you want to do is spend one of your two days off cleaning. Doubly so if you have kids. It is precisely why there has been such a large increase in the service sector over the last several decades; as women started to enter the labor market, there was increased demand for household help. The fact that the jobs created in the service sector were predominantly filled by lesser-educated, lower-income women is another issue all together.[1]

So here's my question, and something that has long puzzled me about Sweden: why is whether or not you pay someone to come and clean your apartment something that seems to be a question of morality? I can understand the reluctance to pay someone "under the table" from a legal perspective, but from a moral perspective? It seems to me that it is a question of a free market: the exhange of services for the going rate of those services in the local market. In the U.S., it is quite common to have a housekeeper come in and clean once a week, or once every other week. It might be an informal arrangment, but that doesn't make it an immoral arrangement. It doesn't mean you're lazy or trying to exploit someone; it is to some extent a question of convenience, but it also has to do with making time with family and friends that would otherwise be spent doing household chores.

It's a subject that almost never comes up in casual conversation here in Sweden, unless it's about the so-called "maid debate" regarding the state subsidies for household services. Trying to find someone who knows someone who cleans was pretty much a fruitless activity when it came to my Swedish friends and acquaintances. I get the distint impression that it is something that is looked down upon. (I'm not just talking about the under-the-table aspect. I'm also talking about just the very fact that you pay someone else to "do your dirty work." I think the two issues can clearly be seperated.) After deeming by-the-book cleaning services as way above my budget, I decided to try the under-the-table route. I asked several expat friends for any contacts, and they all responded, "Don't even bother asking a Swede." To get the phone number of Magda[2], a 30-something Polish school teacher and single mother who spends her summers working in Sweden, I finally asked my barista, who originally comes from South America. He introduced me to Magda. She teaches primary and junior high school, and has two teenage kids – a son and a daughter – that she is raising by herself.

Magda comes in once every three weeks and cleans (vacuuming, dusting, kitchen, bathroom, a little ironing and maybe some dishes) for 300 kr a pop. It's a cash transaction and her business advertising is entirely by word of mouth. It takes her a little more than an hour to clean my 40 square meter apartment. Assuming it takes an hour and a half, that's an hourly rate of 200 kr. If she works 7 hours a day at 200 kr per hour, that's 1400 kr a day and 7000 kr a week. Multiplied by four weeks, that's 28,000 kr per month. That's not bad at all. (In fact, that's more than I make.) Magda set the price herself, and I actually told her to tack another 50 kr on since I thought it was worth more.[3] She can do in one hour what would take me four hours, and I can find many more productive things (like writing provocative blog entries) to do with those four hours than vacuum the living room. (As an aside, for a bit of a laugh about the subject, check out Yrsel's latest post. English translation below.)[4]

Look at it this way: the average annual salary for a school teacher in Poland is less than $10,000 before taxes (OECD, 2003). By spending two months in Sweden working, Magda can increase her yearly income by almost one third. If I had two teenage kids to take care of, I'd do "what it takes" as well. A couple of other points: 1) Even though she works "under the table," Magda is NOT an illegal immigrant. Sweden, along with Britain and Ireland, allowed immigration from the 10 new EU member states as of accession in May 2004. As an EU citizen, she has as much right as anyone else to be here. 2) From her perspective, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to pay the ridiculous rates that small business owners are taxed at. She's a Polish citizen and paying into the Swedish pension system does her little good. Sure, when she retires, her pension entitlements are theoretically exportable under EU law, but from a practical standpoint, it may not be worth the hassle.

I apologize for waxing political for so long, and realize it's quite a departure from my normal slices of life, but what else is a blog for but to air one's dirty laundry (especially when you are talking about the possibility of having someone else do it for you). One of the reasons I usually don't "blog political" is that I have a tendency to get carried away, and rather long-winded (which you can agree with if you managed to get this far). But it seems to me that whether or not the Swedish goverment implements a tax deduction for household services is really beside the point. Maybe it's time to openly talk about the underlying phenomena which make people think it's immoral to pay someone 300 kr for a little extra time.

Let's not sweep it under the rug this time.

[1] That's a structural issue. Job creation is one thing; job quality an entirely different discussion. The root of that problem is not that 21st century career woman – who used to be exploited by patriarchal society – is now in turn explointing her fellow women. It has a lot less to do with that and a lot more to do with the current education system and labor market structure. But that's a subject for another blog post.
[2] name has been changed
[3]The situation is very similar to that of the Latvian construction workers who ended up in the middle of a debacle between Swedish labour unions and the Latvian government. Although they might not have been making lot of money by Swedish standards, they were making a whole lot than they would have back home, and the workers themselves were quite satisfied with the conditions and situation of their job. Regarding the Swedish labour union – LO – who claimed it was looking out for the interests of the Latvian workers, it was pure protectionism. The ability to export cheap labor is one of the few competitive advantages the new EU member states have, and I say let them keep it.
Yrsel writes about a note left by the cleaning staff after one of his co-workers forgot to flush for the umpteenth time:

Thanks for letting me handle your shit. My life consists of flushing after you and cleaning out your dirty toilet. I hope that you at least manage to wipe yourself, because that's where I draw the line.

With kind regards,

The Cleaning Crew

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Bottoms are Back

Last winter, Lindex launched part two of its "We love bottoms!" campaign: We love boobs!. Stockholm Transport (SL) deemed the breast-baring advertisements as too risqué, citing that they had "made the assessment that the text may cause upset among certain social groups." (The text is upsetting? What about the picture?). SL subsequently pulled the ads from the bill boards in the Stockholm subway and bus stops.

Now the bottoms are back, and can once again be ogled by Stockholm subwaygoers. I am reminded of the irony that a relatively tame advertising campaign can cause so much debate in a country where it's perfectly socially acceptable to bare your breast whereever and whenever you like, as long as there is a baby attached. I'm sorry: a breast is still a breast, whether or not it's being suckled. I personally find a real breast bared in the middle of a classroom a bit more shocking that the half-clad breasts portrayed in the "We love boobs" campaign.

Aftonbladet has another take on the subject; the women it interviewed didn't find the portrayal of bottoms offensive per se, but they were more upset that the average woman would never fit into the panties in question. My reaction to this is rather aesthetic: I would much rather see a small, waiflike woman modelling the underwear than a slightly overweight middleaged woman bulging out of them. Call me crazy.

It'll be interesting to see who else gets their panties in a knot over "We love bottoms" reborn.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Saddle sores

That bike I rode last night certainly had its way with me.

I could pepper this post with all sort of unsavory metaphors about what my tush feels like right now, but "ow ow ow" just about covers it.

I haven't ridden a bike in quite awhile, and my ass is definitely reminding me of that fact. In light of an upcoming trip to Gotland that will include more than just a little cycling around the island, I thought it would be a good idea to rent a bike and take it for a spin around Stockholm before I get 25 miles into the middle of nowhere, with only the sheep to comfort me and my aching ass.

I was mainly worried that my foot wouldn't be up to such a long trip (since I smashed my heel in a car accident last summer), but in the end, it's all about the butt. To brush up on my less-than-stellar biking skills, we went a 10 mile ride around Djurgården last night. Of course, the bike I was riding weighed about three metric tonnes and was probably manufactured sometime in the 19th century, but other than that, Stockholm by bike was perfectly lovely.

"This bike doesn't want to go up this hill!" I yelled to Steve, who was coasting along ahead of me on his state-of-the-art road bike.

"Are you sure it's not the engine rather than the bike?" he called back, too far ahead for me to catch up and give him the evil eye.

Other than a few bumps in the road, and some near-death experiences involving oncoming traffic, the ride went smoothly. The problems came later, after dismounting the bike. The problem with getting off the bike when you are anywhere other than just outside your front door, is that you have to get back on the bike to get to your final destination. My butt didn't think that was such a good idea.

I've been walking a bit bowlegged for the last 24 hours, and don't foresee it wearing off anytime soon.

The next time you need to come up with an excuse NOT to get on the bike, you might as well start it with "butt butt..."

Trust me, your ass will thank you.

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Ten Most Difficult Things to Do as an Expat in Sweden

10) Take a shower without having to mop out the entire bathroom afterwards.

9) Date the natives.

8) Mate the natives.

7) Pronounce the number sju.

6) Get the bill within a reasonable amount of time after finishing a meal.

5) Get something done during the months of June, July, and August at any place of business including banks, public authorities, and post offices.

4) Survive the months of November, January, and February without going postal due to lack of sunlight. (Yes, that's right. The post office is closed in July, and you go postal in February. What happens during the months in between is anybody's guess.)

3) Navigate a path between all of the baby buggies taking up space on subway, buses, and sidewalks. (The proliferation of baby buggies this time of year is directly related to the months of November, January, and February, as couples find other things to do than leave their apartments).

2) Date the natives. (Does that sound familiar?)

1) Write a top-ten list about life as an expat in Sweden without making any reference to herring, whether fermented, pickled, or used as a deadly weapon.