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


Anonymous Matte said...

Oh dear oh dear!!! Lets hope I can make this somewhat coherent.

You have touched a sore point with your post but you touched the heart of the Swedish dilemma of socialdemocratism and market economy based political system. You most likely know more about this stuff than I do since I am a natural scientist and dont know bugger all about economy or social issues. But here is my take on the situation:

The reason why we have "pig-debatten" in Sweden is mainly what you touched upon, an moral issue. Swedes loo down upon people who can't do their own dirty work. And since we have been indoctrinated with the "Class-less-society" where everyone should have equal sallary and so fourth, it is not politically correct to support theese kind of ventures we are discussing. (For the left oriented parties anyway) Also I have a strong suspicion the labour unions dont like the low cost options either as they would not gain as much money as they would like, as we have seen in the examples you mentioned.

Also I think this is the view of the politicians who are seriously out of touch with the public on this issue as the younger generations of highly educated and career minded "young" families would love to pay something affordable for someone to help with the cleaning?...

Coherent enough?

4:56 PM  
Blogger Sven Holmström said...

"It seems to me that it is a question of a free market: "

Men du vet, de flesta svenskar tycker inte den fria marknaden. Jag gör det.

Jag har hyrt en turkisk städerska här i Turkiet. Hon tar betydligt högre timlön än vad jag har på mitt ingenjörsjobb. Men jag vet att jag borde skämmas ändå. För jag är ju trots allt svensk.

6:11 PM  
Blogger sparris said...

Yes, that's the thing. Most of us are uncomfortable with anything suggesting we're not one happy, equal middle-class family.

I even feel a little strange meeting the guys who clean for the IT company where I work. Like I was one rung up the ladder from them, even though I don't think I am or should be.

Cleaning for other people evokes the old days when this sort of work was done by the working class, for the bourgeoisie. Having to address your employers Sir/Madam and so on. A lot of the elderly still strongly dislike being addressed with "Ni".

8:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Grrrl, you ask a lot of questions, yet seem unable to comprehend the simple and easily-researchable answer/reason why private household help --of any female type[*], not solely charwomen-- is such an emotionally- loaded issue: we live in a country where grandmothers and aunts, sometime mothers, of past and present political elité, arrived en masse in cities big and small after WWI and later, and often had to work as maids or charwomen in truly awful conditions. Or else were driven into prostitution of one kind or another. That set quite a collective stigma for generations to come... hence current status-quo that's best characterized as "don't ask/ don't tell." Similarly, in the 30's there were plenty of Swedish upper- middle class "gouvernantes" in countries like Poland. Ask Magda, watch her grow tall a foot....


[*] stigma doesn't seem to apply to occassional or periodic private household/plumber, etc, help by a male; perhaps because males are expendable anyway, and, by definition are vacimizers, not eternal victims.

8:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Er... "vacimizers" = "victimizers" of course.

Perhaps to clarify matters a little: my point about NO STIGMA attached to male household services, even if still openly inadmissible due to tax reasons, is best illustrated by this tru-life tale:

A public utility's houses are tall and windy. Nobody in their right mind would expect a tenant to stand on a ladder by an open upper-story window at such heights in order to clean it. So the company's branch office recommends a number of helpers for just that. All of whom are properly registered, most sole-male-person, practically all immigrant, firms; yet not a single one of them could survive if they didn't conform to the prevailing consensual hourly-wage norm for such work, a sector of gray economy. All do brisk business, and the windows get cleaned. Everybody happy, nobody sez a word. See?

(= Reverse female discrimination at its very best.)


8:34 AM  
Blogger von Adler said...

I see the "maid debate" from another point of view. I work, I pay taxes, I pay to the pension funds.

Why should I finance the pensions and tax-paid advantages for the workers the upper class (because it is them and perhaps the upper middle class that can afford these things, even if they are tax deductable) wants to clean for them? I am all for making a black sector white or at least gray, but I dont want to finance other people's homecleaning.

People that can afford this kind of service could most likely afford to work 38 hours per week and do the cleaning themselves. If they really want someone else to clean for them, pay 500 SEK per hour, I think that is a fair price.

6:28 PM  
Anonymous mia said...

I agree with you von adler!

*thumbs up*

7:48 AM  
Blogger eff said...

Seriously, check out the eyebrows on Mr. Clean. I've never noticed that before. He must be related to the Gallagher brothers, who both have an entire loaf of bread over each eye.

8:02 PM  
Blogger colgate-girl said...

Den gamla goa pigdebatten.... Har på något sätt tappat tron på ett rationellt Sverige där det går att inspirera människor genom att erbjuda möjligheter och fri vilja. Är övertygad om att vi hade fått in mer skattepengar genom att sänka skatten på arbete av alla slag utförda i hemmen. Det gäller rörläggare, städning, målning und so weiter.

Blicka tillbaka till Stockholms gruppen och deras raffinerade isönderslitande av världens näst starkaste ekonomi på 70- talet. Det var då det blev fult att vara individ.

10:52 AM  

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