Since last Autumn, a new government composed of four traditional capitalist parties rules Sweden.
They have jump-started their period in office with several general attacks aimed against the working class – big cuts in unemployment benefits, anti-trade union measures and large-scale privatisations. The common link is that women are the worst affected. The government clearly aims to strengthen the role of the nuclear family as a pillar for its power. This article is about one of their measures – the new maid system they are introducing.
The proposal of the government is that an individual can deduct 50,000 SEK (5,500 euro) from taxes for so called domestic-related services. It will mean low-paid women cleaning and taking care of children in rich families’ homes. The system is to start from 1 July.
The right-wing government would like to go back to the system of a hundred years ago, when the rich had servants who were more slaves than workers with rights. The maids lived in the employer’s house and the working day was never shorter than 10 hours. They didn’t have any free time or holidays. The wage was minimal and sometimes non-existent – just food, a room and maybe some old clothes. Domestic work was the most common job for women in Europe at that time.
The situation for maids today is not the same, but has similar features. Since last Autumn there has been a large increase of applicants to the Scandinavian ‘au-pair’ centre. The reason many give is that they are afraid of losing unemployment benefit and therefore apply for these jobs. The wage is 3,500 SEK (400 euros) a month plus room and food.
A reporter, Kerstin Fredholm, worked as a cleaning worker in the informal economy for a few months and wrote about her experience in the book ‘Fint hemma’ (‘Nice at home’).
She was the highest on the payroll with 75-125 SEK (8-13 euros) an hour. The ‘Polish’, as the employer named them, had around 70 SEK and asylum seekers and those without papers got 25-30 SEK (3,5 euro). When negotiating her wage she is alone and therefore can’t demand much. Almost no one of the 20 employers paid any taxes. Two men tried to convince her to sell them sex.
Who are buying these services? The reporter thought she would be working in stressed families with small children and sick pensioners, but instead most were wealthy, in good health, without children in the home, and all could afford to pay taxes if they wanted. She had to adapt to all their impulses and patronising treatment, for example when an employer shouted at her when peeling potatoes or cleaning the rugs. They expected her to gladly accept old clothes as part of her wages.
Cleaning workers in the informal economy today are mostly immigrant women. In an investigation from the university in Linköping the employers described Swedish maids as troublesome because they are more concerned about the rules and more often dare to speak out. They thought immigrants were more docile and not questioning. But being docile of course depends on a vulnerable social position. The women themselves described a daily life with low income, unpaid working hours and a frustration stemming from always having to please others.
Official work as a maid is also insecure. The employer can always terminate the employment without giving any reason, so if the cleaning worker protests against wrong treatment the employer can sack her easily. That is against the law, but it is hard to prove why she was sacked.
If you do cleaning work alone in a private home you do not have the collective strength of a normal workplace. When workers and women have won rights it has been the result of collective strength and struggle.
The first big wave of women’s struggle in the beginning of the 1900s, when the right to vote was won, was the result of women working in industry. The second wave in the 1970s followed the mass entrance of women into the labour market. Both these periods of struggle were the result of women no longer being alone with their problems.
With domestic jobs the right wing government wants to weaken that strength and go back to a situation where women are alone in a situation where they are oppressed. They want to re-establish that it is alright not to do your own cleaning at home. Another strong reason for the government proposing this is the creation of a new low-wage labour market, which will put downward pressure on all wages.
The right wing politicians argue that they are making illegal labour legal. Most employers with informal economy domestic help, however, can already afford to pay taxes but have chosen not to. With or without tax benefits there will still be an informal market that is cheaper, where the employers have stronger control.
Finland has already implemented a similar reduction in taxes. Only five per cent of Finnish households used the system in 2003. Most of those were upper middle class, according to ‘LO-Tidningen’ (the Swedish TUC newspaper). Only between 2,700 and 3,400 full time jobs were created, to the cost of 90 million euros. In Sweden, that sum would create jobs for 3,200 health workers in the public sector.
Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna has stood for many years for a rebuilding of the women’s movement. Today, there is an ongoing backlash against women’s position in society and it is more important than ever that women activists come together and raise their voices on 8 March.
Our alternative to the maid tax rebate system is a highly improved provision of childcare and care of the elderly. We want increased public resources to increase the number of jobs for educated staff that work with the old and sick, where there is real need. We want men to take on more unpaid household work. This can be made possible through a reduced working day to six hours for everyone without loss of pay and with women’s wages increased to the same level as men.