This issue is perhaps one of the most surprising culture clashes that I encountered when I came to Sweden. Most of my friends and family in England have some kind of cleaner – some for a couple of hours a week, others five mornings a week.
I’ll freely admit that I come from a pretty middle-class background, but then so do most of my Swedish friends and family, so it was suprising to hear the shrieks of protest when I said how great it would be to have some help around the house.
I hate housework, and after nine hours at work I would prefer to be able to take it easy. But apparently it is not only lazy to want somebody else to do your household chores – it is practically immoral. I’ve been told it is exploitative or even sexist to employ a ‘piga’ or ‘maid’, as some of my Swedish friends insist on putting it.
This attitude finds many supporters in government. Göran Persson, despite being faced with stubbornly high unemployment, insists that creating more cleaning jobs (or ‘maid jobs’ as he calls them) creates “the kind of low-wage market I don’t want to see.” He would prefer to create made-up jobs in Sweden’s already burgeoning public sector.
I’ll come to the tax break question in a minute, but first I’d like to tackle the attitude question. Why is it that this kind of job isn’t seen as good enough? And why is it that I am seen as something akin to a slave owner for paying someone to help with the ironing?
The attitude to domestic jobs is based on an Upstairs Downstairs idea of what it means to work in someone else’s home. What the opponents don’t see is that these days most relationships between domestic cleaners and their employers can be friendly and based on a spirit of equality.
In fact, it seems that the only place where cleaners are treated as second-class citizens is within the Social Democratic Party.
The other problem is an insufferably snooty attitude to employment, based on the unspoken assumption that a job is a job for life, rather than a step on the way to something better, and which also assumes that it’s better to stay on unemployment benefit indefinitely than to take a job that is less than ideal.
You might be cleaning someone’s house today, but in five years you have the same chance as anyone else to find something more stimulating.
But if the snooty general attitude to domestic employment is muddle-headed, isn’t there some logic to the tax question – why should the state effectively subsidise these services?
Firstly, because it will create more jobs in an economy that desperately needs them. Secondly, because in a country with the highest tax pressure in the OECD, these services are prohibitively expensive to too many people at the moment.
Besides, if tax breaks for these jobs are a subsidy, what does one call solving the unemployment problem by creating pointless jobs in the already-bloated public sector?
Now with even the unions changing their minds, isn’t it time for the government to admit that their insulting talk of ‘maids’ belongs in the class wars of the past?