Maid in Sweden: clean home, dirty money?

Few would argue with the merits of a clean house, yet Swedes don't seem ready to sweep the issue of hiring domestic help under the rug. And as Paul O'Mahony discovers, controversial tax breaks are only part of the story.

Maid in Sweden: clean home, dirty money?

Few people in Swedish life can sour a conversation as quickly and reliably as the woman who comes to clean the house. Three years ago, the country’s collective blood pressure rose to dangerous levels when the government made good on its promise to provide controversial incentives for home cleaning services.

Now, with just days remaining before Swedes go to the polls, a reform slammed by the opposition as class-based and regressive again forms one of the election’s principal ideological fault lines.

Sweden’s oft-cited ‘maid debate’ began in earnest in 1993 when a Moderate Party member of parliament committed the political equivalent of church flatulence by proposing tax deductions for household services. Anne-Marie Pålsson recalls the long, wet summer in which she was routinely portrayed as a reprehensible enemy of gender equality.

”I was given the title ‘male chauvinist of the year’ by a women’s organisation, while the Expressen tabloid referred to me as a ‘borderline witch’,” she tells The Local.

Pålsson says she was astonished by the force of the reaction, which she believes has its roots in the history of the party that ruled Sweden for much of the twentieth century.

”A lot of people in the Social Democrat movement have parents and grandparents who worked as household servants and have very negative memories of the old ‘upstairs downstairs’ mindset. Also, the Social Democrats had built up new Swedish modes of living over a long period whereby men and women were expected to do exactly the same things, from running companies to ironing shirts. My idea would partly entail a division of labour, which just didn’t suit their way of thinking.”

Supporters argue that the reform has several benefits. First off, it allows parents in dual income families to spend more time with their kids. Also, it creates jobs for marginalized groups, primarily immigrant women, who might otherwise struggle to gain a foothold on the labour market. Although there have not yet been any major independent studies on its effects, experts at the National Institute of Economic Research believe the reform to be cost-neutral, since it is likely to create enough tax revenue to compensate for the state’s outlay. Finally, with household services now more affordable, people are less inclined to scour the thriving black market for help in the home.

It was this latter aspect that first prompted Monica Lindstedt, one of the founders of the Metro newspaper, to set up what was to become one of the market leaders in the home services industry. As a hard-working and highly successful businesswoman with four children, she desperately wanted help with household chores but wasn’t prepared to resort to illegal means.

”I established Hemfrid in 1996 mainly to solve my own problems. I didn’t want to use the black market and there were simply no legitimate services available,” she says.

Already a major success story by 2007, Hemfrid entered a phase of rapid expansion after the government allowed people to deduct from their tax bill half the cost of household services such as cleaning, cooking, lawn-mowing, snow-shovelling and babysitting. The model works in such a way that service providers subtract the deduction from every bill before reclaiming the shortfall from the tax office, thereby removing the burden of paperwork from the end consumer. Nobody is quite sure how many jobs have emerged from the reform, but Lindstedt reveals that her own company has been able to more than double its workforce in the last three years.

”We had 450 staff members in 2007 – we now have 1,030. Our employees represent 40 different nationalities of all ages, more than half of whom were previously unemployed.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly given her first-hand experience, Lindstedt is deeply critical of the Social Democrat-led proposal to scrap deductions for work in the home (RUT) while retaining a parallel system for home renovations (ROT)*.

”They’re prepared to implement stimulus measures for men but not for women,” she says.

Social Democrat member of parliament Marie Nordén, a deputy member of the parliamentary committee on industry and trade, strongly rejects the charge that her party favours deductions that benefit male workers.

”We were the ones who first introduced ROT and we did so to stimulate an industry that needed support. It’s not intended as a permanent subsidy and has nothing at all to do with whether men or women perform the service.”

She also notes that the Red-Greens intend to expand the ROT system to include repairs to run-down apartment blocks and schools. What’s more, Nordén contends there is a major difference between the Social Democrats’ move to bolster a stagnant building sector and the government’s use of subsidies to turn a black market white.

”In every other business where there’s a high level of cheating we take legal measures to keep a check on it, but in this case the government has chosen to subsidize cheating out of existence. I think the time has come to upgrade the status of actual services. I mean, are they really valued so poorly that the only way to give people who clean private homes a reasonable wage is to use state subsidies?”

The Social Democrats are also less than convinced that RUT subsidies come without a price for the state.

”We believe the money could be better spent in the public sector. For example, we need more staff in municipal home-help services and in the healthcare service,” she says.

There is also a clear class aspect to her opposition as she points to statistics showing that the relatively small group of wealthy Swedes earning more than 50,000 kronor ($7,000) per month are far more likely to make use of the services subsidized by the government than their lower paid compatriots.

”In Jämtland, where I’m from, two percent of households have made use of the deductions. I think we need to look at who it is that benefits from these subsidies. In general we can see that it has been used by groups that have already received major tax cuts under this government.”

Legions of domestic workers, mostly women, will follow Sunday’s election with a very personal interest. While wealthy Swedes may still be able to afford to pay, victory for the Red-Greens will place vast numbers of middle-class families in a home-help quandary. Do they continue to fork out for services that free up leisure time with their children? Or will a doubling of the cost mean kitchen table maid debates end in tears for the woman who comes to clean the house?

Marie Nordén believes immigrant women in danger of losing their jobs will be given new opportunities under the auspices of a Red-Green government.

”First of all, it’s important to say that a lot of these women will keep their current employment; these businesses already existed before the household deduction came into force. But we’ll also ensure that there are jobs in the public sector to provide for people who can’t do their own cleaning and actually need these kinds of services.”

At Hemfrid, Monica Lindstedt says the reform has gone some way towards combating extensive illegality in the household services business. But she does not think enough time has yet elapsed to eradicate some of the problems that still blight the sector.

“The household services deduction will remain necessary for as long as there exists a large black market.”

*RUT stands for ‘rengöring, underhåll och tvätt’ (cleaning, maintenance and laundry).

ROT stands for ‘reparation, ombyggnad och tillbyggnad’ (repairs, conversion and extension)

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Why Italy must change after young woman’s brutal murder

Sara Di Pietrantonio was just 21 years old. In what was described by a Rome police chief as the worst crime he'd seen in his 25 years in the role, the student suffered a torturous death at the hands of her ex-boyfriend.

Why Italy must change after young woman’s brutal murder
A tribute to Sara Di Pietrantonio, who was burned alive by her ex-boyfriend. Photo: In Ricordo di Sara Pietrantonio/Facebook

Driven by jealousy, Vincenzo Paduano followed her home after a night out, ramming his car into the back of hers before dousing the vehicle with a flammable liquid and setting it alight.

Di Pietrantonio was able to escape from the car, but he chased after her. The student is said to have screamed for help from passing motorists, but nobody stopped.

The 27-year-old security guard then set her alight. Her still-smouldering body was found a few hours later by her mother.

Paduano soon confessed to the crime, telling investigators that he couldn't accept that she'd abandoned him.

He also reportedly admitted: “I am really a monster. I am obsessive, paranoid, jealous.”

Di Pietrantonio became the 55th “femicide” victim in Italy so far this year – three more were murdered by either a spouse, boyfriend or ex within a few weeks after.

Last year, 128 women were victims of femicide, the year before there were 136. Thousands more have suffered domestic abuse or are stalked by men.

These figures come from Telefono Rosa, a women's rights organization offering legal advice and counselling.

But they are just the tip of the iceberg: an estimated 90 percent of these crimes go unreported.

In some ways, the situation has improved. Italy's government has taken steps to address violence against women, introducing an ‘anti-femicide’ law and appointing a government advisor on the issue in 2013 – after being shamed into action by a damning UN report, which called domestic abuse “the most pervasive form of violence in Italy”.

But while legislation is an important step, changing the mentality and culture that lie behind the attacks will take much longer. Most femicides and rapes are carried out by partners or – most often – ex-partners, according to figures from Istat released in 2015, which also showed that while the overall number of incidents has declined slightly, acts of violence are becoming more serious, with more women fearing for their lives.

Divorced or separated women are most at risk, with over half suffering violence (compared to 31.5 percent on average), and attacks often occur after the victim has begun a new relationship, as was the case with Di Pietrantonio.

Disturbingly, a 2015 study by non-profit organization We World found that one in four young Italians believed violence against women could be justified by “love”, or exasperation at the woman or her clothing.

So how can the country get to the root of the problem and tackle the perception of violence as a legitimate reaction to rejection?

Centres offering anger management courses and other treatment, aimed directly at men who consider themselves violent, are growing in number across the country.

The president of Ferrara’s Cam (Centre for violent men), Michele Poli, says there is no common factor among the men the centre has worked with.

“Violence against women happens across-the-board,” he told The Local. “It’s about a patriarchal culture which validates violence against women and prevents effective action against it,” he said, adding that every member of society must actively work towards change.

Poli says the centre has been able to measure the success of its courses through interviews with the men’s partners – or sometimes ex-partners – carried out at the start, middle and end of the course.

Another centre includes the following testimony in its advertising material: “Now I know that nothing justifies my violent behaviour”.

Men receive treatment at the centre either after being referred by a doctor or social services worker – which may mean the treatment comes too late – or by self-referral, which relies on men to recognize that they have a problem and take responsibility for dealing with it.

One centre appeals to those who “do not consider themselves to be a violent person” but may have hurt their partners “without meaning to” – but how are men going to seek out this kind of help if they are not properly educated on respect and domestic violence?

Laura Boldrini, an Italian politican and long-time advocate for women's rights, said: “the voice of men is missing” in the discourse and spoke of the need to “change the mentality of men”, arguing that schools in particular must do more to educate young boys. Many men seem unwilling to acknowledge the sexism underlying Italian society; Italian media coverage of attacks on women overwhelmingly focuses on cases where the perpetrator is foreign, despite the fact that in most cases, they are carried out by Italian men.

Monica Pepe and Luca Cardin, who run online magazine Zero Violenza, told The Local that more and more men, including high profile figures, are adding their voices to the discussion. Their organization is working on training teachers and parents on how to ensure that their children are equipped to deal with the opposite gender in a healthy manner.

“No man is born violent, but becomes violent for a variety of reasons linked to their environment, family, society and education,” they said. “At Zeroviolenza, we have created violence prevention training for parents and teachers together, because it is important that they are aware of the importance of their role in the formation of the younger generation.

“The goal of our courses is to deconstruct the most common stereotypes and look at the meaning of identity and belonging to a genre. Respect and recognition of the individual need to come before gender difference.”

Pepe and Cardin also pointed out the lack of sex education and emotional education in the Italian school system, which shows that “bogeyman still represents healthy, responsible sexuality.”

Some schools are introducing lessons on domestic violence into the curriculum, for example in Turin, where boys are educated on consent and girls taught how to spot the signs of abuse. The University of Bologna is the only one in Italy to offer a seminar dedicated to violence against women, which includes discussions with those who have suffered.

But on the whole, the issue is still “taboo”, as three students at the university explained to The Local.

One of them, Irene, said her only experience of domestic violence being discussed in school was a PE lesson in self-defence. “The teacher spoke to us specifically about female self-defence – psychological as well as physical – and how to avoid a violent man. But this doesn’t tackle the problem at its roots,” she says.

Another student, Chiara, 21, said: “Italian schools don’t pay attention to gender-based violence at all, and no one talks about domestic abuse. We don’t even study the story of feminism.” She added that some men disagree with the idea of courses on gender or relationships, because they feel it labels them all as violent.

The reluctance to address the topic means that women are often left to shoulder responsibility for their protection themselves. One mayor celebrated International Women’s Day this year by handing out pepper spray to female residents, while a Milan-based women’s organization recently launched an app named ‘Stalking Buster’ launched, allowing women to keep a record of incidents and contact police immediately.

Sonia, a third student, said that while improvements to the education system were “essential”, it is also crucial to focus on “major means of communication, like TV, advertising and film”. In fact, in the UN report cited above, it commented on the unequal representation of women in Italian media, for example the fact that over half of women shown on TV did not speak, while the rest were overwhelmingly presented in relation to stereotypical topics such as sex and beauty.

Italy’s Rai TV channel has a programme titled ‘Amore Criminale’, running since 2007. Created in collaboration with the Italian police, it does important work in reporting on cases of femicide, as well as speaking to psychologists, criminologists and occasionally formerly violent men who have undergone anger management therapy.

However, the title, which translates as 'Criminal Love', seems to support the idea that the culprits simply 'loved too much'. Accompanying its opening credits are the lyrics “Each man kills the thing he loves”, with the title (which translates as ‘Criminal Love’) encircled in a heart on screen.

And the way the Italian media reports these crimes too often paints them as tragic love stories, illustrating articles with smiling photos of the victim and her killer when they were a couple. One recent headline read ‘He killed his partner with a vase of flowers’ – only explaining later in the article that the relationship had ended over a year earlier.

Reports often refer to the victim as the ‘girlfriend’ or ‘partner’ of her killer, even when the relationship ended some time previously; the woman obviously did not want to be seen as the man’s partner, and the tragedy is not that the 'happy couple' has been torn apart, but that a woman has been killed by a man who saw her as a possession. This kind of reporting unfortunately plays into the narrative of the perpetrators.

Lucia Annibali, the victim of an acid attack by an ex-partner, addressed this issue in her book, called: Here I am: My Story of Non-Love.

Its blurb sums up the problem, saying: “The outline is unfortunately ‘classic’: possession mistaken for love, anger which becomes ferocious, up to the ultimate cruelty.”