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How Sweden is fixing the housework gender gap
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Women still do the lion’s share of housework. Do Swedish-style tax breaks for cleaners provide a solution or perpetuate gender-role norms?
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When Glenda Fors hired a cleaner four years ago, one of the first things she noticed – aside from the sparkling countertops – was a dip in the number of debates about divvying up housework with her husband.

“I can see mess and it bothers me and I have to fix it, and he could see the same mess and just think ‘oh, yeah’ and just turn around, and it wouldn’t bother him,” says the 39-year-old, a full-time IT consultant who lives in Tyres?, south of Stockholm.

While she describes their division of household tasks as “fairly balanced”, Fors says she often ended up doing slightly more cleaning. Since employing someone to help out for five hours a fortnight, she now feels “much more relaxed”.

“Instead of stressing about having to hoover in the evening, I could just say ‘oh, she's coming the day after tomorrow’ and just let it go.” Meanwhile, the couple get to spend more quality time with their young children.

In Sweden, 74百分比 of women do housework or cook for at least one hour every day compared to 56百分比 of men. The European average is 79百分比 compared to 34百分比

Multiple studies suggest that even in the world’s most egalitarian countries, women still perform a larger proportion of unpaid housework. Sweden ranks top in the EU’s Gender Equality Index, with almost 80百分比 of women in employment, but while 74百分比 of women do housework or cook for at least one hour every day, this compares to 56百分比 of men. The European average is 79百分比 compared to 34百分比.

For Glenda Fors, cutting down on chores was made possible by a tax reduction policy through which the state pays half of every housework bill, such as cleaning, laundry and ironing, with a limit of around 50,000 kronor ($5,170) a year. Domestic service providers make the subtraction at the point of invoice, removing the administrative burden from customers.

Nico Pavasovic says taxpayers’ money might be better spent on other public services such as increased home assistance for the elderly (Credit: Nico Pavasovic)

Nico Pavasovic says taxpayers’ money might be better spent on other public services such as increased home assistance for the elderly (Credit: Nico Pavasovic)

“I love the concept because it means that it makes these kinds of services so much more affordable,” says Fors, who is unsure if she would be using a cleaner without the tax deductions. Hourly rates for cleaning work in Sweden typically range between 250-400 kronor ($26-$42) before the subsidy.

The Swedish model

Last month, the Swedish National Audit Office released its first wide-ranging review of the scheme since its launch in 2007. It revealed that within families using the subsidy, both men and women reported more hours of earned income and took home an average of 19,000 kronor ($2,015) extra a year, compared to those with similar backgrounds (including income history, level of education, gender and age) who did not use the benefit.

Married women working full-time who hired cleaners devoted an average 60百分比 of the hours they saved to their own paid employment

It was not possible to conclude a direct cause-and-effect link, since it could also be the case that couples purchased more cleaning services as a result of their income increasing rather than vice-versa. But separate research from academics at Stockholm University in 2014 concluded that married women working full-time who hired cleaners devoted an average 60百分比 of the hours they saved to their own paid employment, and argued that expanding domestic services could help minimise Sweden’s gender pay gap.

The findings also complement recent research on Belgium, one of only a handful of other European countries to offer state subsidies for cleaning. Academics from the University of Antwerp and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found that women’s employment rates had increased there since the introduction of a housework voucher scheme in 2004 and concluded that “highly skilled women’s increased ability to outsource housework is the main mechanism driving the change in their employment rates”.??????? ???????????

Reducing the black market

Supporters of the Swedish tax subsidies, which were first introduced during a period of centre-right government, argue that as well as enabling parents in dual-income families to spend more time at work or with their children, they boost jobs and reduce the black market for cash-in-hand household services.

The Employer’s Organisation for the Swedish Service Sector, Almega, recently released a report which estimated that the policy had created more than 13,000 jobs for people who were previously unemployed or outside the formal labour market, as Swedes took advantage of the cheaper rates for legal cleaners. Describing the concept as a “success story”, it also reported a “sharp reduction” in undeclared (typically cash-in-hand) work for household services, estimated to boost tax revenues by 500m kronor ($53m) a year. From a population of just over 10 million, 966,000 Swedes purchased services using the tax deduction in 2018, compared to 113,000 in 2009.

Hourly rates for cleaning in Sweden typically range from 250-400 kronor ($26-$42) before the subsidy (Credit: Getty Images)

Hourly rates for cleaning in Sweden typically range from 250-400 kronor ($26-$42) before the subsidy (Credit: Getty Images)

The Swedish National Audit Office’s report also concluded that the concept had a positive impact on foreign-born workers. Those working in tax-subsidised household jobs between 2011 and 2017 earned, on average, 1,300 kronor ($136) more a month compared to others with a similar background (including length of time in Sweden, level of education, income history, gender, age and region of birth).

Whether working for companies or self-employed, registered cleaners and other household service providers in Sweden benefit from the strong welfare state, unlike those who are paid in cash. This means they can access a wide range of benefits, from subsidised healthcare to 480 days paid parental leave per couple, student grants and one of the world’s best state pensions.

“I feel like at the same time this is helping me, I am helping her,” says Glenda Fors of her cleaner, describing it as a “gigantic incentive” to know that the worker she hires has these kinds of rights.

A controversial concept

But despite the positive impact for customers and cleaners, the tax deduction system is an ongoing source of national debate. Critics argue that while the benefit was intended for all Swedes, usage is concentrated in the top 10百分比 of earners, while uptake among low-income families and single parents is extremely limited.

“It’s basically socialism for rich people... and laziness,” argues Nico Pavasovic, a production engineer in Stockholm. “If you need tax subsidies to have somebody clean the house, then you probably have a house way too big or you feel entitled.”

The 32-year-old recently moved in with his girlfriend and says he does “slightly more” of the cleaning in their apartment. Neither of them are in favour of paying for a cleaner in the future, even if their salaries increase or if they have children.

‘Housework’s female connotations have been preserved… at the price of sustained inequality between women from different classes and with different ethnicities’ – Birgitta Jordansson and Linda Lane

“House chores are part of the family life,” says Pavasovic, who grew up in west Sweden with his parents who both worked full-time. “My mum woke me up on a Saturday to tell me to help clean... and then made us pancakes.” He believes that taxpayers’ money would be better spent on other public services such as increased home assistance for the elderly or the long-term sick.

For Solvita Gabriuna, a 34-year-old cleaner who has been working in Stockholm for around a decade, the social welfare and free education she can access by being a registered worker is “definitely a benefit”, but she also feels uncomfortable about the way her work is affected by tax subsidies.

“It’s your choice to clean or not… I don’t agree that it should be taken from other people’s taxes. I think the money could be used for something else instead of this.”

She believes most of her customers could afford to pay her full hourly rate themselves, without the government chipping in.

Perpetuating gender norms?

Other critics have pointed to a potential mismatch of gender values. Those hired to clean homes tend to be women, which some believe serves to promote traditional divisions of labour.

“Housework’s female connotations have been preserved and this has happened at the price of sustained inequality between women from different classes and with different ethnicities,” wrote Birgitta Jordansson and Linda Lane, two sociologists from Gothenburg University in a research paper released in 2018.

They argued that women who have the resources to outsource their housework are, in doing so, helping to promote a labour market designed by men, to fit in with old-fashioned gender norms.

“The state has... made it possible for both women and men to avoid the fight to give one another equal rights both at work and home,” they concluded.

Solvita Gabriuna believes most of her customers could afford to pay her full hourly rate themselves without the government chipping in (Credit: Maddy Savage)

Solvita Gabriuna believes most of her customers could afford to pay her full hourly rate themselves without the government chipping in (Credit: Maddy Savage)

Other observers have argued that rather than criticising those who pay for help, greater effort should be put into elevating the status of household work, whether paid or unpaid.

“Why someone elects to hire a cleaner is no more morally relevant than why she might decide to order in a pizza rather than cook or why she hires someone to mow her lawn,” concluded John R Bowman and Alyson M Cole in their paper on the Swedish “maid debate” for the University of Chicago.

“It's a bit strange really, when you think about it, that it's like one job has been seen as sort of lesser than the other,” agrees Anna Coyet Komheden, 44, a civil servant who has employed a cleaner for her home in the Swedish capital for around a year.

She notes that property repairs and renovations for homeowners have also been tax deductible for years in Sweden, but says that debates about scrapping subsidies for these tasks have been far less intense.

“I can see that one [renovation work] is in a way more highly qualified and we want a society that is highly qualified... but these jobs [household work] are needed too in society.”

She admits that she has sometimes felt uncomfortable about paying another woman to clean her property though, for example when it has coincided with a day she is working from home.

“I feel like I’m in the way and I feel bad like ‘I should be doing this [household work]’ and now she’s here... But if I am at work when she comes then I don’t think about it, it’s a bit easier.”

Value for money?

By far the biggest source of debate is whether the policy is value for money: it cost Sweden 5.4bn kronor ($570m) in 2019.

When the subsidies scheme was first launched, backers argued that it would end up being cost-neutral, since it would create enough tax revenue from employment to make up for the state's contribution. But while the Employer’s Organisation for the Swedish Service Sector’s report estimated that the government recovers 90百分比 of its costs, the researchers behind the Swedish National Audit Office’s recent study were much more cautious.

“We don’t present an exact number…. but it doesn’t pay for itself,” says Anna Brink, project manager for the review.

She also points out that the policy has encouraged labour migration from less affluent EU countries such as Poland and the Baltic states, which wasn’t the original goal.

“If the purpose or the objective of the policy is that people on the Swedish labour market should get employment, then of course, it's a problem if these jobs instead go to labour migrants."

Supporters of the subsidies maintain that their cost or value can’t only be measured in financial terms

The Swedish government has four months to formally report back to parliament on its response to the study’s findings, but several senior politicians from the centre-left coalition have already expressed concerns about the costs. Finance minister Magdalena Andersson wrote in one of the largest newspapers last month that the positive effects of the policy had been “smaller than one hoped” and said that there was a need to look into potential reforms.

However Anna Brink at the Swedish National Audit Office says she would be “very surprised if the government would suggest any large changes in this policy”, which remains popular with centre-right opposition parties that are in favour of expanding the scheme even further.

Belgium’s experience backs up her prediction. Here, tax subsidies through a voucher scheme have been in place for more than 15 years, with more than a million users in a country of 11.5 million people.

“The scheme has become so tremendously popular, especially among the middle class, and those people are electorally very powerful,” says professor Ive Marx at the University of Antwerp. “They [politicians] don’t even dare to think about scaling back or abolishing the scheme.”

Both men and women that use the subsidy reported more hours of earned income and took home an average of 19,000 kronor ($2,015) extra a year (Credit: Getty Images)

Both men and women that use the subsidy reported more hours of earned income and took home an average of 19,000 kronor ($2,015) extra a year (Credit: Getty Images)

He believes, however, that while other European countries have looked into introducing their own versions of subsidised cleaning, it is unlikely that any will follow in the footsteps of Sweden or Belgium, based on the long-term costs of these models.

“They have concluded that spending this sort of money on this sort of scheme would not be the best thing to do and I think that is an entirely sensible conclusion.”

But supporters of the subsidies maintain that their cost or value can’t only be measured in financial terms.

“There were a lot of minor arguments about this [cleaning] that sort of caused this little stress the whole time,” says Anna Coyet Komheden of her experiences before getting a cleaner, admitting that she was less likely to volunteer for housework than her partner.

Now, the couple experience fewer niggles over household chores and have more time to take their children to clubs and activities or “just head out of the house and do things as a family”.

In a country like Sweden that champions work-life balance, that remains a powerful argument.

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