They are 61% of workers globally. They tidy our homes. They tend our gardens. They care for our children, our elders, and our most fragile. They are domestic workers, omnipresent in the everyday lives of citizens around the world but also among the most vulnerable and invisible. Except, perhaps, in Sweden, where a tax reduction program to formalize domestic work has simultaneously transformed public sentiment, created 13,000 new jobs for previously unemployed or informal workers, and contributed to addressing another societal priority: gender balance at home and work. Could this be a model for other countries?
An integral part of the informal economy, domestic workers make up a majority of the global workforce but typically lack access not only to health care and insurance but labor, legal, and other social protections granted to the formal workforce.
Whether in house cleaning, gardening, or child care, domestic roles are increasingly occupied by migrants, and mostly women. While work-day regulations and social legislation exist in many countries, largely thanks to the conventions established by the International Labour Organization (ILO), they do not protect the 2 billion workers worldwide who find themselves without a regular or formally identified employer nor do they do enough to safeguard against exploitation and abuse. As a result, the challenges that domestic workers face are legion and span multiple dimensions, from staggeringly low wages and, in extreme cases, withheld pay, to working without contracts and undignified working conditions.
As of today, there is little resembling a turnkey solution suitable for addressing all of the existing challenges in all countries. But with increased mobilizing, both among employers and domestic workers themselves, and trade unions lobbying for national change, there are compelling models to consider.
Through the program in Sweden, one of the highest-ranking countries on the EU’s Gender Equality Index, the state subsidizes half of the cost of housework, up to 50,000 kronor (approximately $5,170) per year, and lifts the administrative burden off households since the reduction is processed automatically. The domestic worker, in turn, becomes part of the formal workforce and benefits from Sweden’s generous social welfare system, from healthcare to paid parental leave and retirement.
But it wasn’t an easy sell.
“You have to understand that in Sweden, spending on a luxury item or service has long been considered taboo,” says mechanical engineer Leo Hellström. “If you hire a housecleaner, for example, it’s as if you are suggesting you are worth more than your fellow citizen; that you are too good to clean for yourself.”
It’s largely for this reason that the country’s tax reduction policy for household services, implemented in 2007 to give parents more time to work or spend with their children (and to reduce the black market for domestic work), initially drew strong skepticism.
“My initial reaction was quite negative. I thought it was sending us back 100 years,” explains Dr. Gustaf Stukát, a virologist working in Gothenburg. “But when my first child was ready to begin kindergarten, my wife and I were both working full-time and our house took a hit. The fact that I could easily hire someone legally made the decision easier.”
“I believe in a decent minimum wage and the idea that domestic work can be the first step on the career ladder,” says Dr. Stukát, adding that he employs a cleaner for three hours of work every other week for a few hundred kronor. “Unemployment can be devastating to one’s self-worth. But working under the table makes the risk of abuse and improper compensation much higher.”
Sentiment toward the program among domestic workers varies but some resent that incentives of any kind were required for their work to be taken seriously. “It is a luxury people want, like using a taxi service. Why would the government pay extras like that?” says Latvian cleaner and house manager Solvita Gabriuna, who works for several homes in Stockholm. Aside from her personal feelings about the structure itself, Gabriuna acknowledges the clear benefits from formalized work: access to unemployment and free education, which she has happily taken advantage of in recent years. What’s missing? Union-style necessities such as 30% overtime pay and days off on public holidays, she says.
Still, experiences like Dr. Stukát’s ultimately led to a radical shift in perception countrywide, making the program immensely popular. A 2020 evaluation by the Swedish National Audit Office reports that families using the subsidy worked more hours, taking home an extra 19,000 kronor ($2,000) a year in income. This was especially true for married women who worked full-time and hired domestic workers– 60% of the hours freed from household duties went toward their own employment, prompting researchers to argue that such services could help further reduce Sweden’s gender pay gap.
“According to Almega, the Employer’s Organisation for the Swedish Service Sector, undeclared work sharply declined while tax revenues increased by $53 million per year. And perhaps the most telling figure of all: nearly 1 million Swedes took advantage of the policy in 2018, up from 113,000 ten years prior.”
While the program hasn’t proven to be cost-neutral, as the government predicted (Sweden recovers about 90% of its costs), it maintains a high approval rating within the population and has led to social gains that cannot be underestimated. RESPECT, the multi-nation European network of migrant domestic workers, organizations, and supporters, highlights the Swedish program as worth adapting in other countries. Part of improving conditions for domestic workers means recognizing the work itself as legitimate. “It’s about including a vulnerable group of individuals in society,” says Hellström. “There’s no shame in that.”