Who are the workers in formal domestic services in Sweden?

Vesa Leppänen, Lars Dahlberg

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    The number of domestic workers decreased continuously in Sweden during the 20th century. In 1950 their share of the total workforce had decreased to 2,9% and in 1990 to 0,05%. Important causes were mechanization of domestic work, growth of public child- and elderly care, shortage of labour and increased taxation of labour. But at the end of the 20th century demand for domestic services increased and there were indications that the informal sector was growing. In 2007 the Swedish parliament decided to introduce a tax deduction for private persons who buy domestic services, for instance domestic cleaning, cooking, care of clothes, shoveling snow, gardening, child care and help with personal hygiene. For many this meant a decrease of costs with 50% when purchasing domestic services. The number of businesses and employees increased rapidly. In the second half of 2007 there were 46 000 persons who applied for tax deduction and in 2011 their number was almost 416 000. From 2009 to 2011 the amount of work hours in this sector doubled to the equivalent of 6400 full time jobs per year. At the same time, tax authorities report the informal sector has decreased only marginally.

    This study describes who have been employed in the new formal domestic sector in Sweden. Empirical data was collected by means of a questionnaire sent to employees in companies with five or more employees in the four southernmost counties of Sweden (Skåne, Blekinge, Halland and Kronoberg). (Sweden has a population of 9,45 million and the population of these counties is 1,9 million.) A total of 249 questionnaires were returned from domestic workers in 86 companies.

    The results show that 40% work in “big cities”, 45% in “small towns” (45%) and 11% in “villages.” Most of them work at workplaces with 5-9 employees (29,7%), 10-19 employees (36,5%) or 20- 49 employees (15,7%). A high majority were employed in the last five years, i.e. after the tax deduction was introduced (82,6%). Mainly women work in this sector (80,6%) and their mean age is 42 years and 3 months. Most of them are born in Sweden (77,6%). Although the percentage of immigrants (22,4%) is higher than in the Swedish work force in total (15,2%) it is as high as among nurses assistants, home helps and personal care attendants (22%) but lower than among cleaners in general (44%). One possible explanation for the high number of native born workers in this sector may be that employers and customers demand workers who master the Swedish language. In other types of cleaning (hotels, restaurants, factories, etc.) communicative skills may not be as decisive as in domestic work. In four questions respondents were asked to assess how well they understand, speak, read and write Swedish. In all four questions between 32,9 and 44,1% of immigrants responded they master Swedish ”very good” and between 44,1 and 57,6% replied they master Swedish “fairly well”.

    The educational background of domestic workers is lower than in the population in general but considerably higher than among cleaners in general. 21,6% of them finished elementary school without any further education in comparison to the workforce in general (11,2%) and cleaners (about 40% according to three different studies). 69% of domestic workers had finished elementary school and gymnasium and/or vocational school.

    A minor part were unemployed at the time they accepted their current employment (28,1%) and a majority of them were unemployed six months or longer before they were employed. A large share were employed elsewhere at the time of employment (58,3) (but most of these looked for new jobs at the time due to threatening unemployment, insufficient work hours, companies planned to move their businesses to other parts of the country, etc.) 37,2% of domestic workers had similar tasks at their immediately previous workplaces.

    A large share had, at one point or another in their previous careers, had low skilled jobs. Many had worked as cleaners (40,7%), as carers of children, disabled and elderly (43,1%), in restaurant kitchens (12,5%), and customer service in restaurants (16,2%). 33,8% had worked in factories. Very few had had jobs that demanded higher education (2,8%). Thus a major part of domestic workers had previous experience of jobs where they handled other people´s dirt. It may be that having experienced working with others dirt creates an important background for readiness to accept a job in this sector and how it is experienced.

    A high majority had not actively looked for jobs in this line of business (78,3) but happened to end up in it. Most of them were told about the companies and their need for staff through informal channels (72%). In 17,8% domestic workers were informed by staff at unemployment agencies or their homepages.

    There were a number of reasons for accepting the job offer: A large share agreed to the statement saying “had to take this job for economical reasons” (46%). Slightly more than half agreed to the statement saying that the job allowed them to “work more hours than before” (53,9%) and slightly more than half agreed to the statement “I am well-paid” (50,4%). An important reason to accept the job offer was that work hours are flexible and allow a high degree of self-determination: 85,1% agreed with the statement “I like that the work hours are flexible” and 80,3% agreed with “work was possible to combine with my family life”. Another reason for accepting the job offer was that it allowed them to work alone (20,9%) and not meet customers (19,1%). Another reason was that they liked to work with domestic service (65,5%). At the same time 36% said they accepted the job offer while waiting for something better to turn up.

    16,7% had, at one point in time or another, worked in the informal sector and 8,6% agreed with the statement that they accepted the job offer because they wanted to stop working informally. 4% had taken on tasks paid for informally as part of their current employments. 22% said customers sometimes ask them to work informally.

    This study describes who has been employed in the new formal domestic sector in Sweden, more precisely firms with 5 or more employees. It is likely that the work force in smaller companies is composed differently, with a generally lower educational background, a higher number of immigrants and lower skills in the Swedish language. It is likely that the work force in the informal sector also consist of persons with a generally lower educational background, a higher number of immigrants, of which many have lower skills in the Swedish language but also paperless immigrants and other groups with low prospects for paid employment in the formal economy.

    FörlagKristianstad University Press
    StatusPublicerad - 2012


    NamnSkrifter utgivna vid Högskolan Kristianstad
    ISSN (tryckt)1404-9066

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