Housemaids are only a solution for the rich: What working women in Sweden need is a shorter working week.

We publish below a translation of the December 1998 editorial statement of the Socialisten (Swedish Marxist journal). It was written because their was some debate at the time over the question of "housemaids". The fact is that a lot of wealthy families "employ" immigrant women to do their housework. They get low wages, no taxes are paid and they have no rights or social security at all. It is a totally black market. The proposal then was to make this market legal, by granting tax-exemptions on these services.

Men and women do not have equal opportunities. Not even in Sweden, the most egalitarian society in the world. This is the conclusion of a state survey, Kvinnomaktsutredningen, about the position of women in society that has involved 100 researchers and published thirteen scientific reports.

Does this imply that women from different classes and parties should unite in a common struggle against injustices? That would only appear to be the case if one were satisfied with proclamations that commit nobody to anything specific, but rather general statements about the equal value of all human beings. However, as soon one begins to discuss what should actually be done the questions that arise cut like scalpels through the concept of "sisterhood".

The first dividing line is to be found in the public sector. The basis for achieving equality between men and women is the possibility for women to find work and thus be in a position to support themselves. For women to be able to work without jeopardizing their children's, and elderly relatives', security there must exist an extensive system of nurseries for the children and care for the elderly. In Sweden these were created as part of the public sector and the way they were run was influenced by the values of the labour movement: "available to all and of the same high quality for everyone and also under democratic influence".

Of course this was not a total paradise, but it was an enormous step forward for women, and also for children and the elderly. One could criticise the fact that the public sector became a kind of employment reserve for women. Women continued to work in their traditional sectors (child care, nursing, cleaning, and so on). However, compared to working without a wage, unorganised and isolated inside the four walls of the home, or with lousy pay and without rights as a housemaid, the improvement was dramatic. Today the Municipal Workers Union is the biggest of all trade unions in Sweden. With about 600,000 members it constitutes more than 25% of the membership of the LO, (a kind of Swedish TUC for blue-collar workers).

During the eighties and nineties the Swedish employers' federation, SAF, and their mouthpieces in the bourgeois parties directed attack after attack against the public sector. "Bourgeois feminists" (this is what they call themselves) that have appeared in the last years have enthusiastically added their weight to these attacks. Now they even want to privatise whole hospitals. Behind the slogans about efficiency and the need for competitiveness they hide their strategic goals of opening up new profitable markets, increasing the pressure on workers and weakening the trade unions. Unfortunately, many Social Democratic leaders have swallowed these arguments.

Every "cut", every reduction in staff in the public sector is a blow against women, both for those women who are dependent on the services of the public sector and for those that work there. The results of this 'economic starvation diet' that has been forced on the public sector, have been insecure nursery groups, disorderly classes, maltreatment of patients and a burnt out staff. A government financed research project concludes that many employees in Sweden are in "something that can be compared to a state of shock". Working in the public sector has now become a burden. Many now work on short-term contracts. Many keep their mouths shut out of fear of losing their jobs. A very large injection of new funds would be needed to put an end to this negative trend. In 1996 the Social Democratic women MPs demanded that 100,000 more people should be taken on in the public sector. That would be a real improvement for working class women.

However, right-wing forces want the opposite. They want to massively reduce taxation and continue with the cuts. They use the current problems in the public sector, with low wages and bad working conditions, to present the public sector as a dead end for women. "Free women" is the slogan of the SAF. It paints a rosy picture of women's private small companies taking over the functions of the public sector, allowing women to achieve high incomes and to have their homes looked after with the help of private home helps.

The reality is completely different. In most cases privatisation has meant that big (often international) companies have taken over, ISS-Care, Partena, Cure, Praktikertjänst and so on. They are supposed to cut costs and make a profit at the same time. That can only mean further demands on the staff and/or a worsening of the service. This was shown by the scandal of the ill-treatment of old people at Polhemsgården (a home for old people) in Solna, the case of the ambulance drivers who were forced to drive ambulances that had not passed their MOTs, the Tvättman case, etc. The running of a small business is also much tougher than the idyllic work that it is made out to be. Of all the promised freedom, when one enters the razor sharp competition of the capitalist market all that remains is hard work.

The Conservatives' policies for "equality" also involve deregulation of the labour market. They claim that in a completely deregulated market, women would not be seen as a group, but only as individuals and thus would be judged on their individual talents and not discriminated against as a group. What they mean is that once the trade unions have been made powerless the employers can do exactly as they like and working class women would be among the worst hit, as employers would not accept them interfering in production by getting pregnant and taking time off to look after sick children and elderly.

The bourgeois parties want "women to be given the possibility of professional help in the home". What they mean is housemaids, subsidized by the state. Others have taken up this demand, including leading Social Democrats, as well as the journal of the white collar workers' trade union, TCO-tidningen (No. 18, 1997). They think that this could both solve the problems of stressed out career women and provide work for the less qualified women. "The need exists. The black market is swelling," writes TCO-tidningen.

The questions that need to be asked are: What needs? And Whose needs will be satisfied through this measure?

The basic problem is that human beings don't have enough energy to combine the growing demands at work together with housework and a good family life. It is a question of time! If somebody wants to buy themselves time by paying others to clean for them or look after the children, of course they are free to do that. However, nobody should be under the illusion that this is going to fundamentally change the division of labour between the sexes or that it is even a solution for those with a normal income.

The minimum demand should be that those that do these services should have proper employment conditions, be organised in trade unions and get a decent wage. That means SEK 150 (about £11 sterling) an hour, according to TCO-tidningen. Market research shows that most of the people that would be interested in paying home services are prepared to pay SEK 50-60 (about £3-4). That means that even if the state were prepared to provide quite a big subsidy, these services would be too expensive for most people. Precisely those that need these services most - single parents (90% of them women) - are also those that, on average, have the lowest incomes. During the nineties their real income levels worsened more than any other group's. They could do with some occasional help with the cleaning and with professional childcare. The existing public services should be expanded to cover these needs. However, to even consider using public funds (that should go towards meeting the acute needs of nurseries, hospitals and schools) to allow the rich to get cheap domestic servants, so that they can avoid quarrels over who does the housework, is absurd and an abuse of society's resources.

To solve the conflict between the pressures of work and the needs of the family, the majority of working class women need something completely different to tax-subsidized housemaids. Apart from the expansion of the public sector, a six hour normal working day without loss of pay would be decisive. A six-hour working day for all would immediately change the relationship between the sexes. Part-time workers, who are mainly women, would get higher wages and men would get more time for their children and household work. All experiments with a shorter working week show that workers also feel better and are less worn out.

The purpose of the Kvinnomaktsutredningen survey was not to call for a shorter working week. However, they do conclude that it is impossible to live a good life with both children and a job in modern-day Sweden. The researcher, Kristina Persson, shows that the birth rate is at its lowest since records began to be kept. Half of all marriages end in divorce. The state survey therefore suggests that a new investigation be launched with the aim of finding ways for people to achieve a reasonable balance between having a job and family life. We can wholeheartedly support that.

However, if the Social Democratic government continues to try and satisfy the needs of capital we can expect more big attacks on women, and the whole of the working class. For example, a watering down of the law regulating work-time would make it even more difficult to combine working and having children.

As far as a shorter working week is concerned, the bosses' opposition is total. The trade unions must mobilise for struggle, in Sweden as in other countries, if anything is going to happen. In Germany the trade union struggle has resulted in a shorter working week, higher wages and a reduction in overtime. Struggle is needed both to defend the gains of previous generations, to change the policies of the Social Democratic leadership and to change the social relations in the whole of society. In that struggle working women can play a decisive role.