Hausfraus for Hire: Answer to Joblessness

Germany tries to professionalize housework

"What hast thou in the house?"

A lot of people facing this biblical question honestly would have to say, "A sink full of dirty dishes, three months' worth of ironing, and dust bunnies you'd have to beat back with a two-by-four."

But one person's domestic chaos is another's employment opportunity.

At a time of high unemployment and mounting concern about pension security, especially for women, a number of efforts are under way across Germany to create jobs by, in effect, professionalizing housework. According to estimates, hundreds of thousands of jobs could be created, or at least transformed from black-market to legal work. With 4.5 million people unemployed here, this is not insignificant.

Housework becomes a 'real job'

One of these efforts is here in Wetzlar, north of Frankfurt, in Hesse State.

The Social Agency of the Housewives' League of Hesse provides an alternative to housework that is paid for under the table. Clients contract with the agency for the hours of work they need. Employees contract to work the number of hours that is best for them.

Working through the agency allows women to "bundle together" a few hours here, a few hours there into a "real job," even if not a full-time one, that lets them receive social insurance.

"This is a women's enterprise, run by women, for women," says Adelheid Hampel, chairwoman of the agency.

Christel Weigand agrees.

"I lost my job when the company where I worked as a seamstress transferred production to Hungary, where wages are lower. At the labor office, they don't want to see you if you're over 50," she says.

Ms. Weigand knew of the agency because Ms. Hampel was a friend. Weigand hadn't had formal training in housework, but she was trained in care of the elderly, which is also relevant to the agency's work. "And I knew her to be a good manager in her own home," Hampel chimes in. Now, Weigand works 80 hours a month.

The largest group of clients served by the agency are elderly people who need support in their own homes. Another group is families with children whose mother (or other "person who manages the home") is ill or otherwise temporarily unable to care for them.

Depending on the skill and training of the employee, the agency charges 25 to 28 deutsche marks ($15 to $17) an hour, plus a flat fee of 5 to 9 marks a visit. This is well above the going black-market rates but just barely enough to let the agency cover its costs, according to Hampel.

The agency's services are critical for these two special client groups, who are therefore willing to pay a premium to be sure the job is well done.

One market that should be a booming one for a high-quality professional domestic service - the households of overburdened career women - isn't. "Those people mostly just look for someone on the street that they pay under the table," Hampel says.

An underlying problem is that housework is seen as unskilled work and is undervalued. "Everybody knows that if you have an electrician come for three hours, you have to pay him," says Sybille Wolf, an agency worker. "Why should it be any different for us?"

The agency in Wetzlar, which has operated for eight years, is one of five such agencies in the state of Hesse. The German Housewives' League has opened similar centers in Augsburg and Erlangen, in Bavaria, and also in eastern Germany - Leipzig and Plauen - where unemployment for women is particularly high. The Berlin Senate is supporting a pilot domestic agency that has hired men and women.

For Siglinde Porsch, national president of the league, key issues have to do with tax deductibility of the costs of household help.

As of this year, householders paying between 610 and 1,500 deutsche marks a month (approximately $365 to $900) for domestic help can deduct this expense from their income taxes - assuming they have paid social-insurance contributions in the first place.

Helping women without benefits

But householders who don't clear the 610-mark threshold can't claim the tax benefit. And tax regulations don't allow for deductibility of domestic work contracted for through agencies.

"We're still working on Mr. Waigel on that one," Ms. Porsch says, referring to Finance Minister Theo Waigel. The issue is especially important to the new agencies in the east.

She is skeptical of some estimates of the number of jobs that could be created through these agencies, since so many women already do the work illegally. What's important to her is that she wants "to make these women honest - I want to make them legal."

"The issue is that society doesn't value this work," says Petra Drohsel, the author of a book on how to set up a domestic service. "There is broad consensus that something needs to be done to rescue women from low-wage jobs without benefits. But consensus breaks down when it comes to agreeing on a specific plan."

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