Why you should care
It's a popular scheme — but a costly one too.
A couple of years ago, a time-tracking exercise made me realize that, after work and sleep, cleaning my flat was the one activity I spent most of my time on. Seeing on paper that I spent more time with my microfiber cloths than with the people or Netflix shows I cared about was a bit disheartening. It was time, I decided, to do what many of my millennial friends had already done. I, a childless twentysomething living in a modestly sized, one-bedroom flat, would get a cleaner.
In Belgium, that’s a little more guilt-free than it might be if I were living elsewhere. In 2004, Belgium instituted a heavily subsidized service voucher system specifically for the cleaning industry. People like me can buy vouchers online to pay for a domestic worker’s services. The cleaners end up getting paid $12 per hour on average, but consumers only shell out around $8 per hour (depending on which region of Belgium they live in). The government pays the rest of the tab.
For obvious reasons, this is a popular program. About 25 percent of Belgian households use the vouchers. “Every week, I get emails from experts in other countries who want more information about the Belgian system because they also want to introduce this in their country,” says Daphné Valsamis, a Brussels-based consultant specializing in the evaluation of labor market measures and policies. But nowhere else has actually introduced it — partially, she says, because they balk at the price.
Belgium’s government spends as much on cleaning vouchers as it did on benefits for low-income adults and seniors.
In 2018, that was about $2 billion.
That’s not to say it’s a frivolous expense. The program has largely succeeded in transforming the country’s shadow domestic service sector into a regular one: Belgium’s estimated rate of under-the-table work in this sector is 10 percent, while the EU average is 15 percent. In contrast, the percentage of under-the-table work for things like home repairs, which the vouchers don’t cover, is higher in Belgium than the EU average.
It’s also tackled the skills mismatch threatening most eurozone economies by creating tens of thousands of jobs for low-skilled and unskilled workers. Proponents say it’s an answer to a growing need for household services created by rapidly aging populations, the rise of single-parent homes and the growing number of families where both partners work. And it could be a productivity tool as well: Research from Belgian consultancy IDEA has shown that a third of those who enlist the help of a cleaner decide to put in more hours at work, while 81 percent report a higher quality of life. “This is something that costs the government a lot of money, but it’s also something that makes the government money,” says Valsamis.
The Belgian system is unique in the world — both in how heavily it is subsidized and in its triangular structure, which involves users, cleaners and service voucher companies, says Valsamis. These service voucher companies are the hundreds of enterprises that train and employ the cleaners and, crucially, act as a go-between when scheduling or other conflicts arise. “Psychologically, this really produces a different kind of relation,” Valsamis says, citing the triangular structure as one of the system’s biggest strengths because it prevents exploitation and power abuses. The interposed companies “ensure that users don’t get the idea that they’re the boss of the cleaner, which is really important in the domestic sector,” she explains. Valsamis says the scheme is also the chief reason that gig economy platforms like TaskRabbit and Thumbtack have failed to gain a foothold in Belgium. Companies are required to offer service voucher workers permanent contracts after three months.
But for years, criticism from labor experts has also been mounting. They say the system has completely gone beyond its two original goals — to create jobs for low-skilled, unemployed workers and to curb the country’s shadow household services sector. Instead, it’s become what academics Sarah Kuypers and Ive Marx bitingly described in one paper as “a scheme purportedly designed to help the poor effectively catering to the middle class,” with the jobs today mostly filled by women already in work and women who moved to Belgium to work as cleaners from elsewhere in Europe. Repeated calls have also been made to hike up the price of the vouchers, which politicians have been reluctant to do because the scheme is so popular with middle-class voters.
But Valsamis says the quality of the cleaning jobs is the biggest obstacle currently threatening the scheme’s future. “At the end of the day, these are still taxing jobs that can’t be done full time,” she says. “Most cleaners work part time and that means that the pay they take home at the end of the month is really low.”
The demanding nature of domestic work also means that many cleaners eventually start having physical health problems and dropping out, which has created a severe and continuous shortage of workers. In this war for talent, one service voucher company has gone as far as luring applicants with the promise of a company car.
“The service voucher companies are complaining that they can no longer find cleaners and say that the cleaners already working under the scheme often fall sick, drop out or no longer want to work under the scheme,” Valsamis explains. “But you still have this really big demand from users.” Belgium’s big investment has convinced people they love having their houses cleaned — but it now may need new incitements to be the one who cleans the houses.