Cleaning goes political

29th of June 2011
Cleaning goes political

Correspondent Tom Crockford on how political trends in the Nordic countries could influence the cleaning sector.

It is perhaps hard to associate national politics with the everyday business of contract cleaning. However the recent parliamentary elections in Finland sent a reminder that if certain trends continue, they may have something of an impact on the future of the professional cleaning sector in this part of Europe.

The significance of the Finnish election is the anti-immigration, True Finns party won an astonishing 19 per cent of the votes, making it the country’s third-largest political party with 39 of the 200 seats in parliament. This follows the rise of the far-right Sweden Democrats, who emerged from nowhere to gain six per cent of the vote and 20 seats in the Swedish elections of 2010.

In Norway and Denmark, the two Progress parties and the Danish People’s Party, have longer and already well established platforms of placing strict limits on immigration. Denmark is currently in dispute with the EU over its plans to increase controls on its borders with Sweden and Germany.

The consequences for cleaning contractors in Scandinavia, should these political attitudes harden and increase in popularity, are obvious. The cleaning industry here is very dependent upon foreign workers. In Sweden, immigrants account for 41 per cent of the country’s cleaners, despite being only 16 per cent of the total workforce. In the larger population centres, the numbers are even higher; for example in Stockholm, 80 per cent of those working as office or hotel cleaners were born outside of Sweden.

The other Nordic countries also depend heavily on immigrant labour for many of the lower paid jobs. For example, in the early 1990s Finland underwent a very severe economic recession, at which time unemployment rose to almost 20 per cent. But even in those difficult times, Finnish cleaning contractors had to employ workers from Estonia and Russia because they couldn’t recruit sufficient workers locally. If it was difficult to manage without employing foreign labour in a time of economic crisis, just imagine how hard it is today when the country’s level of unemployment is notably lower.

Of course, one of the problems is the welfare benefits are such that many would prefer to remain unemployed and wait for the ‘right kind’ of job, rather than clean offices or drive a bus for a living. Immigrants, on the other hand, are often only too happy to take whatever is available. As Gudrun Antemar, head of Sweden’s National Audit Office, points out: “Foreign born university graduates have a harder time establishing themselves in the labour market than native degree holders.”

In Sweden, the fact is that after 10 years, only half of foreign born graduates have found work in fields corresponding to their degrees. Of the rest, many are employed in the cleaning sector.

If, and it may at this stage be somewhat of a big ‘if’, but if immigration into the Scandinavian countries does one day become significantly more restricted than it is today, where will the cleaning industry’s workforce come from? The locals are obviously not too keen on this kind of work. This is not a question likely to carry much weight in political circles, but nevertheless it is maybe something that the heads of Scandinavia’s service providers should be pondering.


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