European Conference

ESN took part in a conference organised by the European Commission on exploiting the employment potential of personal and household services (PHS) on 30-31 January, in Brussels. According to the European Commission “personal and household services cover a broad range of activities that contribute to the well-being at home of families and individuals: childcare, long-term care for the elderly and persons with disabilities, cleaning, remedial classes, home repairs, gardening, ICT support, etc.” (European Commission, Staff working document 2012). In a time in which there is an ageing population in Europe and consequently a higher demand for care, the conference examined how member states can promote job growth potential in this sector and the challenges they face in doing so.

In general, personal and household services can help service users to stay independent and at home for longer, and relieve family carers. There is potential to create more formal jobs and reduce undeclared work in domestic services. To realise this potential, speakers at the conference stressed that member states should introduce measures which encourage the formal purchase of services, simplify the procedures involved in hiring domestic workers and introduce co-financing schemes.

Authorities investing in these measures can achieve greater cost effectiveness, taking into account the savings made in unemployment benefits and the greater contribution of social benefits from employers and employees. Aurélie Decker from the European Federation for Services to Individuals, which studies the costs of unemployment, concluded “The cost of unemployment is higher for public finance than the cost/potential loss of revenue induced by State support to the PHS sector”. For public authorities, inter-departmental work is crucial to establishing which department contributes towards the promotion of job growth in each sector (e.g. financial incentives) and which departments receive the returns (e.g. tax contributions from employees and employers).

In order to benefit from an exchange of existing national practices, different models of the promotion of personal and household services were discussed:

  • Through a voucher model in operation in Belgium, individuals can purchase vouchers from companies for services provided by authorised organisations. This has led to a large reduction in undeclared work in domestic services.
  • The French state promotes the purchase of personal and household services with tax reductions of up to 50%, based on the beneficiaries’ income.
  • The German Mini-job programme aims to get unemployed people back into work by reducing unemployment costs. However, Mini-job workers are mostly low paid and lack adequate social insurance.

The speakers also emphasised that relatively low-skilled workers in the sector face low wages, excessively long hours, health and safety issues and the risk of discrimination. In all countries, the number of women in the sector is extremely high, e.g. 97% in Belgium. To improve working conditions and the quality of the services provided, lifelong learning opportunities and schemes to protect users and workers should be introduced. A Eurofund report, which will be published later in the year, presented different national practice examples on improving working conditions and service quality. In the last session of the conference, the role of technology in personal and household services was explored. A report on good practices in the use of ICT in informal care, carried out by the Joint Research Centre, found that 30% of the schemes implemented are very beneficial and not very costly.

In addition to the conference delegates, participants in a 2012 consultation on PHS services carried out by the European Commission called for a clearer definition of personal and household services, which overlaps with the social and health care sector. In the consultation, ESN stressed the concern that the creation of a separately financed personal and household sector, concentrating on “comfort services” (such as cleaning) could lead to further fragmentation from the social and health care sector. PHS services and social and health care services should be accessible to everyone, especially to vulnerable groups, and focus on the needs of service users.