Au pairs, the family and neoliberalism

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Au pairs often do work for which professionals would be paid much more

Socialist Review spoke to Rosie Cox about the hidden work of au pairs, inequalities in the family and how neoliberalism makes life unbearable.

What is an au pair?

In Britain we have an idea of au pairs, which is not incorrect, as (mostly) young women coming from other European countries, also that they’re middle class, maybe quite privileged and a bit flighty. They live with a family in their host country and do some housework and some childcare. The phrase “au pair” means “as an equal” so the idea is that they are not a servant, heaven forbid, but that they are like one of the family — like an older daughter who is helping out in exchange for room and board and a chance to practice their English. That’s what people imagine.

But there is no clear legal definition, at least in Britain since 2008, so the reality is quite a mixed bag. There are some horror stories in the book about how people are treated.

Yes, there is this odd legal situation whereby there isn’t a definition of an au pair, but there are various bits of law and policy and government information where the phrase au pair is used. Most significantly it is used in National Minimum Wage legislation, which says that au pairs do not have a right to the minimum wage and that they don’t have a right to protections under working time directives, so there’s no maximum hours or weeks of the year that they can be made to work for.

This imagining of what an au pair is, which is based on previous rules, has drifted and drifted because there’s nothing to hold it in place, so that we get people working in exploitative situations and there’s nothing to protect them.

For example, they might be doing childcare and housework but for very long hours; they might be doing work for no pay whatsoever; they might be given inadequate housing — they might be expected to share a room with the kids they’re looking after or to sleep on the sofa. I have heard anecdotally of an au pair expected to sleep on the floor of the kitchen. You see adverts for “live-out” au pairs, who are expected to pay for their own accommodation. They might be given food that is culturally inappropriate, or not enough food. These are quite nasty ways of depriving people, given the intimacy of the relationship.

Being inside the private home raises all kinds of questions about how people relate to each other, how equal they are. One of the things you point out is that inequality is already built into the home as we conceive it.

Yes, you’re meant to be treated as a member of a family, but which family do you want? Which member of the family? A young woman who is only there to do housework isn’t a very privileged member of a family.

Inequality is already built into the family, particularly around the way that work is distributed, who does the childcare, whether you are able to exercise control over your time, over your preferences for the most simple things like what you eat and when you eat it; when you get to go to the bathroom.

When it comes to au pairs, on the one hand, all the tools for treating them like a child are available if a host family wants to use them. So it’s really common for there to be lots of rules, the kinds of rules that you might put on a teenager — you’re not allowed to have your friends over, you’re not allowed to have boys, you’re not allowed to do this or that — or you are allowed to do those things. On the other hand, there can be the sort of habits and expectations that are written into the relationships between men and women — you’re expected to do this because it’s natural for you to do it; you’re expected to do this without being paid; you’re expected to do this and we don’t call it work.

There’s a lot of subtle stuff in the air which creates the tools available for a family to exploit or maltreat people if they are so minded.

So why do people still choose to be au pairs despite all the drawbacks?

In our research we found that the reasons varied by where people came from. We met someone from Romania who was a qualified teacher and was earning more as an au pair in London than they would have been as a teacher in Romania.

For people who want to migrate it can be a great first step, because it’s a job, it’s a roof over your head, it’s meals and you can use it as a platform to set yourself up and work out what you want to do.

We met a big group of people from Spain, who were basically waiting out the recession. They had been hit by the really high youth unemployment rates in Spain — up to 50 percent. They were highly qualified and either not working or doing low paid work, and by coming to Britain as an au pair they could literally just wait it out. Another factor was that following the 2008 crash the Spanish government introduced a really high level English language requirement for public sector jobs in Spain, so lots of people suddenly found themselves unqualified for jobs they had trained for — primary school teachers who wouldn’t be teaching English would suddenly need a really high level of English proficiency. By au pairing in Britain they could hope to improve their English enough to pass the relevant exams.

Then we met a group from the richer countries, like Germany and Sweden, who were more like gap year students and they tended to be more like the typical au pair — they were middle class, they didn’t need the money, and they were using it as an opportunity to see Britain.

For most of the people we met it was the same reasons as other young people might be migrating, but with this added element of convenience.

I was surprised when I saw how many au pairs there are estimated to be in the UK — up to 100,000. You set this in the context of a general rising demand for domestic labour since the 1990s. Why do you think that is?

It’s hard to say exactly why, but there is this economic theory that goes back to the 1970s, which says that the latent demand for domestic work is always the same, so that when the gap between the incomes of the people who want it and the people who are selling it gets to the right size, the workforce will grow.

So basically, when you have enough inequality you will have more domestic workers. That is partly inequality within one country, but it’s also — until next March or whenever Brexit happens — the income differentials between people within the European labour market.

I think there is also a feedback effect of it becoming more acceptable. When I was growing up in the 1980s people didn’t have cleaners, or at least it wasn’t widespread. But since then it has trickled down that it is a normal thing to do. I talked to a group of my students (who are mature students) and a third of the class had a cleaner. When we dug into it, we found that people who lived in rented accommodation often had a cleaner at their landlord’s insistence, because it’s a way for the landlord to keep the place ok.

Specifically in terms of au pairing, if you have the space — a spare room — then it’s quite a cheap way of getting childcare, much cheaper than a nanny.

It’s the cheapest hour for hour, of anything. It’s cheaper than an after school club if you have two kids. If you don’t count the cost of having a house big enough, then it’s incredibly cheap and flexible. You can see why it’s a go-to solution for a lot of people.

There was a headline a couple of months ago, “Au pair shortage sparks childcare crisis for families”, about the 75 percent slump in au pair applications since the Brexit vote, and people were laughing about it — peak Guardian, middle class problems…

There has been a massive drop in applications, and firstly that’s a bad thing because they are not applying because they don’t feel welcome, which is awful. But on another level, it might be a good thing, because it had been such a buyers’ market because so many people wanted to come, that’s one reason why there have been such terrible conditions for some au pairs. The drop in applications might force the worst hosts to improve. It is also the case that Brexit might force the government to introduce some form of legislation to regulate au pairing.

There are lots of hosts who are middle class, but we also met people who were not that well off who hosted an au pair because it was the only childcare solution that worked for them — particularly for single parents and people doing shift work. So we met nurses, air crew, lots of people doing not very highly-paid jobs in the media who were expected to be very flexible in their working hours. They aren’t poor, but they are by no means all living gilded lives.

Underlying the whole book is this notion that the kind of work that au pairs, or mums, do — housework and childcare — is not considered work.

For us this was a fundamental point. Not to say for a single moment that people in other lines of work aren’t exploited or mistreated, but it’s that when people, women in particular, do housework in the private home there is this really simple way in which it is disappeared; it’s just not treated as work. So the government finds it completely acceptable to say that au pairs don’t have the right to the National Minimum Wage. What other activity could you be doing and somebody says that’s not work?

It is that fundamental idea that because it happens in the private home it’s not work; because somebody sometimes does it for love, it’s not work — that denial of all of social reproduction, all that work that makes the world go round, is what allows au pairing to be treated in the way that it is.

People sometimes think it’s odd that I have this focus on au pairs — it’s a bit niche! But for me it is an example of this denial of the way in which life is organised and who is paying the price — women, poor women, migrant women.

For most of the hosts we talked to, the alternative to having an au pair was to not have paid work — it wasn’t using some kind of group provision, which for the most part would have been private anyway, especially for younger children.

The provision of childcare that matched what people’s jobs were demanding of them just wasn’t there. What provision there is doesn’t reflect real people’s lives, especially in cities like London, where commute times are another factor. The cost of housing means that people live a long way from where they work and that means that a job and childcare that might work under other circumstances just falls apart. The state was simply not there as a helper for a lot of people.

Au pairs are not massively different to Deliveroo riders or other groups of young people who are taking on the burden of the casualisation of work, the invisibilisation of work and employment in various ways.

It is part of a larger conversation about why low paid, particularly migrant workers need to be made visible. Au pairs are poorly placed in terms of being able to organise, because they don’t necessarily meet each other, the temporary nature of the work predicates against organising and there are no groups who represent them.

But this is not some weird trend unrelated to anything else; the experience of au pairs in the past decade relates to income inequality, to the way that migrant workers are treated, the way in which women’s work is regarded, it’s related to horrible changes in the workforce.

It’s an example of the many ways in which neoliberalism eats away at the very core of our lives and changes every bit of it. And it is because of the way that neoliberalism makes our lives unbearable that au pairing is flourishing.

Rosie Cox is co-author with Nicky Busch of As An Equal? Au Pairing in the 21st Century (Zed Books, £14.99)