As An Equal? Au Pairs in the 21st Century

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The popular image of an au pair is perhaps a young Swedish woman staying in a comfortable middle class home, helping out with a bit of child-minding and enjoying a cultural exchange over the capacious dinner table, practicing her English language skills on ten-year-old Tarquin and six-year-old Tilly.

Cox and Busch’s research uncovers a rather different picture. There may be up to 100,000 au pairs in Britain — an estimate as there is no regulation — and they are being employed to plug a huge gap in the provision of childcare for working parents.

Yet the word “employed” is a tricky one here. As Cox and Busch point out, there is no legal definition of an au pair, just a general idea that they will do some childcare and housework in exchange for room, board and “pocket money” — on average around £100 per week in London.

They are specifically excluded from minimum wage and working time legislation, and they have “hosts” rather than employers. This leaves them open to abuse — and there are many examples of such here.

At the heart of this predicament is the issue of how we view housework and childcare within the capitalist family. As the authors put it, “au pairing is a form of labour migration within which the labour to be performed by the migrant is denied”.

Au pairs are usually, though not always, women and they are viewed as helping a parent, usually the mother, with “household tasks” — tasks which are not considered “work” because they take place within the home. It tends to be the mother’s responsibility to ensure that these tasks get done — whether by herself or by someone she hires.

As An Equal contains fascinating chapters on the history of the “servant problem”, the changing roles of women and the formation of the private family in the 19th century. It looks at how the industrial revolution separated what became known as “housework” from work in general, which was now considered to be what happened in the factories and offices, as opposed to the organisation of production around the feudal household.

It also looks at the hierarchies built into the family and the unequal distribution of work and power between members.

Fundamentally it highlights the paucity of social childcare provision — for many working parents, including those who might be considered middle class, it is not possible to find affordable care which is flexible enough to cover long working hours and commute times.

Day care for pre-school kids can easily cost £1,000 per month; after school clubs for older kids cost more than an au pair, and a nanny can expect to be paid £33,000 per year.

Cox and Busch’s findings are set in the context of several decades of neoliberalism and ten years of economic crisis and they place au pairs alongside other low paid and especially migrant workers whose conditions are often hidden from view.

This is an academic study, and that shows in the language in which it’s written, but there are some fascinating insights and a useful argument for seeing even what might seem like an insignificant section of society in the wider context of austerity and the butchering of the welfare state.