I have embarked on the journey dreaded by any London parent – the search for affordable childcare. My search so far has shown that rather than spending the average minimum of £12,000 a year, I could get childcare for as little as £3 per hour (well below the national minimum wage), plus bed and board, by getting an au pair. While nurseries and childminders (individuals who care for a limited number of children in their own home) are regulated and inspected by OFSTED, and nannies are considered formal employees and thus due relevant rights, the world of the au pair, who lacks the status of “worker” seems absent from oversight. The result is that au pairs (often young women) are potentially vulnerable to harsh and inappropriate working conditions.
Defined by the UK tax authority (HMRC):
Au pairs usually live with the family they work for, are unlikely to be classed as a worker or an employee and aren’t entitled to the National Minimum Wage. They’re treated as a member of the family they live with and get ‘pocket money’ instead – usually about £70 to £85 a week. Workers and employees have different rights, e.g. the right to the National Minimum Wage and paid holidays. An au pair isn’t classed as a worker or an employee if most of the following apply: they’re a foreign national living with a family in the UK; they’re an EU citizen or have entered the UK on a Youth Mobility Visa or student visa; […] they learn about British culture from the host family and share their own culture with them; they have their own private room in the house, provided free of charge […] they help with light housework and childcare for around 30 hours a week, including a couple of evenings babysitting.
A quick look on Mumsnet, the online home of all things parenting, highlights the challenges and vulnerabilities of au pairs and shows their ability to exit an exploitative situation can be problematic:
I have taken a 19-year-old girl from Germany under my wings. She’s recently (about a month ago) come to England as an au pair. From what she tells me she is made to work about 40+ hours per week and gets paid 100 GBP per months (sic). Regularly babysits more than the agreed 2 nights per week. Gets frequently threatened to be thrown out of the house. Has been presented with a contract to sign her life away. She is looking for a new family, but her current people are preventing her from going to interviews. Just done a google for her/ rang shelter helpline, and there is very little help she could receive. Because she is not a british (sic) national she is not entitled to help from her council (as an eu citizen she would have had to be in the country for at least 5 years). …
Research undertaken in Ireland found that one third of au pairs felt exploited, with 13% claiming that they were not allowed to leave the house once they had completed their duties and 26% noted that they worked between 40 and 60 hours per week. In the United States, Janie Chung’ assessment of the au pair programme found:
how the legal categorization of au pairs as ‘cultural exchange participants’ is strategically used to sustain – and disguise – a government-created domestic worker program to provide flexible, in-home childcare for upper-middle-class families at below-market prices.
A conclusion which could be equally applied to the UK.
While the challenges faced by non-EU domestic workers (au pairs are not considered domestic workers for visa purposes) are well documented, thanks to the work of organisations such as Kalayaan, the experiences of au pairs are given less attention. Au pairs are more likely to come from within the EU/EFTA, and thus do not require visas. Those from outside the EU who wish to become au pairs enter the country under the Tier 5 Youth Mobility visa, which enables the holder, aged between 18-30, to work for 24 months in the UK. Even with this visa regime, oversight of the working conditions of this group is non-existent. As shown above, existing rules make it clear that they are not full time workers; thus the provision of “pocket money”, rather than a set wage, and an emphasis on cultural exchange and language acquisition. The lack of status for au pairs means that they are not subject to relevant protections afforded workers. This ensures, for example, that they could be dismissed at any time without recourse to due process as their housing is tied to their employment; leaving individuals whose services are no longer required, instantly homeless. Equally, though they are only supposed to work 30 hours per week and be provided with days off, no mechanism or formal body exists to ensure contract compliance or the provision of assistance.
As the unemployment crisis in southern Europe intensifies, combined with the ever-rising costs of childcare in the UK, it appears that these already weak rules are subject to the whims of the market. Advertisements on Au Pair World, for example, offer the “opportunity” for an au pair to have sole charge of a child aged one, Monday to Friday, plus some evenings and weekends, all for £80 per week; this includes sharing the baby’s room. This role seems to far exceed the 30 hours maximum. There is no mention of an opportunity to improve language skills. Gumtree (a site which advertises au pair vacancies) has similar “opportunities”. One gem of a job involves nine hours of childcare per day, plus Saturday mornings, and between two and four nights babysitting, all for £200 per week plus board – an hourly rate of just over £3 per hour. Even considering the cost of accommodation in London, this “wage” is woefully low. The requirement for this lucky au pair is to have good English skills, leading to the conclusion that cultural exchange is low on the list of priorities and that these employers are in fact seeking a professional nanny on an au pair’s wage.
To give Au Pair World (currently the primary au pair recruitment site) credit, its website does provide the users with the ability to report family profiles; my email correspondence with them indicated that they would investigate cases and “take necessary measures” should they find anything suspicious. However, the sheer volume of advertisements, combined with the fact they are a job website and not an enforcement agency, means that their powers are limited. For individuals new to the au pairing scene, especially those keen to escape the dire unemployment situation in places such as Spain (where youth unemployment currently stands at 55%), the fact that an advertised role may not fully comply with the principles of au pairing, may be ignored. Equally, £80 pocket money may sound like a lot to someone who has never lived in London, ignorant that the cheapest weekly public transport card costs £31.40. The lack of enforced regulation, and the difficulties of challenging a breach of contract, ensures that families who exploit au pairs can simply re-advertise their vacancies. Job websites such as Gumtree and Au Pair World enable adverts to be reported, but the onus is on the individual rather than the website to ensure that the jobs offered, and accepted, are complaint with the law.
Where au pairs are working long hours with limited access to language classes and associated social networks, isolation can further compound their vulnerability. Wrapped in the blanket of gentility that is the great British middle class, those seeking childcare on the cheap would argue that they are doing nothing wrong, or perhaps only slightly bending the rules, and that if the roles were unacceptable, then no-one would apply. While there maybe an element of truth in this justification, playing on the ignorance or vulnerability of those subsequently tasked with the care of their children seems an odd approach. The irony of this situation is that the quest for budget childcare may not only lead to exploitative conditions for au pairs, but for children, who may be looked after by exhausted, underpaid and unhappy individuals, which is hardly a recipe for good care. These children, left in the care of such an au pair are arguably equally vulnerable to harm.