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The contradictions of contemporary au pair schemes

Not all au pairs are exploited, but they do carry out work in conditions that may encourage maltreatment. Recognising them as workers is a first step towards ensuring their fair treatment.

Au pairs are a group of migrant domestic workers who are defined by employment and migration rules as being neither workers nor migrants. They are imagined as relatively privileged young women, who ‘help’ out in the homes of  ‘host families’ doing the ‘natural’ tasks of a daughter or other female relative. The importance of their labour is hidden by these imaginings, and this is not something that has come about by accident. Around the world there are a variety of regulations that govern au pairing, but they all have one thing in common: the denial of the work au pairs do. 

What is an au pair? Are au pairs domestic workers?

In ‘Pink slave’ or ‘modern young woman’?, Eleni Liarou traces the roots of au pairing to the historical practices of life-cycle service and to early twentieth century customs of middle-class families in different European countries who swapped daughters so that those daughters could improve their language skills and learn about running a household before they were married. Au pairing gained popularity during the post-war period in Europe and became formalised by the Treaty of Strasbourg in 1969. The treaty provided a basis for au pair exchanges between young women from some European countries. Since then, au pairing has become a global phenomenon and the International Au Pair Association (an organisation of agencies that places au pairs) claims members in 45 countries worldwide, including China, Peru, Colombia, and South Africa.

To date, there is no shared definition of what an au pair is, but there is a general idea that au pairing is a form of cultural exchange, normally undertaken by young people (most often women), who live with a family and provide a limited number of hours of childcare and housework each week in exchange for being treated like a member of the family and obtaining the opportunity to study.

The framing of au pairing as a form of cultural exchange is used to differentiate this practice from domestic work and to differentiate au pairs from domestic workers.  However, the aspects of paid domestic work, which have been found to be particularly harmful to migrant domestic workers – for example, living in and being tied by a visa to one employer – affect au pairs in some countries as well. For au pairs that do not have the right to reside or work in the country they are placed in and who therefore need a visa, visa rules can produce an ‘au pair trap’. This means that au pairs, like many other migrant domestic workers, are put in situations where they cannot escape their exploitation.

The framing of au pairing as a form of cultural exchange is used to differentiate this practice from domestic work and to differentiate au pairs from domestic workers. In both Ireland and Norway, NGOs have found cases of au pairs not being allowed to leave their host’s house or being kept in a state of slavery. The Migrants’ Rights Centre, Ireland (MRCI) found an absence of written contracts; heavy workloads; long hours; physical and emotional stress; isolation; and a lack of information on rights and where to seek help among au pairs. 

In an attempt to prevent the people who are most likely to be vulnerable to exploitation from being hired as au pairs, some states have set controls on the backgrounds and personal circumstances of people who can apply for au pair visas. These controls over au pairs’ intimate lives can sometimes be draconian. For example, in Denmark, au pairs cannot be parents, have been married or co-habiting before migration, or even be too well-educated! While these rules are ostensibly there to protect au pairs, they resemble the sorts of controls that migrant domestic workers face in states such as Singapore and Hong Kong, where domestic workers have to undergo compulsory pregnancy tests and are prohibited from being involved in relationships with citizens.  

The structural problems of au pairing

It is easy to imagine that there was a golden era of au pairing that we can look to when au pairs really were treated as part of the family and were not just poorly paid nannies or housekeepers. Such a view suggests that the problem does not lie in the institution of au pairing itself but in the practices of individual hosts and au pairs. Yet, we know from historical research, that from the earliest days there was an ‘au pair problem’, which manifested in the lack of clarity in defining the role of au pairs’ and the expectations attached to their work.  In her work, Eleni Liarou comments on a 1958 report in the UK that stated: “the au pair system has become a means whereby girls under the age of 18 are employed to do almost exactly the same duties as regular domestic servants, with no insurance benefits or legal protection”. Apart from the fact that au pairs are now likely to be a little older, not much has changed. Since the first days of au pairing, the sector has expanded globally and the countries sending and receiving au pairs have changed, yet the basic contradiction at the heart of au pairing remains and the ‘au pair problem’ is the same as it was half a century ago.  

Recognising au pairs as workers is a first step towards ensuring their fair treatment, but it is only a first step.

Not all au pairs are exploited, but they do all carry out domestic work in conditions that have been identified as encouraging maltreatment. It seems perverse for governments and agencies to continue to insist that au pairs are not domestic workers. There is no need for the work of au pairs to be denied just because they may be seeking to learn a language or experience life in a new country while they carry out that work.  When someone on a student visa works part time in a shop or bar, they are recognised as a worker for that portion of their time. Serving customers or stacking shelves is not considered to be a ‘cultural exchange’ because the person doing it is on a student visa. Yet when the work undertaken is reproductive labour in a private home, it is not seen as ‘real’ work at all. Lene Løvdal argues that the conditions that define au pairing are all the ones that are listed by Anti-Slavery International as encouraging vulnerability, exploitation, and trafficking. A first step towards protecting au pairs is to recognise that they are workers so that their role is encompassed in employment laws and they can access fair pay and visa conditions for the work they do.

Recognising au pairs as workers is a first step towards ensuring their fair treatment, but it is only a first step. As researchers of paid domestic work all know, even when domestic workers are recognised as workers, they have substantially fewer rights than other groups of workers. By failing to recognise that au pairing is work and by denying domestic workers the same rights as other workers, governments deny millions of women (and men) basic rights every year.  This is a choice that governments make to favour the demands of employers for cheap and available domestic labour over the rights of workers.

This article is reprinted with permission from http://www.ingenere.it. The original article (April 10, 2017) can be accessed here.

About the author

Rosie Cox is Professor of Geography at Birkbeck, University of London. She has been researching paid domestic work in the UK for over 20 years and is the author of The Servant Problem: Domestic Employment in a Global Economy (2006, I.B. Tauris). She recently edited the collection ‘Au Pairs’ Lives in Global Context: Sisters or Servants? (2015, Palgrave Macmillan).


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