A recent article in the Daily Telegraph reported one potential au pair host receiving over 2000 responses after advertising for an au pair online. The article reports in some detail that this over-supply of au pairs is a result of the economic crisis in Spain. This is a trend that we have also seen in our research, with highly qualified people, who are older than average for au pairs, coming to the UK with the aim of learning English and using au pairing as the way to do it.
The result – as the Telegraph article outlines – is a ‘buyers’ market’ in au pairs which has driven down the demand for nannies and driven up the level of skill demanded from au pairs. The fact that the perilous situation of the Spanish economy should be a boon for British families looking for childcare might be unexpected but in fact, au pairing works for UK families only because of a number of similar global-scale economic and social trends.
The most important of these is the English language and demand for English skills around the world. The place of English as a ‘global language’ is a result of centuries of formal and informal imperial relationships, forged first by Britain and later by the USA. In our research we’ve found that ‘learning English’ is the motivator for au pairs to come to the UK. As one au pair told me:
‘we are a servant, and all au pairs say “I came here to study English.” Well, that’s our reason, nobody comes here to clean other peoples’ houses, that’s the money that we don’t have. If we had money we would go to a college and study here but we don’t have money so we have to work.’
For most, au pairing is not a fun gap year, but part of a carefully planned career path. Many au pairs we’ve interviewed talked of au pairing as ‘the only option’, or having ‘no alternative.’ This was because of a lack of work in their home countries and the emphasis placed on good English by employers. The motivation for these au pairs to move to England was underlain by global economic processes, such as the crisis in Spain, and the growth of global trade and tourism causing demand for language skills. The result is the ‘buyers’ market’ which makes au pairs vulnerable to abuse by unscrupulous employers who know how desperate they are to try this route to a better future.
Unequal colonial and post colonial relationships have shaped paid domestic work in many ways, but au pairing is not often thought of as being part of these. Au pairs are always imagined as bright young things having fun in a foreign country before they settle down to the serious business of real life. For far too many a ‘real life’ in their home countries is proving difficult to achieve. The English language has become one route by which Britain’s past imperial enterprises are benefiting middle-class families in the UK today as they find every more highly qualified, low-cost, childcare available if they can only sift through the thousands of applications.
Photos from subversify.com