Category Archives: Au pairs

Au pairing: An open door to exploitation?

The research project that I have been working on for just over two years comes to an end this month and this week the key findings from the project are officially ‘launched’ on the Birkbeck website.  There is also a pdf document that can be downloaded from here.  While the funding has finished there will still be many outputs coming out of this project – including an edited collection early next year and a joint authored book in 2016!

 We found that the average au pair in the UK works over 38 hours a week, although some are expected to work for up to 70 hours, with expected duties sometimes including caring for elderly relatives, or helping out in family businesses. Average pay is £108 per week, but 14% of au pairs do not receive the £85 a week recommended by the British Au Pairs Agencies Association.

Au pairing was traditionally supposed to offer young people the opportunity for adventure and cultural exchange, but most hosts interviewed conceded that meeting their childcare needs was their motivation for employing an au pair and many au pairs felt that their hosts were not interested in providing opportunities for cultural exchange. 44% of those advertising for au pairs expected prior experience, and 26% were only considering applicants who are already in the UK, showing that the increasing reliance on au pairs is leading to a decreasing differentiation between au pair and nanny roles. Many au pairs are significantly older than the typical image of someone in their late teens or early 20s, with the economic situation in southern Europe spurring those in their mid-late 20s on to improve their English and ‘wait out the crisis’ or use au pairing as a first step to more permanent migration.

The nationality of the au pair appears to influence how they are treated, with au pairs from western Europe generally working shorter hours and being given more opportunities for study and cultural exchange than those from central and eastern Europe.


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Live-out au pair wanted…

This is another post about an ad that we’ve found for an au pair on Gumtree.  I do sometimes think and rant about other things but ads for au pairs on Gumtree are a pretty rich source of rage for me.

This ad says:

Live- Out Afternoon Au Pair in Finchley N3- start immediately!

Finchley, London

Live-Out afternoon Au Pair in North London (N3)
We are looking for a well orgenised, warm, energetic and responsible person to help us with our children (girl 6 and boy 10) and daily housework in the afternoon Mon- Fri. It will include one evening babysitting a week. Core hours would be 15:00pm – 19:00pm but there is some flexibility about the hours worked.

This is a position for a Live-Out Au Pair available for interview in London UK with good English. We are looking for a person who wants to stay a year or more. We are a happy family of four, living in Finchley, North London close to a lovely park, shops and 8-10 min walk from Finchley Central Tube Station.

Duties will include (around 60% childcare, 40% house work):

– Childcare: prepare healthy meals, bath, play, pick from school and attend activities with them.
– House: Light cleaning, tidying up, laundry, ironing, washing up and assisting in cooking.

We will require:
-A person who enjoys the company of children
-A high degree of flexibility, reliability, independence and responsibility on your behalf;
-excellent cleaning skills- natural ability to organise and attention to detail.

You must have:
– fluent English
– Excellent References
– experience in a similar position (including cleaning)

It will be a great advantage if you speak Czech, Slovak or Hungarian!

We pay £120 per week plus bonuses.
Please reply by email, attaching your CV preferably with a picture. Please do not reply to this ad if you do not fulfill the requirements outlined above.

There are lots of things which are outrageous about this, that most people (but clearly not these hosts) don’t need me to point out.  Living near a lovely park or a tube station does not make it ok to pay people less than minimum wage.  Being a happy family does not make it ok to pay less than minimum wage.  Calling something ‘au pairing’ does not make it something other than real work and, therefore, deserving of less than  minimum wage.  Asking to see photos of someone who is going to do childcare is not ok, it is creepy.  And I should write a whole other post on the idea of ‘natural ability to organise’ as related to cleaning skills.

From the point of view of our study this ad exemplifies two trends that we have identified.  First, without a government definition of au pairing employers are calling all kinds of work ‘au pairing’ and offering wages and conditions outside legal limits (in this case because it is not live in).  Related to this, the deregulation of au pairing has had a downward effect on the pay and conditions of other groups doing childcare.  This ad is really for a part time but highly skilled, multi-lingual nanny/housekeeper but offering much less than a nanny would expect to be paid.  We have noticed a downward trend in the pay and conditions of nannies as much of the work they were previously doing is now being described as ‘au pairing’.

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Colonialism and the buyers’ market in au pairs.

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 applicationsImage.

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God fearing au pair needed

As part of our current research project on au pairs in the UK my Research Assistant and I are looking at the ads that are placed for au pairs and nannies as a way of seeing what sorts of work people are expected to do.  Some of the ads are straight forward and business like, some are distressing, some amusing.  My favourite so far is this pithy one posted on Gumtree last year, which is honest at least:


We are old parent from United State of America (Florida)but presently in United Kingdom (London) we need a experience Au pair and house keeper for our grand children.

Nothing we had seen so far compares to an ad recently discussed on Gawker: .  A family in Queens, NY have developed an on-line survey with 65 questions to try to find a nanny they think is good enough for their children.  The story and the comments make for amusing reading but behind this outlandish display of an unreasonable recruitment practice is a much more humdrum story of attitudes towards childcarers  and other household workers which is revealed in the kinds of controls that this family appear to want to exercise over the nanny they will employ.

The ads we’ve been looking at (and our analysis is only just starting) tend to contain a long list of dos and don’ts: you Will be vegetarian, you Will NOT smoke, you Will clean the whole house three days a week and the kitchen every day etc  etc and very little by way of the normal information you would expect to get in a job ad.  Many employers are vague about salary, none mention leave entitlement and some are frankly illegal (specifying age, gender or nationality wanted).  And in the ones we’ve looked at so far employers are more likely to ask for a photo of the applicant than relevant qualifications.   Not only do these ads show employers want workers to carry out large amounts of (sometimes quite stressful) work for pay which is generally well below minimum wage, they also want to choose the precise character of the person they will employ.

This approach is endemic in the employment of domestic workers, particularly when they live-in and it is an aspect of the sector that makes it inherently problematic.  The fact that domestic workers live in and do tasks that other household members do for free seems to make it very difficult for some people to understand their work as WORK; deserving of all the rights, respect and rewards that any other job might.  And that includes a fair and reasonable recruitment process.

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