Why we need to pay attention to the role of au pairs in the future of work in Australia

12 Nov 2018

In Australia, as in many other countries around the world, growing numbers of women with children are turning to international au pairs to provide childcare and thus enable them to participate in paid employment. Indeed, demand for au pairs, according to industry insiders, is regularly greater than supply. As such, au pairs are an emerging aspect of the future of work for women with children in Australia.

In part enabled by visa conditions, this au pair work is seen as ‘cultural exchange.’ In effect the system enables a back-door supply of low paid domestic labour which also shores up current gendered inequalities around responsibilities for childcare.

Au pairs offer cheap and flexible live-in child care for periods up to 6 months, with the option of a maximum further 6 months. They pay for their own travel and enter Australia largely on Working Holiday Maker Visas. The au pair’s primary role is to help the family with childcare and light domestic work for between 20 and 40 hours per week. In return, she—most are young women aged 22-30—receives board and pocket money and the opportunity for ‘cultural exchange’ [Pilot Au Pair Visa Program Proposal (PDF)]. The recommended amount of pocket money works out to about $7/hour before tax—though the actual amount is at the discretion of the host family.

Access to, and cost of, formal childcare is often seen as driving the need for alternatives. Yet, the use of au pairs is increasing even in countries such as Norway with close to 100% kindergarten coverage (Sollund 2010). My work on the representation of au pairs on Australian agency websites reveals a strong emphasis on an overall improved lifestyle: as one agency puts it ‘Life’s better with an Au Pair’. Presented as part of the family, often as ‘big sisters’, au pairs are promoted as not only cheaper, but as a significantly flexible, if not ‘on-demand,’ childcare option, with the added-value of providing help with cleaning and cooking.

Importantly, the use of au pairs as a form of ‘cultural exchange’ works to reinforce childcare not as valuable and skilled ‘work’ but as familial obligation and responsibility undertaken largely by women. At the same time, hosting an au pair—work undertaken by mothers rather than fathers—allows the question of unequal male involvement in and responsibility for child care and domestic work to go unaddressed.

Formal non-parental childcare in Australia is recognised as not only complex to negotiate but also as often inadequate especially for low SES families [Fenech: New childcare policy still leaves vulnerable families behind] while grandmothers are increasingly stepping in to fill childcare gaps [Kanji: How grandparent childcare is helping mums back into work]. However, the role and work of au pairs, in support of largely middle-class families, tends to be absent from the childcare debate, with the exception of lobbying on the part of CAPAA for a formal au pair visa in the service of an expanded au pair industry.

Further, debates and hopes around the future of work cannot be divorced—as they currently tend to be—from ongoing inequalities associated with gendered responsibilities for childcare,

and the ways in which this childcare is covertly commodified as in the case of au pairs. These fundamental issues must be acknowledged and addressed in policy making not only around childcare but also temporary labour migration. Such consideration is crucial to a socially-just future of work; that is, one that encompasses the future of women’s work.

 

Sollund, R 2010 Regarding Au Pairs in the Norwegian Welfare State European Journal of Women’s Studies 17(2): 143-160.

Title of long talk: Au Pairs at work in Australia: temporary migration, social reproduction and the future of work.

 

Robyn Mayes is an Associate Professor in the School of Management at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia. Her research interests include labour migration/mobilities, gender, rurality, and community. Principally through a human geography and gender lens this work encompasses exploration of gendered dimensions of temporary labour migration, gender and organisation, work and workers in the digital economy

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