The famous au pair program is marketed as an intercultural experience for young people whilst they learn another language, but what is the au pair’s role? Do they work or not? Why are the majority of them women? Who makes the au pair’s bed? How much do you have to do to save on an English language course?
Is there anybody that doesn’t know what being an au pair is at this point? Practically everybody has heard of a scheme that consists of young people who want to practice foreign languages going to foreign countries and living with a family in exchange of taking care of their children. This is the summarised version. Au pair, on top of being a program, has its own entity as a concept.
The experience originated in Switzerland in the XVIII century, where upper class families used to send their daughters to live in other regions which spoke different languages with the objective of learning and enjoying new experiences. The name is French, and started being used for English women who traveled to France in the XIX century. Today the program is also understood as a temporary stay in another country to babysit, learn or improve a language and perform other tasks. It has spread worldwide and the male participation has increased. It is almost impossible to draw a map that accurately shows how au pairs move through the world, but it can be roughly sketched.
Ann-Kistin Cohrs is the executive director of AuPairWorld, the leading platform for contact between au pair candidates en host families globally, based in Germany. According to the information on their website, the majority of au pairs leave from Spain, Italy, France, and Germany, which are also the countries where the majority of host families reside. It’s also frequent for au pairs to come from the United States, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Asia. In total, only through AuPairWorld, more than 3 million people have registered as either au pair candidates or host families, and more than 30,000 are actively searching for hosts. Cohrs throws in another data: 85% of our pairs are women, and only 15% are men.
Taking a look at other websites that manage these experience, there are hundreds of positive testimonies of people who have been au pairs or host families. Yet looking beyond marketing and advertising, the cases of abuse, overwork, excessive familiarity, stories of vulnerability and even of harassment come up as well.
A Complete Experience
Ángela traveled as an au pair to England, where the family she had contacted through AuPairWorld was waiting for her. She would spend the whole summer there in exchange of taking care of their youngest child. Although, as is often the case, she didn’t sign a contract, everything seemed to indicate that it would go as informally agreed: a private room, three hours of care per day, one day off per week, and a weekly payment which was unstated until her arrival. But that wasn’t the case. The first week she didn’t have any days off, the three agreed hours turned into four, and the four, in the end, into many more.
Her host family had needs that weren’t covered, needs that transcended the basic such as cleaning or care: “My family had a lot of shortcomings, my work allowed for their situation to be sustained. I don’t regret it, I learned things such as resilience, but I would not go back. Another person wouldn’t have endured what I did. In fact, since I left three months ago, there have been two au pairs and they have both left”. They also served as small lifeboats.
The boy Ángela took care of was anIt was two months of unpleasant experiences: she was forced to take care of the other daughter for a week on her own, had to cancel a family visit, traveled to the host family’s father’s parents and washed what she hadn’t used: “I couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t have a single minute to myself. One day I asked for time off and had dinner out. When I came back, I washed the dishes they’d used. The worst thing was they didn’t even ask me, I did it because I knew it was expected of me. It was humiliating”. She had to sleep in the same room as the father and share a bed with the boy; she suffered from lack of rest, continuous stress, they made propositions that were out of line, and put her in uncomfortable situations. She returned home relieved and also concerned: institutions need to regulate the program, and “the closest thing we have to that is agency intermediation”.
The differences from country to country in Europe are abysmal. In Spain, for example, an au pair is payed around €280 a month whilst the average in England is around €360. Other countries have established minimums: in Sweden every au pair has to be registered in the general social security scheme and labour relationships are governed under the normal working contract for domestic workers. In Ireland, pay is adjusted to the minimum inter-professional wage, which is over €1,600. In France, au pairs have the right to charge between 70% and 90% of minimum wage. In Switzerland, the maximum working day cannot exceed 25 hours a week. In Germany, pay goes over €450, and they must be registered as well. In Germany, Denmark, Ireland, Holland, Sweden, Switzerland and Norway families have to assume all or part of the cost of the language course, although, ironically, in the majority it is not mandatory to guarantee this training, even though the program’s main objective is linguistic immersion.
So, is it a job? Some countries recognise it as such, but the established conditions don’t reach the common minimums of the rest of jobs. Carmen Castro, PhD in Economics, explains that “there are countries which have a political tradition of welfare policies that have invested in placing responsibility of care as part of the public service guarantees.
These are some of the countries which have offered a contract specific to au pairs”: Holland, Switzerland, and Norway. It is important to note that the standard European contract for au pairs which most countries use “is from 1972, prior to the development of equality legislation”. The tasks performed by au pairs are not recognised as an employment relationship by the Spanish State. Are they recognised, then, as services of the family home? Neither. They are excluded from the regulations of domestic work and do not receive a real salary. This is not only a matter of the Spanish State.
Why isn’t it recognised as domestic work? Because the tasks are differentiated from such. According to the majority of official bodies and management companies of the au pair program, they are responsible for «small tasks»: washing the dishes; scrubbing, sweeping, dusting or vacuuming occasionally; clean clothes for girls and boys; ironing, but «in no case delicate items such as blouses or shirts»; making children’s beds; making small purchases; taking care of pets if necessary; taking the bins out … But «remember!», the AuPairWorld website states, «you do not have to consider the au pair stay as a job, it’s a cultural exchange». It is not a job because, remember, the au pair should never «do gardening work, do general house cleaning, clean the bathrooms, the oven, the car, the carpets, take care of purchases, make the parents’ bed or iron the rest of the family’s clothes».
Rafaela Pimentel is a domestic worker and part of the Territorio Doméstico (Domestic Territory) collective. She says the issue of au pairs’s work not being recognised as such happens to domestic workers as well: «When they interview you they tell you ‘you’re just going to accompany my mother’, or ‘you’ll pick the children up from school’, and since you’re only doing one chore they don’t make a contract, or pay you what they should pay you, or insure you. And then you end up doing a lot of things and acquiring responsibilities. That is why we vindicate the need to define all of those undefined chores. Pimentel also speaks for hotel maids and and all of those collectives who fight for decent working conditions. She explains that, sometimes, the claims are so similar that when you hear them you can’t tell who they refer to, “You could think its the Kellys (house cleaning service), nurses, or any of us”. She regrets that “it is assumed that we do what we do for love and care” and that, specially regarding home work, «feelings, emotions, closeness, and familiarity diminish the sense of an employment relationship.» In the case of au pairs, presenting their work as an exchange between equals masks evident power relations.
Carmen Castro coincides with Pimentel’s statements: «It is the androcentric vision of not recognising as a job most of the activities and services that they provide within a house in an unpaid way and fundamentally by women». After all, she explains, an au pair is like an internal figure that is temporarily incorporated to support the family’s logistics and activities. Castro thinks that this work is sold as an intercultural experience with a clear objective, and reformulates what Remedios Zafra says: «We have gone from the culture of effort to the culture of enthusiasm. They almost work for free, for that prospect of nonmonetary enrichment. Neoliberal policies are entrapping us. They present it as enriching experience when they are really just filling jobs.”
Immigration barriers and lack of definition
Although Castro identifies differences between au pair and household work due to the difference’s in the worker’s profiles, both are related to the global care chain. The majority are women in both cases, but when we talk about household maids the racial aspect is much more evident. This has a clear consequence: racial laws on immigration matters weigh much more heavily on them. Most au pairs have basic economic stability in their home countries, they’re fundamentally young women, mostly white: “These differentiating nuances add another system of perversion, which is a classification system within the global care chains. It incorporates a new socioeconomic stratification.» In fact, the migratory process does not intervene as much in the case of au pairs but there is a variable that reflects how to avoid it. One of the most widespread requirements is that the au pair be single and without their own family. Castro assures that this is to avoid «the au pair program becoming a gateway for the migrant population to stay via family reunification”, because in theory the private life of au pairs is irrelevant.
The system has always deemed work by women irrelevant. The precariousness has historically crossed this intercultural program, which is also part of the global care chain which demonstrates the sexual division of labour. The lack of defined conditions and consensus at an international level make it difficult to search for and attain decent conditions of life for all the parties involved. Market logic intervenes in every particle of what we know today as ‘going as an au pair’, of what we may someday recognise as what it really is: an international program that gives young white women access to precarious employment. Hopefully one day we can we will be able to call it ‘dignified employment option’.