Some people like the idea of having an au pair as it is seen least disruptive to the children. Furthermore, au pairs often help out with housework, giving many parents some much needed respite after a long week at work. But is there an element of exploitation when it comes to using au pairs as childminders? After all, this is the most unregulated labour market in the UK.
What are Au Pairs?
An au pair is typically a young person who comes from another (more often than not an EU) country. He or she will agree to work a certain number of hours each week where he/she will take care of children and possibly do some housework in exchange for a place to stay, board, and pocket money. Au pairs typically stay for a short period of time and, usually, treated as a member of the family while staying there.
No Legal Rights
Since au pairs are not considered to be employees as such, they often slip under the radar in terms of legal rights. According to a recent report in the Guardian, the living conditions of many au pairs fall far short of initial expectations.
In reality, au pairs are often little more than low paid migrant workers. Many of these workers have jumped at the opportunity to leave their own countries, where possibly there is extremely high rates of youth unemployment. Many are expected to work long hours for very little pay, with some being expected to work without any pay (the employer seeing the room and board as sufficient payment).
Research into adverts for au pairs revealed that some were expected to undertake duties not related to childcare and housework at all. Some were required to waitress or cook at dinner parties, teach the children a foreign language, do gardening, or take care of the weekly grocery shopping. Others were expected to look after not only the employer’s children but also the children of relatives or friends.
Au pairs are not included in the legal definition of employee or worker so as such have no legal right to the national minimum wage in the UK. They are also not covered under the health and safety regulations act and have no right to time off or holidays. In addition, there is no limit to the number of hours they can work each week. Unfortunately, many parents exploit this to the full and are using au pairs as low-paid domestic workers.
An Important Childcare Option
Of course, not all parents treat au pairs in this way. The lucky ones are treated well and fairly and are remunerated appropriately for the work that they do. And now that there is a very real fear that the source of au pairs could dry up after Brexit, many parents are now realising the important work these youngsters do.
In light of this, new guidelines on the role of an au pair have been released by The British Au Pairs Agencies Association. However, until the government enforces these, it is likely that more of these workers will be exploited.