The death of the Au Pair Industry in the UK – Article from the TIMES

A minimum wage ruling and the impact of Brexit have ruined the tradition of the au pair exchange for families in the UK

Jo Twumasi-Ankrah is in despair. “I’m just trying to work out how I’m going to keep on working,” she tells me, sounding somewhat desperate during the last week of the school holidays.

Twumasi-Ankrah is a fundraiser at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and mother to three girls, aged between two and ten. For the past six years, since she returned to work after her second maternity leave, she and her husband, an army officer who is often overseas, have employed a series of au pairs to fill the childcare gaps — specifically the time between the end of the school day and her working day, and time outside her childminder’s hours.

The experience has, Twumasi-Ankrah says, been “amazing” and benefited both sides. The family got an extra pair of hands around the house without having to pay a fortune, and the au pairs — the majority of them young school-leavers — learnt the skills of independent living in the safe embrace of a family.

This mutually beneficial arrangement, which has existed in Europe since the end of the Second World War, was dealt a crushing blow by Brexit and the barriers that came with it. Last week, however, came another — possibly fatal — setback, with the government’s announcement that even live-in workers would henceforth be entitled to earn the minimum wage.

Anyone employing an au pair under 21 for the basic 25 weekly hours, even with a live-in allowance applied, will have to pay £145.07 a week, rising to £330.47 for an au pair aged over 21 working 35 hours a week. It is quite a difference from previous Home Office advice, still on its website, that suggests au pairs earn “pocket money” of about £90 a week in exchange for being treated as a member of the family and helping out around the house.

“It’s too upsetting,” says Sandra Landau, who was instrumental in setting up the British Au Pair Agencies Association. “It was a wonderful, flexible childcare option for so many hardworking families and now they just can’t find that help.”

Landau is planning to close her au pair agency, which she started in 1986. She is not the only one. “Our au pair business has died,” Suzannah Bushill of the London Nanny Agency says. “People have stopped asking [for au pairs] now.”

Even the British Au Pair Agencies Association, the industry’s recognised trade association, closed its doors last week, because while you can technically still find an au pair from the likes of Canada or Australia who is allowed to work here under the youth mobility scheme, it’s increasingly too hard and too expensive for most families.

It’s a far cry from the heyday of au pairs, who for decades have been serving as the largely unmentioned glue holding middle-class families together. The concept originated after the Second World War, when domestic servants had all but disappeared and a newly liberated cohort of young women, keen to expand their cultural boundaries, rose to meet the demand. The role was always one of non-servant, however, hence the name itself: au pair literally means “at par” or “equal to”.

‘It was a growing-up experience’

I had a series of au pairs when my children were smaller, to whom I owe both my career and my sanity. The first, Julie from Holland, arrived just before I had my second baby; the last, Vendela from Sweden, left when my children were all old enough to wipe their own bottoms and catch the bus to school. They were all utterly brilliant: cheerful, personable young people who made life with three small children and a demanding job a whole lot less stressful. We cried when every one of them left to go on their next adventure and we remain in touch with every one of them.

There were compromises, of course — both parties had to live with strangers, for a start. Families were taking in young men and women with no skills or training who would often do what young people do, from rolling in drunk to bringing home unsuitable boyfriends. And there were plenty of parents that exploited the system, treating their au pair like a cheap nanny or demanding full-time hours for what was never supposed to be a proper wage.

Sally au paired for Lucy Denyer for 18 months when she was 19

For us, certainly, the upsides generally outweighed the downsides. “It was a growing-up experience,” says Sally, who came to au pair for us for 18 months when she was 19. “I was quite shy when I was young, and so going there, having to handle things and speak to strangers was really good for me.”

It’s possible that the Treasury will look into a fix for au pairs, because the situation is so dire. A petition calling for change has gathered 60,000 signatures, with many citing Britain’s already extortionate childcare costs, among the highest in the world.

But any change will probably be too late for Twumasi-Ankrah — and perhaps the Australian au pair who was due to start working for her family next month. The cheapest childminder she’s been able to find is £1,000 a month. Paying wages to an au pair on top of that — wages for all those odd-round-the-edges hours when her husband’s not there to help — will cost her nearly the same again. “That is my [entire] salary,” she says.

The system, she says, was always about cultural exchange, not just having someone there to look after the kids. But, she says, “I can’t afford a nanny.” And this decision is just one more thing that is “driving intelligent women out of the workplace and back into their homes. It makes me feel really sad.”

Read the article here from The Times 


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