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Cultural Exchange or Cheap Housekeeper? Findings of a National Survey of Au Pairs in Australia (2018)

— theme: Labour migration policy
— country: Australia
— type: Surveys

This report presents the first comprehensive study of living and working conditions of au pairs in Australia. It draws on responses from 1,479 au pairs across 34 nationalities to an online survey in 2017. The study seeks to provide an evidence base to indicate the contours and variety of au pair experiences across this country. The concept of au pairing has arisen informally in Australia as a version of a European tradition where young women spent a year-long cultural exchange with a host family in a different European country, learning a foreign language and earning ‘pocket money’ while undertaking light childcare duties. It seems likely that the use of au pairs by Australian families has increased in recent years. Media reports have revealed both the growing dependence of families on au pairs as a source of flexible and affordable childcare, and the risk of au pairs’ exposure to exploitative working conditions. However, there is no official au pair program, dedicated visa, or even any official guidelines for families or au pairs, and so we lack even an agreed definition about what an au pair is. The cornerstone of au pairing, in popular culture around the world, and as it is promoted by Australian au pair agencies which facilitate placements, is that it is a ‘cultural exchange’ where au pairs are hosted as part of a family. Accordingly, Australian agencies, industry associations and matching websites carefully distinguish au pairs from live-in nannies or housekeepers in ongoing employment. They often use the term ‘pocket money’ or ‘stipend’ to describe their pay and most stipulate that au pairs undertake mainly childcare-focused tasks, including cooking for, cleaning up after and driving children, rather than regular domestic work for the whole household. However, the distinction between cultural exchange and work (if it was ever observed in practice) appears to be breaking down. Courts in Ireland and New Zealand have ruled that au pairing constitutes employment. In Australia, select agencies have explicitly pegged au pairs’ remuneration to legal minimum wage rates in Australia. Critically, because au pairing is an informal arrangement, very little is known about the day-to-day experiences of au pairs in this country, or how prevalent this practice is. One government agency adopted an estimate of 10,000 au pairs in Australia in 2013. Despite press interest in the apparent upsurge of au pairs in this country, almost no empirical research has investigated the living and working conditions of au pairs in Australia, how they arrange their placement or which visas they hold during their stay. Still less is known about how experiences vary between different cohorts, such as nationality groups, host families’ locations, and au pairs who use agencies to arrange their placements as compared with other means. This study begins to fill these gaps. It reveals participants’ demographic profile (including nationality and visa used while au pairing in Australia), the characteristics of their first au pair placement (including tasks they performed in the home, rates of pay and hours), problems they encountered in Australia and how they sought assistance to resolve these, and their motivations for au pairing, benefits gained and overall appraisal of their experience, including whether they considered the experience to be closer to a cultural exchange or to work. The survey was conducted online between November 2016 and April 2017, in four languages in addition to English. The survey was anonymous and open to any individual who had been an au pair in Australia.

Laurie Berg and Gabrielle Meagher
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