Working as an au pair is seen by many as a great opportunity for young people to live in and learn about other countries and cultures. In Europe, working as an au pair was made possible in 1969 with an agreement from the Council of Europe. This allowed au pairs to be placed with a host family in a foreign country in exchange for performing household duties.
Due to Brexit, however, the opportunity to become an au pair in the UK has become very limited. The freedom of movement policy for EU citizens has been replaced with a point-based system for immigration. Migrant workers, such as au pairs, need 70 points to get a work visa. These points accumulate based on various categories such as the ability to speak English, having a government approved employer, a salary above £25 600 a year or having a PhD in a STEM subject. 25k is a salary far higher than the typical au pair earns which has made it hard for au pairs to obtain visas. The average au pair in the UK gets paid about £100 per week – excluding other benefits provided by the host family such as food and accomodation – which comes out to about £5000 a year and is far below the necessary salary needed to obtain a post-Brexit visa.
Hence, it is unrealistic for au pairs to be able to work in the UK on these grounds. Some have instead called for EU workers to be included in the Youth Mobility Scheme. This agreement has previously made it possible for young people from countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada to obtain a working visa for up to two years, without the same salary and employer requirements as the new point-based system. Some even argue that this type of agreement is fairer since it would mean au pairs and migrant workers are not being favoured entry to the UK due to their membership in the EU, and thereby treated the same as the rest of the world. Although this may seem like an easy solution to the problem, as of November 2021, no European countries have been included in the Youth Mobility Visa.
According to the British Au Pair Agency Association (BAPAA), there is a demand for au pairs for about 44,000 families in the UK each year. Au pair agencies in the UK report that they have lost nearly all their business since au pairs are not able to live in the UK without a visa as before Brexit. Improvements in visa rights for au pairs is something BAPAA, without the desired result, has been striving for ever since Brexit was voted through in 2016. Further demonstrating the interest in saving the au pair system in the UK is a still ongoing petition which has gotten over 32,000 signatures.
The fall of the au pair system has left many British families in difficult positions: working parents who used to rely on au pairs either have to cut down their working hours or quit their jobs. This has already affected working women more than it has affected men. The situation is an example of how failure to ensure a working childcare system can enforce gender roles in society. Perhaps this will lead to a step backwards in gender equality in the workforce and in the UK as a whole.
But it is also important to note other issues with the au pair system, whereby some argue that the salary that the average au pair makes is insufficient. A study at Birkbeck, University of London found that 14% of au pairs get paid below £85 per week, the minimum salary recommended by BAPAA. Many au pairs are also employed to work without being given much support back from the families, in terms of, for example, making the most of the cultural exchange aspect typically associated with the deal of becoming an au pair. Underpayment, expectations to work longer hours, performing more duties than agreed upon and insufficiency of living conditions are issues that some face. The reason why au pairs are put in these positions is that au pairing is not recognised as legitimate work according to Dr Rosie Cox, lead researcher in the project. She further points out that the heavy reliance on unofficial work like au pairing is a sign of an inadequate system for affordable and accessible childcare. It is problematic that domestic work is not properly valued the same as salaried work because it puts women and immigrant workers in vulnerable positions.
In the end, much can be said on this issue regarding its implications on gender equality, domestic work and exploitation of migrant workers, as well as on Brexit’s effects on the future of free movement across national borders, cultural exchange and integration. The fall of the au pair system after Brexit may cause a crisis for families while exposing a lacking childcare system. This fallout opens up the discussion about the issues of an au pair system with little protection for au pairs as well as the problem of backsliding gender roles due to working mothers having to quit their jobs. Young people’s opportunities have been severely affected by Brexit, and au pairing is one option that has become far less accessible. The long-term impacts of Brexit’s limits on freedom of movement are yet to be seen, but with the disruption of the au-pair system, issues of child care and gender equality may come to the foreground sooner than we thought.