Au pairing in times of the pandemic

Terese Anving. Photo.

By Terese Anving

In times of crisis, it is already vulnerable groups who are hit the hardest. Examples from the different parts of the world show that during the pandemic, domestic workers, such as au pairs, have suddenly been made both jobless and homeless, while others not have been allowed to leave their employer’s home in order to take time off. Many without any social protection or income support. In a blog post on the International Labour Organization (ILO) homepage the domestic worker Liliam Marrero, working in the Dominican Republic, writes what it means to work in a sector without the same labour rights and protection that other groups of workers have, of not being able to take a Covid-19 test due to it being too expensive or having lost the job and not being able to make ends meet. 

While domestic workers are not a new category of workers, the buying of domestic services has grown substantially in Sweden during the last decade. The most important reason for this is the introduction of the RUT tax deduction in 2007. Since it was introduced, the amount deducted has risen considerably, in 2010 1,3 billion SEK was deducted and in 2018 the sum was just over 5 billion SEK. From January 2021, the amount that can be deducted per person has been raised further and the number of services has been expanded to also include services such as laundry services and installation of furniture. While the cleaning sector is the largest sector for domestic work in Sweden, other markets have grown too. Together with my colleague Sara Eldén I have studied nanny and au pair work in Sweden after the introduction of the RUT tax deduction. 

In Sweden, the term nanny refers to a live-out, privately employed child care worker, without formal education, usually working in a family a couple of afternoons per week but sometimes more. The term au pair refers to migrated, live-in ‘workers’ who are officially on cultural exchange, meaning that they are in Sweden in order to learn the language and about Swedish society while also studying Swedish and living with a family helping out with ’light housework’. While this is the official understanding, the actual practice of au pairing often turn out to be something else, and many studies, our own included, show how au pairs are a particularly vulnerable group of workers, mostly consisting of migrated women from different parts of the world. They are generally paid 3500 SEK in pocket money, food and lodging. While the official working time is 25 hours per week they often work far more, with 50 hours or more not being unusual

At a first glance, the number of au pairs in Sweden seems to be rather few. This is mainly due to the fact that only au pairs from outside of EU are (if in Sweden legally) visible in the statistics, as au pairs from within the EU are invisible due to the free movement of labour. This means that it is very difficult to know exactly how many au pairs there are in Sweden, but qualitative studies indicate that it is a growing phenomenon. Au pairs are a group of workers that are very weakly regulated and they are hard to reach as they work in their employers’ home and often informally, they are not part of a union and not in practice understood as workers (even though they are in a legal sense, in Sweden, considered as workers). 

At the same time as the Covid-19 virus outbreak in Sweden in March 2020, the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet published a series of articles describing the situation of au pairs from the Philippines placed in the wealthier suburbs in Stockholm. The au pairs described a work situation that did not in any way correspond with the official description of au pairing. They told about working up to 13 hours per day, six days a week for food, lodging and 3500 SEK per month. “I am not an au pair, I am a full time maid and nanny” as one of the interviewees said. The interviewee further said that she wanted but did not dare to bring up her work situation with her employer. Most of the women interviewed also told about sending money back home to their families. This situation is not unique for this specific group of au pairs. In our research we have listened to many stories like this. While not all au pairs interviewed spoke of  working so many hours of overtime, the flexibility expected from the parents employing them, in most cases, meant that they worked much more than agreed upon. Often, they were not paid any extra, and in some cases when they were paid some extra money, the parents saw this as reason to have full control of their time; “if they [au pairs] get paid SEK 4000, then I don’t want any complaints about the hours they have to work […] Not that they have to work themselves to death, but show some good will”, as one employing mother said. 

While au pair working conditions are precarious and demanding from the outset, the pandemic has brought attention to what this means for young migrant women who live in their work place, for whom the working conditions and hours are seldom defined and who have no third party to turn to in case a problematic situation arises. This is also a group of workers whose families are dependent on the remittances they send, and this is not only the case for au pairs from the Philippines. In our study we met with au pairs from, for example, Spain who sent remittances to their parents who had lost their job during the financial crisis in 2008. In the series of articles in Svenska Dagbladet, one of the interviewees spoke about one of the reasons she did not complain about her working conditions: her 7-year old child waiting for her in her home country. Though the work conditions were terrible she was determined to stay the agreed upon time in order to later on get another job and then be able to bring her child to Sweden and build them both at better future. 

We do not know what has happened to the au pairs from the Philippines that were portrayed in the series of articles in Svenska Dagbladet. Being an invisible group from the start, no unions or other parties have raised their voice on their behalf.  But the pandemic has made clear that although the crisis has hit us all it has certainly not done so on equal terms. Instead, effects of precarious working conditions have become clearer than ever. Although studies show that the RUT tax deduction is not self-financing, as was argued when it was introduced, and mostly used by people in the higher income strata it seems as if it is here to stay for the foreseeable future. RUT has led to a change in people’s attitudes towards buying domestic services, whether it is in the forms of cleaning services, nanny services or having an au pair. This points towards the need for social protection as well as social solidarity. For au pairs, one step would be to enable them to organise also formally. Au pairs in our neighbouring countries Denmark and Norway have been organised through a subsection to the labour union that help and support with different matters at the work place, something that has also put au pair working conditions on the agenda and lead to stricter rules for au pairing. I would argue that the crisis we are in the midst of has made the need for such an initiative in Sweden more necessary than ever. 

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