Au Pair

Cameron Macdonald enjoys the ethnographic detail amid tales of cultural ignorance and exploitation

November 25, 2010

Au Pair is a ripping good read, full of salacious details of the indignities of trying to live and work as a foreigner in middle-class London households. Some scenes of young Slovakian women encountering their "host dads" wearing only underpants and asking "did I scare you?" are hilarious, heartbreaking and downright scary.

Others - the mother who wants the au pair to watch her kids so she can play computer solitaire - seem designed to inflame our anger at the parent who fails to shower her children with non-stop attention.

Still others, such as the image of the au pair expected to clean semen-soaked tissues from her host's bed, are just plain distasteful.

It is in these minute details of the difficulties of cross-national, cross-ethnic, bodily "co-presence" that the book offers its greatest insights. The host families considered here are stunningly ignorant of their au pair's need for guidance, socialisation and, well, food. For their part, the au pairs strike back with racist stereotyping and stubborn incomprehension of their employers' instructions. As a result, "both sides feel that they have been made a fool of by the other".

However, there is a broader story here, and one the authors conscientiously attempt to avoid. Zuzana Búriková and Daniel Miller explicitly distinguish their research from "mainstream academic research" on domestic workers, which focuses on exploitation.

To be fair, au pair regulations in Britain are stricter than in other host countries, and therefore are not designed (as, for example, in the US) as a cheap alternative to full-time childcare. Au pairs in the US, by contrast, are contracted to work a 45-hour week, with a promise of one full day off. In Britain, au pairs are limited to a maximum of five hours of work per day, and a five-day week, making the system much more equitable and more likely to resemble the "on par" exchange of household help for education that the au pair regulations intend.

Perhaps because of these stricter regulations, the authors focus on the experiences of au pairs as adolescents abroad rather than on the kinds of maltreatment found in other studies of domestic work, which document long hours, back-breaking work and serving as stand-in mothers for their employers while being unable to mother their own children.

Yet it seems that the authors protest too much in insisting that choosing to work as an au pair is a rite of passage rather than an economically motivated desire to learn English, get out of a dead-end environment and improve one's overall life chances. If this were the case, why would the au pairs in this study spend all their spare time seeking and working at additional jobs?

This naivety regarding the harsh inequalities between "host" and "sending" countries in what Arlie Russell Hochschild has called "the global nanny chain" is perhaps most evident in Burikova and Miller's treatment of mutual stereotyping and racism. While giving passing reference to the "differences in power" between the two parties, they suggest that somehow stereotyping on both sides carries equal weight. Their argument might hold in an alternative universe in which Britain is the sending country and Slovakia is the host country for au pairs and other domestics - or in a Utopia in which there are no designated "host" and "sending" countries in the market for migrant labour.

This is where the book runs foul of reality. There are numerous reasons why, in the 1990s, "sending" countries for au pairs shifted from Western to Eastern Europe, and why so many of the Slovakian au pairs surveyed here find themselves choosing between au pair work and other forms of migrant labour. The gross economic inequities among countries even within the European Union structure affect the market in au pairs, as well as many of the practices within the British households that employ them.

It is a bit ironic, then, that at the end of the book, the reader is finally told that the central theme of Au Pair has been - exploitation. Surprise.

Au Pair

By Zuzana Búriková and Daniel Miller

Polity Press

240pp, £50.00 and £15.99

ISBN 9780745650111 and 50128

Published 2 July 2010

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