There are now an estimated 90,000 au pairs providing childcare and housework in UK homes but the work they do is entirely unregulated. Nicole Busch argues that this highlights the problem of deregulated labour markets at a time of high migration, as well as the urgent need for flexible and affordable childcare services.

The au pair scheme was developed in the post-war years as a cultural exchange programme among European countries to allow young women – and at this point it was only women – to travel to live 'as an equal' with a family in another country. The idea was that they would provide help with household tasks in exchange for pocket money and the experience of living with a 'host family'. The scheme was imagined as providing a small amount of extra household help to families facing the 'servant crisis', while also giving middle-class young women training in running a home. Fast forward to 2014 and it is estimated that there are up to 90,000 au pairs in the UK at any one time. And far from enjoying enriching British cultural exchange opportunities, many au pairs are providing the only workable solution to the 'childcare crisis': they allow two-parent and single-parent families to combine paid work outside the home with the demands of home and children, as well as allowing parents and carers to enjoy leisure activities when they might otherwise have been cleaning, shopping, cooking or caring for infants and children.

Before 2008, au pairing was defined and delineated by the au pair visa scheme. Then in November 2008 the UK government deregulated au pairing when it abolished the au pair visa, and in doing so removed all official guidance about what an au pair could and couldn't do in terms of working hours, pay and living conditions. This deregulation came in the wake of the expansion of the EU to the east from 2004, meaning an increased number of willing young people available for work in a sector without enforceable rules, regulations or minimum standards. The value of the many hours a week of childcare and domestic work performed by au pairs has meanwhile been systematically obscured through the gendered social construction of au pairing as something other than 'work'. Au pairing is instead still constructed as a 'cultural exchange', an extended holiday, a 'win-win' situation or a 'time-out' from the normal life of the au pair.

Together with Dr Rosie Cox, I have recently published findings from a project at Birkbeck College that looked in detail at the market for au pairs in the context of high levels of migration, particularly from the A10 countries. The project included analysis of the text of 1,000 ads placed on by prospective employers and interviews with 40 au pairs and 15 host families. The research found a huge variety in the pay, living conditions and work done by au pairs, with anything from 20 to 70 hours per week being expected, and 38.7 hours a week being the average. The pocket money on offer ranged from £65 to more than £100 a week but those working the longest hours were not necessarily the highest paid. And far from being motivated to participate in a cultural exchange, hosts interviewed had all hired an au pair in order to meet their childcare and housework needs. Au pairs were commonly relied upon to care for babies and toddlers as well as school age children and while only a minority of hosts required an au pair to have childcare training, it was very common to require au pairs to have 'experience' in au pairing. The research points, then, to a decreasing differentiation between au pair and nanny roles with many host families demanding au pairs who are experienced carers to look after young children on a full-time basis.

A key conclusion of this in-depth research has been that au pairing as it is currently practiced in the UK looks very much like employment. Ads placed on the website Gumtree frequently mentioned set hours of work and a 'wage' and benefits; hosts required candidates to be able to provide references from previous families, and so on. There were frequently full 'job descriptions' that outlined long days caring for multiple children as well as cleaning, cooking and doing mundane tasks such as going to drycleaners, being 'home' to meet the plumber, or receiving and putting away a supermarket delivery. The upshot of this demand for personalised childcare and housework services, a substantial numbers of migrants available to fill these role and a completely unregulated market is that 'au pairs' have become a particularly vulnerable and overlooked group of mostly very young, migrant women whose liminal position between the private world of home and the public world of work exposes them to high levels of exploitation.

More broadly, au pairs and au pairing as it is currently practised in the UK point to two urgent issues for policymakers. First, the dependence of many families on au pairs suggests there is an urgent need for flexible and affordable childcare. Many families interviewed felt that the long hours they worked and the lack of affordable childcare meant that hosting an au pair was the only way they could meet their childcare needs while holding down a job. This could make them resentful or even exploitative hosts. Second, the way in which au pairs are employed illustrates that a race to the bottom of wages and conditions is exacerbated by poor labour market standards and lack of regulation. Tackling this race to the bottom is better done through employment regulations – not by blaming migrants.

Dr Nicole Busch is a research fellow at Birkbeck College and teaches at NYU London.