Not all au pairs are exploited, but they do all carry out domestic work in conditions that have been identified as encouraging maltreatment. Recognising them as workers is a first step towards ensuring their fair treatment, but it is only a first step

The contradictions of contemporary
au pair schemes

6 min read
Foto: Flickr/ Jehane

Au pairs are a group of migrant domestic workers who are defined by employment and migration rules as neither workers not migrants. They are imagined as relatively privileged young women, who ‘help’ out in the homes of ‘host families’ doing the ‘natural’ tasks of a daughter or other female relative.  The importance of their labour is hidden by these imaginings but it is not something that has come about by accident. Around the world there is a variety of regulations which govern au pairing, but they all have in common the denial of the work which au pairs do. 

What is an au pair? Are au pairs domestic workers?

Au pairing has its roots in historical practices of life-cycle service and in early twentieth century customs of middle-class families in different European countries swapping daughters so that those daughters could improve their language skills and learn about running a household before they were married[1]. Au pairing grew during the post-war period in Europe and was formalised by the Treaty of Strasbourg in 1969. The treaty provided a basis for au pair exchanges between young women from some European countries. Since then au pairing has become a global phenomenon and the International Au Pair Association (IAPA) (an organisation of agencies which place au pairs) claims members in 45 countries worldwide, including China, Peru Colombia and South Africa.

There is now no shared definition of what an au pair is, but there is a general idea that au pairing is a form of cultural exchange, normally undertaken by young people (most often women), who live with a family and provide a limited number of hours of childcare and housework each week in exchange for being treated like a member of the family and given the opportunity to study.

The framing of au pairing as a form of cultural exchange is used to differentiate it from domestic work and to differentiate au pairs from domestic workers.  However, the aspects of paid domestic work which have been found to be particularly harmful to migrant domestic workers – living in and being tied by a visa to one employer, for example, affect au pairs in all or some countries. For au pairs that do not have the right to reside or work in the country they are placed in but who need a visa, the rules of the visa can produce an ‘au pair trap’[2]. This means that au pairs, like many other migrant domestic workers, cannot escape their exploitation.

In both Ireland and Norway NGOs have found cases of au pairs not being allowed to leave the house; being kept in a state of slavery not just servitude. The Migrants’ Rights Centre, Ireland (MRCI) found an absence of written contracts; heavy workloads; long hours; physical and emotional stress; isolation; and a lack of information on rights and where to seek help among au pairs[3]. 

In an attempt to prevent those people who are most likely to be vulnerable to exploitation being hired as au pairs, some states have set controls on the backgrounds and personal circumstances of people who can apply for au pair visas but these controls over au pairs’ intimate lives can be draconian.  For example, in Denmark, au pairs cannot be parents, cannot have been married or co-habiting before migration and cannot even be too well-educated! While these rules are ostensibly there to protect au pairs, they resemble the sorts of controls that migrant domestic workers face in states such as Singapore and Hong Kong where domestic workers have to undergo compulsory pregnancy tests and are prohibited from being involved in relationships with citizens.  

The structural problems of au pairing

It is easy to imagine that there was a golden era of au pairing that we can look to when au pairs really were treated as part of the family and were not just poorly paid nannies or housekeepers. Such a view suggests that the problem is not in the institution of au pairing itself but in the practices of individual hosts and au pairs. Yet, we know from historical research, that from the earliest days there was an ‘au pair problem’, a lack of clarity in the definition of au pairs’ work and what their role was.  As early as 1958 a report in the UK found ‘the au pair system has become a means whereby girls under the age of 18 are employed to do almost exactly the same duties as regular domestic servants, with no insurance benefits or legal protection’[4]. Apart from the fact that au pairs are now likely to be a bit older, not much has changed. Since the first days of au pairing the sector has expanded globally, the countries both sending and receiving au pairs have changed, the numbers have changed but the basic contradiction at the heart of au pairing remains and the ‘au pair problem’ is just the same as it was half a century ago.  

Not all au pairs are exploited, but they do all carry out domestic work in conditions that have been identified as encouraging maltreatment, and it seems perverse for governments and agencies to continue to insist that they are not domestic workers. There is no need for the work of au pairs to be denied just because they may be seeking to learn a language or experience life in a new country while they carry out that work.  When someone on a student visa works part time in a shop or bar, they are recognised as a worker for that portion of their time. Serving customers or stacking shelves is not called ‘cultural exchange’ because the person doing it is on a student visa. Yet when the work undertaken is reproductive labour in a private home, it is not seen as ‘real’ work at all. Lene Løvdal argues that the conditions that define au pairing are all the ones that are listed by Anti-Slavery International as encouraging vulnerability, exploitation and trafficking[5]. A first step in protecting au pairs is to recognise that they are workers so that their role is encompassed in employment laws and they can access fair pay and visa conditions which are appropriate to the work that they do.

Recognising au pairs as workers is a first step towards ensuring their fair treatment, but it is only a first step. As researchers of paid domestic work all know, even when domestic workers are recognised as workers, they get substantially fewer rights than other groups of workers. By denying that au pairing is work and by denying domestic workers the same rights as other workers, governments deny many millions of women (and some men) basic rights each year.  This is a choice that governments make to favour the demands of employers for cheap and available domestic labour over the rights of poorly paid workers.


[1] Liarou, E (2015) Pink slave’ or ‘modern young woman’? A history of the au pair in Britain. In Cox, R (Ed) Au Pairs’ Lives in Global Context: Sisters or Servants? Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan pp 19-35.

[2] Stenum, H (2010) "Au pair migration and new inequalities: The transnational production of corruption".  In Isaksen, L. W. (Ed) Global Care Work: Gender and Migration in Nordic Societies. Stenum, H (2015) Bane and Boon; Gainsand Pains; Dos and Don’ts … Moral economy and female bodies in au pair migration.  In Cox, R (Ed) Au Pairs’ Lives in Global Context: Sisters or Servants? Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan pp104-120.

[3] MRCI (2012) Who cares? The experiences of migrant care workers in Ireland 

[4] Liarou 2015 p27

[5] Løvdal, L (2015) "Au pairs in Norway: Experiences from an outreach project".  In Cox, R (Ed) Au Pairs’ Lives in Global Context: Sisters or Servants? Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan pp137-151