As overseas-based family members cannot enter Australia due to the pandemic, postnatal mothers in the Chinese community are having to rely on agencies to provide confinement nannies, but prices have soared due to the high demand.
Confinement after birth is common in Asia and practised among Chinese mothers in Australia.
For a full month, families usually rely on their overseas-based parents to take charge of the household while mothers recover from childbirth.
But with Australia’s international border closed, many have turned to agencies that provide confinement nannies to do the job instead.
While approaching the birth of her first child, Helen found herself desperately looking for an affordable confinement nanny.
The Sydneysider found out she was pregnant in July last year when the day rate for a confinement nanny was $180.
By the time her child was born during the pandemic in May, prices had risen to between $260 and $280 per day, and sometimes as high as $320.
Confinement nannies – who, in addition to taking on the housework and even nightly feeds, prepare food specially designed to speed up a mother’s postnatal recovery – tend to book jobs and fix rates in advance.
SBS Chinese understands that many nannies who signed contracts worth $220 per day, found out months later they could command an extra $100 when competition for their services pushed their day rate up to $300 to $320.
Helen says she’s heard of cases where nannies cancelled their contracts and told the families they were sick, in order to find higher-paying jobs.
“Or in exaggerated cases, they told families they caught COVID,” she says.
Helen says there are many stories of angst and frustration among families in the community whose confinement nannies cancelled jobs at the eleventh hour.
“By that time, they’ve already messed up family plans. The entire market has been disrupted.”
Charles Lee, an Australian agent of Taiwan postpartum care service Windmill Wellness, says Helen’s experience is not uncommon.
“Wages have risen sharply because of the extreme imbalance between supply and demand of confinement nannies,” he explains.
Rates have gone up 50 per cent compared to prior to the pandemic.
Before Australia’s border closure, confinement nannies mostly came from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and Malaysia, but now the market is dominated by local workers, according to Mr Lee.
The difficulty of confinement nannies getting recognition
Due to the rich traditions surrounding postnatal confinement practices, overseas intermediaries offering the service have found a market in Australia.
Mr Lee says most confinement nannies have little or no qualifications and arrive in Australia on a three-month tourist visa.
“I’ve asked the immigration department before about whether they can apply for skilled workers visas.
“Their answer was ‘no’ because their belief is there are appropriately skilled Australian workers who could perform the same job.”
Due to the difficulties in hiring practitioners through legal channels, Windmill Wellness stopped offering confinement nanny services.
“We trained a batch of confinement nannies from a nursing background but eventually gave up because we found it difficult finding good practitioners.”
‘Chaos’ in Australia’s local confinement nanny market
Chinese medicine services company Confinement Care - who provide acupuncture sessions for expectant mothers and Chinese herbal medicine for their postpartum confinement needs – has thrived during the pandemic.
“We’re consulting with more expectant mothers,” says the company’s spokesperson Eric Cheng.
These women would have relied on their overseas-based families for support, but they’ve had their hopes dashed due to Australia’s closed border, says Mr Cheng whose company does not provide confinement nanny services.
A postnatal care provider, who did not want to be named, tells SBS Chinese there are workers entering the confinement services field after seeing the daily rates for nannies soar during the pandemic.
“Some older people who have raised their children or grandchildren have been attracted by these increased incomes.
They may already have permanent residency or hold non-working visas. Many of them have no nursing qualifications or experience.
Due to the variable quality of confinement nanny care services within Australia’s Chinese community, Helen says mothers are beginning to blacklist shoddy practitioners on social media.
The list on their group’s WeChat and Little Red Book pages are regularly updated “to protect other mothers”.
Chinese postpartum confinement industry adjusts to ‘new norm’
Not only are confinement nannies in short supply, so too are ingredients Windmill Wellness uses in their ‘confinement’ meals, which include those that replenish blood loss during delivery.
They also offer fibre-rich foods to avoid constipation and food with lactogenic properties to aid milk production.
“Some people can’t hire confinement nannies due to budget constraints, so they order our meals,” says Mr Lee, who adds that customers are able to buy meals as well as ingredients and herbs to cook at home.
“But we’ve had to raise our prices because our ingredients are imported from Taiwan and shipping prices have been blown out by the pandemic, plus we’ve seen the devaluation of the Australian dollar."
Mr Lee says he’s seen another trend emerge due to the pandemic – expectant fathers learning how to cook confinement meals.
“I tell them ‘I’m male and I can do it so you can too’.”
Many businesses have moved their offerings online due to the pandemic. Chinese postpartum confinement care services in Australia are no different.
“We can only provide home acupuncture services when restriction regulations permit. In most cases we’re only able to provide Chinese herbal medicines,” says Mr Cheng.
“Fortunately, new parents don’t need to leave the house to access a range of products and services.
“The restrictions have greatly reduced the chances of catching infectious diseases, such as the flu, which in turn has reduced illness and anxiety among parents in the first-year post-birth.”