Comment: In-home child care industry in desperate need of oversight

The broader industry of nannying needs more oversight, writes Erin Riley, where the undervaluing of time and work is rife among its vulnerable workers.

Since news broke of Greens’ leader Richard Di Natale au pair advertisement, debate has raged as to whether or not he and his wife paid their carers minimum wage. According to adverts, in exchange for 25 hours work a week, the workers would receive board (a place to live on site and groceries or meals) and $150 a week. 

But the bigger issue is not whether this particular arrangement is legal, but that broader industry of nannying needs more oversight. Live in arrangements often take advantage of nannies, routinely undervaluing their time and work, and overvaluing the board that is included in their package. Given that it is an industry dominated by young, inexperienced women, whose visas are often tied to their employment, it’s essential that we protect these workers.

FROM THE BACKBURNER

Throughout uni, I worked for a nanny agency. My work included regular babysitting jobs for families, running a “kids club” during the summer at a local resort (which introduced me to other nannies who worked with the agency) and casual babysitting. I became quite close to one of the families I worked with, so the year after I finished my undergraduate degree, I decided to work as a live-in nanny for them for a year while figuring out my next step.

It was a great time for me: I loved the kids, with whom I’m still very close, and the parents valued and respected my contribution. I was also paid a fair wage. For an average of 28 hours work a week, I was paid a generous allowance – substantially more than the DiNatale nanny – plus given board (including groceries) in a studio apartment attached to their home.

But despite the fact it was overwhelmingly a good experience, my time as a nanny exposed to the problems in the industry. When the Di Natale nanny story broke, the number of people who leaped to defend an industry that exploits a disproportionately young, feamale workforce astonished me.

Problems in the caring industry

Caring work is routinely undervalued by our economy, and nannying and au pair work largely exists in the shadows. Live-in nannying work operates in such a way that the total value of hours worked (often less than a full time load) is multiplied by an hourly wage (normally minimum wage), then the value of the room and board is subtracted.

Even well-meaning employers can exploit this arrangement. Board can be overvalued; families often overestimate the value of the living at their property as though it is comparable to paying rent nearby and purchasing groceries for one. But economies of scale apply to providing an extra room or apartment in an existing property and an extra meal at dinner, compared to buying food or renting alone. This means nannies are often short-changed. 

The low-paid workers are also given little choice in how they economise. While $120 a week might seem a reasonable amount for groceries for someone who is working a professional job, the opportunity to spend less and save the money is incredibly valuable for those with lower incomes. Also, living on site is a requirement of the job: nannies are usually expected to be close, so aren’t able to find a cheaper place to live nearby. These factors together mean nannying doesn’t give employees the choice in how they allocate their income, denying workers the autonomy that comes with trading labour for money. 

How many hours do nannies actually work?

Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is in the inconsistent and poorly-monitored hours. While putting in extra hours is often par for the course in professional roles, in minimum wage – especially part time roles – accurate pay for hours worked is essential. In most nannying roles, there are no minimum shift times, so while you might officially be “off duty”, you can’t do other work or leave the property a lot of the time because you’re needed again shortly.  So 25 or 30 hours a week can quickly become 45 hours when you need to be on site.

There is a simple policy solution to this: include in-home nannying in the child care rebate scheme, but make the rebates conditional on standards regarding hours, shift length and board, with oversight. It would shift the standard conditions in the industry such that they would be improved even for those who don’t qualify for the rebate.

While the argument continues over whether Di Natale’s au pair arrangement was fair, there’s little doubt that nannying is an industry that is due for an overhaul. It’s essential that we do so to protect some of the most vulnerable workers in our economy.

Erin is a writer and journalist from Sydney, Australia, focusing on gender, sport and society. Her work has been featured in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, SBS Zela, ABC’s The Drum, The Guardian, Black Inc and more. 

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