A Spoonful Of Sugar

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The words "nanny’, "au pair" and "governess" conjure up a range of images, from the romantic fantasies of film and fiction, to ideas of wealth and privilege, and stories of exploitation and abuse. Nabila Boukraa doesn’t fly through the air like Mary Poppins, live in a mansion or earn a big salary, but the 26 year-old au pair has enjoyed her experience of working for three families in Australia and the US and helping care for their seven kids.

Tony Abbott recently put nannies in the spotlight when he announced he would, if elected, ask the Productivity Commission to investigate extending the 50 per cent childcare rebate to in-home carers as a means of promoting choice in childcare arrangements and helping professional women return to work. The federal government rejected the proposal, arguing it could cost around $500 million per year.

Some commentators have argued that "nanny subsidies" would undermine workers’ rights and that better outcomes for children can be achieved through centre-based care.

Feminist commentator Eva Cox has cautioned that further legitimisation of the nanny industry could lead to pressure to allow temporary visas for women from poor countries to meet the increased demand:

"We would then seriously exploit women and parallel those already working as maids etc in Hong Kong and the Gulf states", she wrote in Crikey earlier this year.

Other commentators support the possibility of increased migration to meet a burgeoning need. Emma-Kate Symons argues that Australia should get over its aversion to public support for in-home carers in the interests of working mothers, migrant women, children, and the economy.

She cites the example of France where high quality public childcare coexists with generous tax credits for private nannies.

Canada has also gone down the path of seeing migrants as a solution to increased demand for in-home care with the Live-in Caregiver Program allowing nannies to apply for a permanent visa after two years work.

Nabila works at a home in a leafy Sydney suburb where she helps look after the three children of two young professionals in their 30s. When I arrive at 8am, she is minding seven month-old baby Antoinette, while Camille, five, gets ready for school, and four year-old Elise does a colouring-in book at the coffee table.

The girls’ mum, a French-Australian contract manager for a construction company, has left for the day, having made the difficult decision to return to work full-time after six months of maternity leave. Their father, a pay TV executive, finishes his breakfast and heads off to work, and Camille is soon picked up for school.

Nabila works from 8am to around 6.30pm on Monday and Tuesday, does half days on Wednesday and Thursday, and has Friday through Sunday off. Monday is her most demanding day, as she has both Antoinette and Elise at home. Elise goes to preschool Tuesday-Thursday and Antoinette is in day care on Wednesday and Thursday. Alongside the primary task of looking after the girls, Nabila does the laundry, some school runs, and takes the older girls to swimming and ballet classes, but doesn’t do general housework. She gets on well with her employers, mostly eats her dinner in the main house, and is free to have people over to her self-contained flat.

Pay and conditions for in-home carers are important issues in Australia, and internationally. Precise figures are also difficult to determine given the structure and regulation of the industry. In the US, the picture varies from a top Manhattan nanny taking home US$180,000 a year to claims by the National Domestic Workers Alliance that a quarter of New York State’s 200,000 nannies live below the poverty line.

A UK Survey found that nannies enjoyed an 11 per cent average pay rise in 2010 but that full-time nannies were working 40-60 hours per week with an expanded range of responsibilities. Live-in nannies in central London saw their salaries increase to £25,842 in 2010, just below the median UK salary.

In Nabila’s case, her salary comprises room and board and $200 a week and is based on a 30-hour contract. She works through Cultural Care Au Pair Australia, an agency that matches au pairs with families, screens prospective au pairs, and provides some training. The agency advertises au pair services at a cost of $326.70 per week ($10.89 per hour). This includes the agency’s takings of a $75 application fee, $500 selection fee and $1980 program fee on top of $224.50 per week wages for a 25 week program. These figures are exclusive of room and board which, when included, should bring a nanny’s salary in line with the national minimum wage of $15.51 per hour.

Training and professional status are other key concerns in the broader childcare debate. Nabila studied commerce and languages at university and speaks four languages, including French and English. She had to provide evidence of 200 hours spent looking after children before her first job as an au pair and now has two years of experience after stints in LA and Virginia. But, like most nannies, she’s not a qualified childcare worker.

Nabila clearly takes her current job very seriously but doesn’t see working as an au pair as a long-term career option. She’s had three positive experiences but is also quite clear that she wouldn’t accept being treated as a housekeeper, something that other nannies with less self-confidence and bargaining power may find more difficult to resist.

For Nabila and her employers at least, the agreement, sans subsidies, has been mutually beneficial. But the momentous passage of the ILO Domestic Workers Convention in 2011, with Uruguay becoming the first nation to ratify it this year, highlights the continuing need for greater protection and recognition for all domestic workers, including nannies.

The girls are bilingual and Nabila speaks to them in a mix of French and English. She comes from Béziers, a town in the Languedoc region of Southern France and her parents, ethnic Berbers, migrated to France from Algeria in the 1980s. Her father is an accountant, her mother worked as a cleaner, and she has three adult brothers. She enjoyed school, spent her childhood summers in Algeria, and dreamt of being a doctor or a nurse when she grew up.

She tells me that, while she loves France, she’s never felt truly at home there. She talks about being seen as an Arab in France and a white girl in Algeria, but without any hint of resentment. A key part of the attraction of working as an au pair was the opportunity it gave her to travel and meet new people. For Nabila, a feeling of belonging is more related to people and experiences rather than any fixed idea of nation or place.

Nabila has different strategies for different ages. "You never fight with babies," she says. "But they need a lot of attention. You have to try to understand them when they can’t express themselves. With older kids you need to negotiate. You need different strategies. Every kid is different."

Her negotiation skills are put to the test later during the school pick-up. Camille stages a demonstration of her will and refuses to get in the car. Nabila remains calm but firm through negotiations that last 10-15 minutes, but Elise, thinking we’re going to leave without her sister, bursts into tears. At last, Camille gets into the car and the two girls start wailing in unison.

Camille stages Act II of her performance upon arriving home, refusing to come inside, but after another 15 minutes coaxed out by Nabila’s offer of a glass of chocolate milk. After the kids are bathed and fed we have time to talk.

"The best thing about my job is that it’s different every day," she says. "It’s not a routine like you might expect. I love it when they laugh and play and I hate it when they cry and I don’t know how to fix the problem. Sometimes you have to do a lot of thinking."

"It would be nice if they would listen more. When I was I kid we would just obey our parents, you didn’t have a choice," she continues. "In the occidental model children are treated more as individual people, which is good. But you need to strike a balance between what a child needs and wants and what she has to accept and learn."

John Howard famously called work-life balance a "barbecue stopper" issue and childcare remains central to that debate. The idea of providing public support for private in-home childcare as a way of reducing the tensions between work and family responsibilities is controversial and raises serious questions in relation to the likely outcomes for children and workers.


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