Live-in au pairs and nannies in the United Kingdom will no longer be exempt from minimum wage laws. The government expressed its support last week for closing a legal loophole, known as the “family worker exemption,” which left live-in workers vulnerable to exploitation.
What is the family worker exemption?
The family worker exemption, introduced in 1999, stipulates that employers are not obliged to pay the minimum wage to employees living in their homes.
The U.K. government website states “au pairs usually live with the family they work for and are unlikely to be classed as workers or employees. They are not entitled to the National Minimum Wage or paid holidays.”
It adds that au pairs “help with light housework and childcare for around 30 hours a week, including a couple of evenings babysitting” while also recommending that they “eat their main meals with the host family, free of charge” and “learn about British culture from the host family.”
How employers are exploiting live-in workers
Excluding live-in workers from formal employment regulations has put them at risk of exploitation from unscrupulous employers. Indeed, the Nanny Solidarity Network, a campaigning organization, says that these conditions have created an “invisible, exploited group of migrant women, unable to report abuse.”
In interviews with the Independent, live-in workers shared their experiences. One worker was told she would be “helping out a bit with the kids.” When she arrived, she discovered she was expected to clean all 11 rooms in the house. She had to work around 12 hours per day.
Host families are expected to treat live-in workers as a member of the family, but this is not always the case. One worker spoke of how she would keep snacks in her bedroom as she didn’t feel like she was able to eat dinner with her host family. “I often went to bed quite hungry,” she added.
A former au pair from Brazil told the Independent:
They think that because we are migrants we don’t deserve the same basic protections as other workers. They think that because women have always done childcare and cooking and cleaning for free that this is not ‘real work.’ […]
For so long there has been the excuse that you are being treated as one of the family therefore they don’t have to pay you properly. It makes no sense. It puts so many women in hard situations and it is exploitative.
The government’s backing is a “big victory”
The Nanny Solidarity Network began calling for better conditions for childcare workers during the COVID-19 lockdown.
After receiving testimonies from live-in nannies via The Nanny Solidarity Network, the Low Pay Commission advised the government to change minimum wage laws to include live-in workers. Last week, the government backed this recommendation in a move that workers have hailed as a “big victory”.
The Independent quotes Dr Kate Hardy, a University of Leeds professor specializing in employment:
Despite the essential nature of this work, [nannies] have been historically ignored and excluded from government regulation. This ruling rightly brings nannies’ employment into public view and finally affords them the protections and basic conditions given to other workers.
Call on your government to ratify the Domestic Workers Convention to better protect all domestic workers from exploitation.
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I’m stunned that this loophole ever existed! A living-in helper is an employee like any other!