Au Pairs and The Hidden Hand

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Business correspondent with the Irish Times, John McManus, has an article in today’s paper where he challenges the wisdom of yesterday’s ruling by the Workplace Relations Commission that a person working as an au pair should be considered an employee. In so doing, he offers the example of his own experience with an au pair staying in his house. He describes two tasks the au pair was expected to perform. One was children’s laundry. The other one was to ‘iron a table cloth for a dinner party’. In the latter, he says she performed the task ‘that would have passed muster with the manager of Patrick Guilbaud’s’. It seems ludicrous, he says, that such a relationship should be defined in terms of employer and employee, even though, as he says, he was paying her to carry out these tasks.

In yesterday’s Irish Times, there was an article in the Personal Finance section by Fiona Reddan, titled ‘Can I afford to give up work to stay at home with the children?’. The tacit proposition of such a headline is that staying at home with the children does not constitute work. The body of the article carried on in a similar vein: ‘is it worth your financial while to keep working?’; ‘many people ..take..a step away from the workforce when they have children’; ‘some 42 per cent of women aged between 34-64 don’t work’ (a figure that presumably includes mothers who look after their own children -and probably those who look after other people’s children too); ‘if you’re thinking of taking some time out from the workforce to raise your family..’.

Reddan’s article reflects the conventional attitude in Irish society -and many other societies- towards domestic labour and childcare. If it happens in your own home, it is not considered work. This is despite the fact that the country would come to a standstill in a very short space of time if people ceased to care for their children, cook meals, do the washing, and so on.

The economist Arthur Cecil Pigou noted how this phenomenon is treated when it comes to economic statistics. He called it the unmarried maid paradox. The work of a woman who works as a maid in a man’s house and gets paid for it is included in GDP. If she were to marry the man and do the work unpaid, it would not be included. As I’ve previously written, whenever a state commits to reduce its budget deficit, by cutting public expenditure, it does so without having to worry about the effect of its policies on unpaid labourers in the home -mostly women- because those people’s work, from the official point of view, does not exist. So all public debate that centres on GDP growth as the main indicator of progress -this was the focal point of the electoral campaign of the outgoing government parties- always already places the priorities of big business above those of people who do work unpaid in the home.

Perhaps the work of au pairs does not seem like work because they are performing it in the family home, since work in the family home is not, by convention anyway, considered real work. Not like the work of a waiter ironing tablecloths in Patrick Guilbaud’s. Not like the work of a person in a launderette. After all, those people get paid for their work. Well, by and large.

McManus suspects that the MRCI supported the case as a means of ‘exposing the extent of exploitation of illegal immigrants as childcare workers’. But the person who brought the case was from Spain, and clearly felt -over and above any kind of family-like bond she had formed with the children she was caring for- that her work had not been recognised as such. Perhaps McManus -along with many whose view of the world is shaped by the worldview of business elites, the teachings of the Catholic Church, economic orthodoxy, or just established patriarchal practice- might put the former au pair’s motivation down to ‘Spanish mores’, in the way he thinks his own au pair’s upset at her treatment had to do with the fact she was Italian. Others, not least those who have to shoulder the burden of domestic labour without any form of recognition, people who are ‘exhausted, depressed and weak’ -to use the words of the person who brought the case, and who felt ‘enormous love’ for the children she had to care for- might be more inclined to see it as a bit of common decency and dignity in standing up for the rights of others.

I have seen some people argue that the McManus article is more nuanced than the headline suggests. True enough: he does not say that it is ludicrous to equate employees and au pairs, but that it seems ludicrous. And he recognises that the ruling may have positive consequences, if a more decent public solution to childcare is achieved. He suggests that it might lead to ‘a social service taken for granted in most other European countries – particularly the Nordic social democracies we are so keen to emulate’. The thing is, though: if these things are taken for granted, it was not always the case. Let us recall that the crèche system in France, as Kristin Ross’s fine book reminds us, can be traced back direct to the Paris Commune and the Women’s Union that was formed during it. And Nordic social democracy came about as a consequence of long militant worker struggles: not, as the dominant narrative in Ireland would have you believe, through simply voting for such an option come election time. These things come through agitation and resistance and an unwillingness to simply endure the current state of things in the hope that some paternalistic figure will make the move for us. In this regard, the courage of the person who took the case deserves to be recognised. So too, as it happens, the resistance of any au pair, who, unable to endure the exploitative mental prison of a patronising petit-bourgeois family any further, decides to wreak some havoc with the furniture and take the shine off the evening’s insufferable dinner party. That may not have happened in McManus’s case, of course, but one can certainly hope that it did.

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