For more than 50 years, the au pair programme has existed as a mutually beneficial arrangement between young Europeans, and British families. However, post-Brexit immigration policies have placed this scheme under threat. The lack of a dedicated au pair visa could leave key workers without affordable childcare options.
Au pairing began with an agreement between European nations in 1969 as a cultural exchange for 18-30-year-olds, an opportunity to experience another culture, develop their language skills, and potentially attend a language school under the scheme.
For families, hosting an au pair meant affordable childcare, with the attractive benefit of language tutelage for children, and educational exposure to a different culture. The au pair programme has often been considered a middle-class luxury. However, as childcare costs have risen, it has been more recently adopted by parents in key worker careers as a solution to extended shifts and antisocial hours.
Before Brexit, 44,000 British families hosted au pairs each year, with many saying it represents their only affordable childcare option. Previous short term visas allowed for three to twelve months in the country. Au pairs often develop familial bonds with children and hosts leading to extended friendships and visits beyond the initial exchange. Au pairs are familiar, trusted, and provide the kind of one-on-one attention children would receive from a grandparent or older sibling.
Now with the end of free EU movement, the government’s new visa rules neglect to include a policy that supports au pairs and their agencies. The UK’s new points-based immigration system categorises au pairs, nannies, and childcare professionals as ‘skilled workers’. In order to be granted a visa, they must prove minimum earnings of £20,480 per year. The majority of au pairs are between 18 and 24 in age, untrained, and their salary format is comprised partly in housing and food by their host family. A dedicated au pair visa would allow the programme to survive.
The British Au Pair Agency Association (BAPAA) has been lobbying the government to amend visa rights for au pairs since the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016. A designated visa for au pairs was dropped in 2008 because free movement negated the need, but Brexit has changed these circumstances. Despite the BAPAAs efforts and a petition from Save Au Pairs signed by 28,000 brits, the Home Office has declined to amend the rules. In a letter to the BAPAA, the Home Office stated: ‘The UK’s points-based immigration system will not offer a dedicated route for au pairs.’
Now with the end of free EU movement, the government’s new visa rules neglect to include a policy that supports au pairs and their agencies
This letter cited the reason behind this decision was to encourage the ‘development of the UK’s domestic labour force’. Immigration Minister Kevin Foster has also mentioned the Youth Mobility Scheme (YMS) as an alternative for au pairs entering the UK. Both of these points have been criticised by the BAPAA, the heads of au pair agencies, and the families that rely on the programme.
In order to be granted a visa, au pairs would need to prove minimum earnings of £20,480 per year
The YMA is currently open to young people from nine counties including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Japan. None of which are in the EU, which is where 90% of au pairs are from, the majority from France, Spain, Germany, and Italy. Less than 1% of YMA visas are utilized by au pairs, and to enter the UK, applicants must prove they have £2,530 in savings.
The Home Office’s claim that decreasing the amount of au pairs entering the UK will encourage domestic labour development contrasts to recent warnings from the Migration Advisory Committee. The committee, which advises the government on immigration has highlighted the need to attract British people into roles left vacant by free movement by raising wages. Yet young UK citizens are unlikely to find live-in au pair roles in their own country an attractive option.
‘The UK will not offer a dedicated route for au pairs to encourage the development of the UK’s domestic labour force’ said the Home Office
Families that have relied on the au pair programme already can’t afford the cost of alternative childcare. Chair of the BAPAA Jamie Shacknell has expressed her concern: ‘Families have said they might have to give up work and claim benefits because they cannot afford to have a nanny, and breakfast and afternoon clubs don’t work if you work shifts.’
If the government expects to encourage domestic labour, removing the most suitable childcare option for tens of thousands of British key workers seems short-sighted. Many people working in the police force or healthcare could find themselves in a position where they are forced to reduce their hours or give up work entirely to take care of their children. Can the UK afford to lose qualified individuals from these sectors during a pandemic and beyond?
The lack of a dedicated au pair visa also puts the British run agencies placing au pairs in the UK at risk, along with their employees. The Director of Au Pair Ecosse Ruth Cambell said: ‘I have been running my agency for 15 years and could see my business disappear overnight.’ This agency is one of many under threat.
If the government expects to encourage domestic labour, removing the most suitable childcare option British key workers seems short-sighted
Along with many of the other UK sectors at risk following the end to free movement, losing the au pair programme could provoke a considerable childcare crisis, according to industry specialists. The BAPAA’s suggestions such as allowing agency sponsorship, or reinstating the dropped au pair visa have been widely dismissed by the Home Office, yet their alternative solutions have raised more concerns than reassurances.
[Header image: RBC Direct Investing]