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Old 04-03-2005, 06:20 PM   #1
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Goverment fails to meet needs of working families...

... so what happens?

I'm including part of a Guardian article

A few years ago, Jana left the Czech Republic to work as an au pair for a family in London. Although au pairs are legally allowed to work 25 hours a week, Jana found herself rather busier than that.

"I got the little girl up at 7.30am. I put her to bed at 7pm. Yes, I suppose it was about 12 hours most days."

For that she was paid less than ?100 (US$160) a week, but when I commiserated, saying to Jana that it was a long week of hard work, she put a brave face on it.

"I didn't see it just as work. In order to be happy I had to say to myself, this is also play, I like playing with children."

And did she do housework, too?

"Yes -- but, you know, if I was a mother in my own country I would do cooking and cleaning and I wouldn't see it as work."

It is a bitter irony that the rising level of women's employment in the UK is being underpinned, in many instances, by the low-paid work of other women cleaning their homes and looking after their children. Many of these women currently come here from eastern Europe, and although this pattern of temporary migration might provide solutions for many families, the question still has to be asked: what kind of liberation is it that is pushing other women into labor that is so undervalued?

Although it is impossible to get reliable, up-to-date statistics on how many young women from eastern Europe are currently in British houses, looking after our children, ironing our clothes and cleaning our bathrooms, you only have to talk to any agency specializing in this section of the employment market to hear that the vast majority of au pairs in the UK are from eastern Europe.

Statistics from the labor force survey suggest that about one in 20 of those workers involved in "childminding and related occupations" come from eastern European countries. But beyond such formal figures is a hidden series of more obscure arrangements: women on holiday visas who are looking after children rather than visiting the sights; women on student visas who spend more time learning the English for ironing board than the past participle.

Although we tend to talk about migrant labor as though it is just about the migration of young men, in fact throughout the last decade women outnumbered men as migrants to the UK. We already know that such workers underpin the hotel and restaurant trade, but many of them are tucked away out of sight, in people's sitting rooms and kitchens.

These migrants don't get up the noses of rightwing Middle England -- after all, this is the charming face of migration, since these young women help our economy to grow by releasing more parents into the work force, and they tend to stay only temporarily, so they are never any kind of burden on our state.

On the individual level, many women who are involved in this exchange -- both the women who provide the care and the women who employ them -- can testify to how well it can work. I write that from the heart, having myself employed a nanny who moved to London from Slovakia and whose experience of working here has, I believe, been happy on all sides.

But I am constantly surprised by how hidden most of this labor is, and how little debate there is about the problems that it can produce. When countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia enter the EU next year, this labor force is likely to increase, and it may also become more open. Then, perhaps, we will start talking about what we should do for them as well as what they can do for us.

Because despite the positive side for many families and workers, we should be honest that many of these women are being exploited in a society that does not put a true value on their work. Yet we need their work, desperately; 300,000 more child carers are said to be needed over the next four years in Britain. We just do not have enough workers here to fill our exponentially growing demand for people to love our children. Or, to put it more precisely, we do not have enough workers who will do it well, given the low value that our society is prepared to put on caring work.

The UK government's new earnings survey states that in "childcare and related occupations" the average pay rate is ?240 (US$384) for a full-time week -- one of the lowest of any sector. But many of those who work for cash without being registered by their employer for income tax or social security contributions find that wages can fall far below that.

Elena, who came from the Czech Republic to work for two years for a family in London, was paid ?70 (US$112) for a 45-hour week in sole charge of three children, including a baby.

"They were my children too," she says when I ask her why she didn't ask for more. "And I loved them, so if the family asked me to do more I would say yes."

This is the age-old problem of the low value put on traditional women's work; that women are encouraged to see the work they give as not "real" work, but as a gift of love, of care, of happiness.

These wages clearly look a lot more attractive to women who come from countries that are still struggling in the transition to a market economy, where unemployment is high and salaries are low compared to western Europe. But the liberation of western women means little if it rests on the exploitation of women from poorer economies -- especially if it is exploitation that is going unrecognized and undiscussed.

Although some instances of exploitation can be put down to the behavior of mean-minded parents, it is obvious that the true scale of the problem is much bigger and harder to attack. Yet this is not an inevitable situation; it is one that has been created by our government's failure to meet the needs created by women's entry into the workplace.

If two parents are working full-time, it is impossible for most to cover another full-time worker's wages out of their taxed income. As long as families have to meet almost the entire burden of childcare themselves, as they do at the moment, childcare workers will always be underpaid.

The fact is that women's liberation has not gone far enough; women have been allowed to enter the work force, but we have not seen the necessary changes in men's behavior and in social policy to compensate for their absence from the home.

If the government would increase public funds given to nurseries and allow tax relief on childcare payments, we would see a shift in the labour market that would put a fairer value on the work of caring. If employment patterns became more flexible and men more ready to take on domestic work, then fewer families would require such long hours from their replacement home-makers.

That is the social revolution that is still waiting to happen. As it is, Jana and women like her deserve better than to be used as a stopgap for our society's failures.

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Old 04-03-2005, 06:29 PM   #2
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I'm a very strong advocate of working mothers. I also feel it is really important that working women and men are able to work flexible hours when possible, so that parents are fully able to put their childrens needs first, and still develop successful careers.

I found this article about au pairs in the Times and it was scary.

f you want ruthless cruelty, find a London mother of small children and ask her about her childcare arrangements. The sweet-faced madonna smiling beside the crib, or cooing at her little darlings in the playground, instantly turns into something altogether redder in tooth and claw.

The emergence of a whole new batch of countries from which to source au pairs (hooray for the collapse of communism) has proved a godsend for hard-pressed parents in one of Europe's most expensive cities. Cheap, cheap labour, in the hugely exploitable form of young girls unsure what people in this country consider hard work, and what is frankly no better than abuse, is flooding into London. There are no controls. And complete freedom over a £50-a-week skivvy is going to the heads of my hitherto blamelessly humanitarian friends. One by one, they're turning into the kind of racist, bullying, heartless employers whose appalling behaviour they would indignantly condemn if they came across it in any other walk of life.

"I'm getting a Serb from Kosovo," Friend A confided at the end of the summer, with a devilish glint in her eyes. "She wept in the interview when I asked her how her parents would get along without her once she came to live in London. It turned out I'd reminded her that her father had been beaten up by Kosovan teenagers the other day. But I figure coming from a war zone is good. She'll be too freaked out to want to go out in the evenings. That means more babysitting and cleaning for us. The downside is that she might go around crying all the time and get on our nerves. But I've sorted that out too. I've told her she's not allowed to cry in the house. And she's banned from using our phone to call home." She beamed happily.

Friend B, meanwhile, having picked a series of apparent innocents who, within seconds of being in the house, turned into drug-taking, fag-stubbing, pole-dancing, child-hating menaces - or at least failed to do the mountains of washing up, cleaning, ironing, feeding, folding and separating of psychotic small boys brandishing swords that made up her list of duties - fired the lot and turned for her next wee slavey to a German Catholic religious agency. "Fabulous," she gloated. "They'll be practically nuns. They won't drink. They'll have been properly brought up, and know how to wash up and fold clothes. And they won't ever have fun or go out - too virtuous. Which means more free babysitting for us."

The London mummy's au pair of choice, it appears, is an abject victim. Friend C chose a Russian girl from a ghost town near a nuclear power plant in Lithuania, though she was worried that "she might glow in the dark and irradiate us all". Friend D picked a "chavvy" Hungarian girl from the wrong side of the tracks in Budapest. Friend E suggested I only employ au pairs who were too fat to attract a social life. "I find that roughly twice the normal weight guarantees you endless babysitting," she said sagely.

When these business relationships go wrong, no one could be more surprised and upset than the mothers. Their eyes widen innocently as they list the young miscreant's crimes. "She threatened to walk out, just because I was kept a couple of hours late at work again and forgot to call her!" they bleat, or "She had the cheek to give two weeks' notice - just two weeks before the Christmas holidays!"

All five of the au pairs I mention above have, of course, been fired - and all in very similar ways. When the Serb from Kosovo tried to hand in her resignation, pleading homesickness, and begged to be allowed to go home after the two weeks agreed in her contract, Friend A threw her out in the street on the very same December evening, her possessions following half an hour later, in a black binliner. "She'd ruined my Christmas! I wasn't having her staying in the house a moment longer!" Friend A raged. "I don't know where she went! And I don't care!"

Friend B, who had been disappointed to discover that the German religious agency supplied just the same pretty, leggy, party-minded teenage girls as all other agencies, lost her temper when her latest was discovered having a fag in the back garden. She got her husband to have the row and fire the girl, but the result was the same - au pair ejected by nightfall, black binliner in hand, with no notice.

Friends C and D also "lost" their au pairs in the space of an evening. Friend C joined forces with her husband for a row over the au pair's excessive use of the shower ("twice a day, can you believe?"), and out she went into the night. Friend D lost her temper with the au pair by phone, on a motorway, at midnight, when the au pair called to see what time her employer was likely to get home and relieve her from babysitting. "How dare you call me so late?" Friend D screamed; the au pair was parked on the doorstep by dawn.

Luckily for the au pairs, they aren't always the victims their employees take them for. However little time they've been in a new country, most of them will have made friends, through English classes or friends from home. So they aren't completely destitute. They turn up, with their black bags and alarming stories, and sleep on a friend's floor (if the friend's boss will let them). And then, resilience and good temper miraculously restored, they go back to their agency and get another job.

History is full of examples of casual cruelty by employers to their staff. Black women keeping house for white families in colonial Africa, never seeing their own children growing up in faraway villages; ayahs brought back from imperial India with the family whose children they'd raised, only to be abandoned on the streets of London once they'd outlived their usefulness.

But it's a bit unnerving to find the same tyranny flourishing in London's liberal suburbs in the 21st century.
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