“Carrero Blanco was blown up two streets away,” Isabel, my señora, mentioned casually on a chilly Madrid afternoon in December 1983 as we sat in her luxurious flat on Calle Hermosilla. “Have you heard of him? Ten years ago today, ETA blew up his car in Claudio Coello and it flew right over a church. I heard the explosion from here.”
Six months before, I had been writing about Admiral Carrero Blanco’s assassination in my Spanish ‘A’-level exam, scribbling down just another dry old fact about Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy, in a grey exam hall in Torquay Tech (officially, South Devon Technical College.) But by September I was working as an au pair in one of the wealthiest quarters of one of Europe’s greatest capital cities. And Spain was in the midst of a socio-political earthquake: history was being made all around me.
This is what an au pair’s job can be: an unparalleled opportunity for a young person with no money to experience life in a different country, both at the micro and macro-levels. I left Madrid the following July not only fluent in Spanish and with a taste for tapas (still unknown in Devon in the 80s), but newly aware that people at the opposite end of the spectrum from me in terms of wealth and politics could still be kind, generous, good people. And my Spanish family learned that a spiky-haired English girl with bizarre clothes could nevertheless be a reliable, loving, playful companion for their daughters, besides being an excellent cake-maker. Bridge-building, one sponge at a time…
However, almost forty years later, it has now become legally impossible for European au pairs to work in the UK, and problematic for UK au pairs to work in Europe.
This shameful fact was brought home to me in November 2021 when Maria, a lifelong friend from Spain, asked me to find an au pair job in England for her niece Carmen. I guessed Brexit would have made rules and regulations more restrictive, but to my utter astonishment and acute embarrassment, I had to write back a week later: “Au pairing for Europeans is now IMPOSSIBLE in the UK! I suggest you look for a job in Ireland. She’ll end up with a lovely accent.”
I had gone straight to the government website www.gov.uk where it became immediately clear that:
- Only Europeans with settled status/pre-settled status by January 2021 were eligible to be au pairs. This obviously rules out all young Europeans looking for an au pair post in the UK from February 2021 onwards.
- In addition, the government website baldly states, “You must not hire an au pair if they’re here on a visitor visa or visiting the UK for 6 months or less.” In other words, young European students can no longer spend their 3-month summer holidays in the UK, broadening their horizons while caring for children of working families who are desperate for child-care in July and August.
- Finally, and most galling, while there is a visa system in place (the Youth Mobility Visa scheme) allowing young Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders to come and au pair, no European country appears on the meagre list of permitted countries.
What utter pettiness! I then quickly found the British Au Pair Agencies Association which splashed this news in urgent red on its home page, and from there to the Campaign to Save (EU) Au Pairs in the UK.
Here I learned that, while ministers in the Conservative government had made promises in 2018-19 that the au pair programme would not be forgotten, come the date of Brexit-implementation, it was. Worse, in November last year, Baroness Hodgson (Conservative), asked in the House of Lords when a visa route would be established for au pairs coming to the UK from Europe. In response, Minister of State Baroness Williams confirmed that the UK does not intend to offer a dedicated visa route for au pairs (apart from the Youth Mobility Scheme route, from which Europeans are effectively banned}. Lord Lilley (also Conservative) continued in her defence, deploring the “British habit of paying British workers too little … and instead relying on cheap labour from abroad.” He conveniently glossed over the fact that his government is perfectly happy to rely on cheap labour from the 20,000 young people who are able to come to the UK, but who aren’t Europeans.
And oh, ‘cheap labour from abroad’ is such a distorted simplification of what the au pair brings to the host family. Neither holiday nor work, the very term ‘au pair’ is French for ‘on equal terms’. It expresses succinctly the essence of a mutually beneficial exchange where both au pair and family are enriched by the language and culture of the other, while the au pair carries out childcare within the family’s home. While it is true that au pairs are normally paid just £80-£100 a week ‘pocket money’, the young people see it as a fair trade-off for the unique, multi-level experience it is; moreover, the improvement in language skills often means they are able to get a much better-paid job in the future.
However, it is fair to say that many working families, and especially single-parent families, do rely on the constant presence of an au pair in their house to allow them to work the hours they need to survive. Sally, an old friend and au pair from my Madrid days, became a language teacher in the UK, had children and then got divorced while the children were still quite young. She found herself desperate for childcare, and shared a Czech au pair with another family. She says the cost of a career nanny was way beyond her budget in those days. Another recent example is the family of Dennis and Lilli Barnes, both key workers, who talked to BBC LookEast in December 2020 about the importance of having their French au-pair Pauline in the house to look after Melodie, their daughter. Lilli works in the dialysis unit of Ipswich hospital and wants to continue with her career and keep giving back to society, but without an au pair at home in the future, she doesn’t know what she will do.
Their story appears on the Save Au Pairs campaigning website, which also contains examples of au pairs, such as Yoli, who, now back in Spain, talks about how important her English family still is to her. She calls them ‘her family abroad’. Sally, my friend, is still in touch with her Czech au-pair, who now visits with her own children. She became an English teacher.
My year in Madrid was transformative: I went on to study more languages and then to live and work in Europe before returning to teach in the UK. I chose to teach languages to young children, wanting them to have the opportunities ‘my’ Spanish girls (Isabel and Ana) had had with me. When I returned to Isabel’s flat in Madrid 20 years later, a picture of me and the girls in the snow in the mountains north of Madrid still hung in the study, and the fudge and black pepper cake I made for Ana’s birthday was still a strange but treasured recipe in Isabel’s cookbook.
Far from ‘cheap labour’, au-pairing is a labour of love, which pays off in countless, often invisible ways, for the rest of your life. Brexit has guillotined so many of these silken threads, which were spun in a time of post-war zeal and have bound us to the rest of Europe for the last 70 years. It is time to start weaving these loose ends back into our historic European tapestry.
Please add your signature to the petition on https://saveaupairs.uk, which asks for EU au pairs to be added to the existing Youth Mobility Visa Scheme. Not a lot to ask, Ms Truss…?