‘Modern-day slave labour’: Government to eradicate loophole blocking minimum wage for live-in workers

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Au pairs and nannies are celebrating a “historic victory” after the government announced it will eradicate the legal loophole which left live-in workers exempt from minimum wage laws.

Rules implemented in 1999 outlined a “family worker exemption” which stipulated employees needn’t be paid minimum wage if they are living in the home of their employer and are treated like they are part of the family.

The Nanny Solidarity Network, a grassroots campaign organisation, warned the UK’s laws on live-in workers have forged an “invisible, exploited group of migrant women, unable to report abuse” who are wholly reliant on the family housing them and earning just £1 per hour.

Live-in workers in the UK say they are forced to work long hours, which resulted in having no time to attend English classes, with some au pairs expected to sleep inside the same room as the children they are looking after.

Leticia Dias, who worked as an au pair near Luton for a year, told The Independent she was paid just £80 a week.

The 27-year-old, who is Brazilian and returned to the country last month, said it was difficult to calculate exactly how many hours a week she was working.

Ms Dias explained she would walk the dog twice a day, three times a week, as well as babysitting in the evenings on weekdays. She went to sleep knowing she “was in charge of the kids” as the mother came home late at night, she added.

“Sometimes at 11 or 12 or later,” Ms Dias said. “I didn’t have the freedom to go out in the evening or plan something in the evening. But I was free on the weekends. It was definitely exploitative. I was earning £80 a week but I was living outside London and it cost £12 to go to London.”

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She said the father, who did not live in the house, flirted with her and “crossed the line”, but noted the mother was “lovely”.

Ms Diaz, who is part of the Nanny Solidarity Network, estimates around nine in ten au pairs are women – adding she had met only one male au pair in her life.

She noted she was considered one of the lucky ones of her au pair friends as others had endured far worse experiences.

Ms Diaz added: “One was a close friend of mine who lived in York on a farm in North England. She would have to do many hours in charge of the house. She had to clean the whole house. She did all the bedsheets and all the laundry. She also had to help with the animals.

“It was modern-day slave labour. It is like having a servant. One day I visited her. The sink was covered in plates. There were clothes on the floor. They wouldn’t tidy up after themselves on the weekend as they knew she would be there on Monday to clean. This is common among au pairs.”

She hailed the government’s decision to change the rules for live-in workers as a “big victory” as she explained she “will continue to fight for the protections we deserve.”

Ms Diaz said: “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.’”

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She added: “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.”

Rules outlined on the UK 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.”

The guidance also notes au pairs should “learn about British culture from the host family and share their own culture with them”, as well as stipulating “they help with light housework and childcare for around 30 hours a week, including a couple of evenings babysitting ”. While au pairs should also “eat their main meals with the host family, free of charge”.

The Nanny Solidarity Network, which has been calling for better pay and conditions since the Covid crisis, provided the Low Pay Commission with personal testimonies submitted by nannies and au pairs.

One live-in worker said: “In our call before, she told me I’d be ‘helping out a bit with the kids.’ On the first Monday, I was told to clean all 11 rooms in the house. I used to work around 12 hours per day.”

While another added: “I remember having to keep snacks like crisps in my room because I didn’t feel welcome to have dinner with the family. I often went to bed quite hungry.”

Last week, the government slowed their backing to the Low Pay Commission’s advice to change the law on minimum wages for live-in workers.

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Dr Kate Hardy, a professor at the University of Leeds who specializes in employment, said: “Nannies enable thousands of parents to attend work each day and have seen their work intensify throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, during which many of them were locked down 24 hours a day with their employers.

“Despite the essential nature of this work, they 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”.

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www.independent.co.uk

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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