Au pair /əʊ ˈpɛː/ (n): (Irish) An unwaged labourer of any kind
The courts have found that au pairs in Ireland are entitled to the protections of employment statute, and the sky is falling in South Dublin, and in golf and tennis clubs around the country.
Breathless Dublin media outlets have called it a crisis in childcare and a number of our betters have taken to their pages to tell their stories.
However, the definition of an au pair’s responsibility does not seem clear. The idea au pair sits out of grasp. The ruling, we are told, is due to a few bad apples exploiting the undeniably noble not-profession of the au pair. But what is an au pair? What is their role? That definition sits, slightly in fog, outside of reach.
We’re told that one useless au pair tried to iron a tablecloth while it was on the table. Imagine!
Another idiot au pair served up a pasta bake and the pasta was still crunchy – despite the au pair advertising as being a ‘good cook’! Insanity!
The au pair presumably has a primarily child care function, where they look after the host’s children. But they’re also expected to cook and clean, and generally do work around the house. Often they will teach their children a musical instrument, if they can – or do art projects with the child. There’s often a more traditional educational component to the au pair also, doing homework with children, reading bedtime stories, practicing their native language with the kids.
This is OK, we’re told, because they get food and board in return. Plus all the wonderful priceless benefits of cultural exchange and broader horizons.
The provision of food and board is not a barrier to work being unwaged labour, in fact historically it has gone hand-in-hand with it. Indentured servitude often had a food and board element, if merely due to the fact that such a monopoly on a person’s productive labour necessarily inhibited their ability to provide for themselves.
So what is the au pair then? What is the limit to the work an au pair can be expected to carry out? Could an au pair be asked to aid in DIY? Could an au pair be expected to walk or care for domestic pets? Could an au pair be asked to help on the family farm? The au pair could be asked to carry out any of these functions, or none. The au pair does work as the host family sees fit, for no monetary return.
The au pair fits into the ever swelling cast of ‘not-jobs’ that define modern Ireland.
We have Schrodinger’s ‘not-job’, the JobBridge internship, which at uses the magic of quantum to be a job in employment statistics, but not a job in employment statute. For your less-than-two-euro-an-hour you can have all the responsibility of a job, but for six months until they need a new hot-chicken-roll engineer.
We have the precariat ‘not-jobs’, the wave of the future, like the Uber driver, who defined by his not being a taxi-driver, so the company can undercut actual taxi drivers, who have to worry about things like licences or rules or standards.
We have the zero-hour ‘not-job’ where you ostensibly have a job, on the days that suits your employer. In the years since 1913 we’ve moved beyond workers huddling on the quays to be hired as day labourers. Dunnes will send you a text now. Progress.
The au pair in Ireland is a retrospective justification for exploitation. It is a definition that is created exclusively to be not an employee. It is a linguistic creation to circumvent employment statute and, post the courts’ ruling, ceases to be descriptively useful in any way. The au pairs bounds were never limited merely by function, in the ‘work to be performed’ sense. The au pairs bounds were limited by function – namely the undercutting of labour power and how far that could be gotten away with.
It isn’t a question of ‘bad apples’ ruining the concept for everyone – the concept itself only existed to fulfill a specific need.
The au pair isn’t a cuddly convention where sweet foreign girls come to Ireland to mind children (and seduce boring old D4 farts apparently), it’s a convention where any labour can be exempted from employment statute due to faux-familiarity.
It’s a convention where precarious foreign labour can be dispensed with on a whim or terms and conditions changed week to week, due to the casual nature of the arrangement.
It’s a role that defies definition in Ireland, because it was never intended to be a role in good faith, merely an exemption. Our exploited labour power means we haven’t the time to look after our kids. The market hasn’t solved, we can’t afford childcare. But rather than agitate for any collective solution to that problem, we turn to the ever increasing use of not-jobs that fulfill a function in a market dysfunction. The exploited turn exploiter.
Costs are too high in industry – replace workers with JobBridge.
Costs are too high in services – replace workers via Uber.
Costs are too high in childcare – replace workers with au pairs.
As the not-jobs slowly colonise our economy, and we slowly return to zero-hour vassalry, just remember. We are all au pairs.