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NSN in the Media: Shadow Workers

Shadow Workers Originally published in the Autumn 2021 issue of DOPE Mag at

by Veronica Deutsch

In ‘Shadow Mothers’, Cameron Lynne Macdonald describes the work performed by domestic workers – a predominantly migrant and female workforce – as ‘shadow work’. She states that “[t]he nanny not only acts as a mother-extension but also fades into invisibility when she is not needed”. In my eight years as a nanny, I’ve realised that this invisibility can be most succinctly explained by looking at the mantelpieces of my employers.

If you look at any nanny or au pair’s phone, I can almost guarantee you that their background will be a picture of one of the children they look after. I have framed photographs in my house of my ‘charges’ – all seven of them – alongside me at my wedding. I have their drawings attached to my fridge and pictures of us together in my photo albums. Yet in employers’ homes these same pictures (which we will often share with them throughout the day) have been stripped of their context and placed on their own mantelpieces, with the pictures often cropped at odd angles so that a nanny’s hand or an au pair’s face cannot be seen. These pictures of children with babycino froth on their faces or on rocking horses in the park are quite literally framed as someone else’s experience. Though we may care deeply about the children we look after, if they are still young when we leave they will inevitably forget us. I’ve ran into children I looked after for years in toddlerhood who do not remember me – and why would they? I haven’t left a trace. I wasn’t allowed to. We do not exist in these houses.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities and nannies & au pairs, as a predominantly low-income and migrant workforce, have been among those hardest hit. Domestic workers – a group that encompasses live-in and live-out nannies, au pairs, babysitters, and housekeepers – often work cash-in-hand and without formal contracts. 92% of childcare workers are women and the majority of workers are under the age of 30; job platforms such as Au Pair World even allow parents to set age ranges for applicants as low 17-18. Those who live-in are not entitled to ‘worker’ status (though this is currently being reviewed by the Low Pay Commission), meaning that we are exempted from minimum wage regulations and unable to take paid holiday or regular breaks. As a direct result, many during the pandemic have been ineligible for government support schemes such as the Job Retention Scheme or the Self-employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS), while migrants – even those with Right to Work, such as myself – have fallen through social security nets as a result of ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’.

Those working in the grey economy have faced additional barriers to safe working. Despite the high contraction risk among childcarers, the NHS’ data-sharing with the Home Office has left many afraid to book vaccines, leaving them exposed in workplaces where they are unable to wear PPE or socially distance. During the pandemic, unions that support settings-based childcarers (such as the newly formed United Childcare Workers branch of UVW) were able to help their members claim protection when refusing to work under Section 44, but for domestic workers this kind of individual action was not an option.

Additionally, the majority of nannies & au pairs have continued to work throughout the pandemic without a formal risk assessment. Many more face deportation if they dare to speak up about unsafe working conditions: au pair employers will often knowingly hire undocumented workers because their vulnerability makes them easier to control by threatening to report them for illegal working if they ask to be paid on time or refuse to work certain hours. One undocumented au pair, for instance, was reported to the Home Office by her own employer after she requested that her bosses self-isolate following a positive COVID test.

In response to these gaps in provision, in May 2020, myself and a fellow South London nanny began a hardship fund for childcare workers who were currently facing, or at imminent risk of, destitution due to the first COVID-19 lockdown. The response was rapid: we raised over £10,000 in the first few months and were contacted by more workers than we could afford to support. Listening on the phone to some of the experiences of our fellow workers felt like a huge exhale – while many were sharing with us harrowing stories of the abuse and poverty they were facing due to the lockdowns, it was a relief for many to be able to speak to another childcare worker, and to hear that they weren’t alone. We quickly realised that the biggest issue facing domestic workers is not that our struggles are invisible to the public, but that we are invisible to one another.

Domestic workers have historically struggled to mobilise effectively or advocate for ourselves as a workforce for a variety of reasons. In-home childcarers are often undocumented or on limited-term visas, which makes the visibility that comes with traditional forms of collective organising (such as strike action or protest) incredibly dangerous. Likewise, nannies & au pairs work without a shared employer, making it difficult to organise a collective response to poor working conditions. Lack of workforce representation has had huge repercussions: while pressure from the National Education Union (NEU) in January was the driving force behind school closures, the lack of similar union representation for Early Years meant that childcare workers were forced to keep working. During this time, 1 in 10 nursery workers fell ill with the virus, leading academic Christine Berry to assert that childcare workers “are being treated like cannon fodder so that ‘higher-value’ work can go on”.

But our workforce faces precarity beyond the pandemic: the UK’s flawed au pair system is putting countless young workers at risk. While once au pairing was viewed as a ‘cultural exchange’ where a young migrant could live in the UK for free in exchange for some hours of childcare, in practice the high rate of informality means that au pairs are often working upwards of 50 hours a week with weekly ‘pocket money’ as low as £70 as their only income. Members of our union branch have described cancelling their English classes – the original premise for their au pairing trip – because they were facing too many childcare hours.

For the many who want to escape these conditions, even saving for a flight home is impossible, leaving them stranded in countries where they may not know anyone beyond their employers. These abhorrent conditions are state-sanctioned: the government’s formal recommendation for au pairs’ pocket money equates to £3 per hour for a 30 hour week, leaving little room for manoeuvre. The line between what comes under modern slavery and what the government views as simply a ‘family-like’ relationship between au pair and employer is blurred, leaving many in desperate need.

Through the hardship fund we formed the Nanny Solidarity Network, a grassroots community that provides emergency aid and resources to nannies & au pairs across the UK. In doing so, we realised that the structural inequalities that we were facing went far deeper than the current pandemic. While the hardship fund had provided an essential lifeline for members in desperate need, instead of fire-fighting with one-off crisis response for individuals, we began to prioritise building structures that would make us more connected and more powerful in the longer term; tackling the conditions that produce individual hardship. From here, members from our community began working with Independent Workers of Great Britain to form IWGB Nannies & Au Pairs: the first trade union branch led by and for domestic workers.

Our branch was formed with the view to provide space for collective action to in-home childcare workers across the UK and to think laterally about what it means to organise a feminist workforce that operates largely outside of the realms of employment law. We realised that though traditional organising strategies employed by larger trade unions such as strategic litigation and tribunal claims are impossible to map onto a workforce that is classed neither as workers nor employees, alternative strategies such as direct action can be equally as powerful. The IWGB, as a migrant-led direct-action union with a track record of supporting ‘unorganisable’ workers through these grassroots methods, has thus provided the perfect home for our workforce. We are now in the planning stages of our first campaign and run regular in-person meet-ups, stay & play sessions so that we can meet one another during working hours, and are co-producing written resources for workers in tandem with the Nanny Solidarity Network.

It is no coincidence that feminised workforces such as aged care and childcare have suffered so much during the pandemic – caring labour is not seen as ‘productive’, and therefore it is not valued. With individual wins largely out of reach for the majority of our workforce, our union must extend beyond the workplace. Working in isolated settings in separate houses across the UK can make it hard for domestic workers to meet one another and share experiences and, while unions have typically provided the space for workforces to advocate for themselves and to bargain collectively for improved conditions and pay, they can also provide rich sources of community for their members.

This community is vital: the informal advice networks that proliferate in worker communities can provide scaffolding to workers whose rights are unsupported by the law. In one of my first nanny jobs, for instance, I was not allowed to take the children out of the house for over two years. We spent every day from 7:30am-7:30pm either inside or in their garden, barring the odd trip to their local park where I was instructed not to speak to anyone. I was five years into my career before I met another childcare worker and, as a result, I didn’t even know that I could ask for paid holiday – without community, I had gone my entire working life with only one unpaid week off each Christmas.

Domestic work is, at its core, a constant invisibilising; as carers, we are meant to be present until our employers arrive home, then we should be forgotten. As workers, we are meant to be ‘part of the family’ until our employers no longer need us. From the mantelpieces from which we are conspicuously absent, to the parks where we sit silently, afraid to approach anyone, we are made to not exist in our workplaces. We are hidden not only in the houses where we work but from our local communities and from other workers with whom we might be able to catalyse action on shared exploitations. This is the value of a union: it allows us somewhere to build something from our individual experiences that is bigger than just ourselves. Unions provide us with a light among the shadows.

Veronica Deutsch is a founding member of the Nanny Solidarity Network, and a member of IWGB Nannies & Au Pairs branch.


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