3. Au pairing and live-in migrant domestic work
3.2. The genealogy of au pairing
Historically, au pairing has shared a lot in common with other forms of domestic work. Current au pair legislation in Norway, along with numerous other countries, is based on the 1969 Strasbourg Agreement. This agreement describes au pairing as something between cultural exchange and work, and defines it as
‘the temporary reception by families, in exchange for certain services, of young foreigners who come to improve their linguistic and possibly professional knowledge as well as their general culture by acquiring a better knowledge of the country where they are received’ (Council of Europe, 1969). In this section, I demonstrate the way in which au pairing has historically been produced as simultaneously work and non-work. Through this history, it becomes evident that au pairing was not transformed in Norway when the country moved from being a sending to a receiving country; rather, the national perspective on au pairing changed in this process from seeing the work through the eyes of the white Western domestic worker to seeing it through the eyes of the white western employer.
Eleni Liarou argues that, in the United Kingdom, employment of au pairs has always been a way to ‘relieve the British middle-classes of the “servant problem”’
(Liarou, 2015, p. 21). Liarou states that the history of au pairing is fundamentally socio-economic and springs out of a desire for servants during the ‘servant crisis’
in the UK in the interwar period. During this time, ‘the figure of the “foreign au pair visitor” emerged [in the 1930s in the UK] in this context as a way of softening the blow of public criticism against the recruitment of foreign maids’ (ibid., p.
23). Liarou thus firmly locates the history of au pairing in the context of servitude. This is interesting in a Norwegian context, in which the Strasbourg Agreement is used to explain the emphasis on cultural exchange, rather than work, in au pair legislation (Gullikstad & Annfelt, forthcoming). It is also interesting that the au pair visa changed its status from a working visa to a student visa in 2003. While this change had symbolic, rather than practical, meaning, it nevertheless emphasised the ‘non-work’ element of au pairing (ibid.).
Au pairs and domestic servants have historically performed much the same work.
This further emphasises the difficulty of drawing a line between au pairing and other forms of paid domestic work. Helle Stenum (2010c) points towards some of these similarities in her comparison of maids in 20th century Denmark and au pairs today. She notes that similarities include the difficulty of distinguishing working hours from spare time, the sometimes undesirable living conditions in the less attractive rooms in the house, loneliness and isolation, and an overwhelming workload. There is one difference, however: while the maids of the 20th century were, in a sense, travelling upward in the class hierarchy, contemporary maids, which Stenum exemplifies as Filipina au pairs, instead travel downward in the class hierarchy, as they often have higher education degrees from their home country, yet perform ‘unskilled’ labour in Denmark (Stenum, 2010c, p. 78).
The au pair scheme produces au pairing as non-work through the frame of cultural exchange. Stenum describes the frequent situation of highly skilled au pairs carrying out work that is unacknowledged as such, which suggests a process of marginalisation. Something about these women makes it seem acceptable for
their labour to be utilised without acknowledgement. Questions of what au pairing is and how it is produced as non-work are key issues in this thesis. By connecting these questions with historical views of domestic workers, I hope to clarify that au pairing is a continuation of a historical practice reliant on processes of marginalisation in relation to class, race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality.
Taking into account the genealogy of au pairing sheds light on the way in which au pairing is, in fact, labour during the time au pairs work. The Norwegian television documentary Kvinne 2013: De gode hjelperne (‘Woman 2013: The Good Helpers’) (Kårstad, 2013) compares domestic labour and servitude through history in Norway by interviewing a Filipina au pair and her host family as well as a few elderly Norwegian women, who had previously worked as maids or home helps (husmorvikar, directly translated as ‘housewife substitute’) from the 1940s onwards. The documentary firmly establishes female servitude as a historical continuant, pointing to the fact that, in the mid-1960s, around 50,000 families in Norway received help from publicly employed home helps. The film also points to the similarities between the au pairs and the former maids and home helps in terms of tasks, relationships with employers, problems and motivations for becoming domestic workers that relate to migration (in the case of the home helps, migration related to a move from the countryside to the cities), adventure and money. It is also interesting to note that, during the timespan covered by the film, domestic help transitioned from a public responsibility to a private opportunity available to those who could afford it. However, the implicit analogy between home helps and au pairs is problematic. Home helps were publicly employed professionals with a wage, rights and social benefits. Their employing families typically needed help because of the mother’s prolonged absence during childbirth, illness, death or other life crises. Today, this is generally not the ground for which host families hire an au pair, and the working conditions are not comparable.
The history of domestic service also indicates that the ambiguous definitions of tasks and responsibilities serve many of the same functions then as now – namely providing affordable, educated ‘servants’. In contemporary Norway, au pairs’
work is branded in such a way that it is (supposedly) appealing to both au pairs and host families. For example, au pair work is often described as a life-cycle service or ‘cultural exchange’, suggesting a relationship between equals. Yet this has some consequences in terms of depriving rights for au pairs. This tension between domestic work and cultural exchange remains a key issue, particularly for understanding the cultural politics of au pairing in the Norwegian context.