Modern maids : a study of au pairs as 'gap year' domestic workers for families
This is an empirical study of au pairs. Its purpose is to increase understanding and knowledge of the au pair arrangement and of au pairs as family based domestic workers. The main research question is why and how the au pair institution continues in a modern society. The non-systematic sample consisted of twenty-two Finnish young people who worked as au pairs in host families in London between 1994 and 1995. Twenty-one of the au pairs were female and one was a male. Nineteen host mothers and four representatives of au pair agencies were also interviewed. The data collection was carried out by using a combination of interview methods and generated eighty-two interviews altogether. The data was analysed largely through the use of qualitative analysis based on grounded theory. The middle class Finnish young people in this study had become au pairs because this provided a socio-culturally and developmentally determinated chance for a self sufficient 'gap year' of travel abroad. The middle and upper middle class host mothers entered into this arrangement because it provided a material and economic 'coping strategy' within their family and labour market relations. The practice of an au pair arrangement was an oppressive, but diverse private and personal work relationship. Characteristics of this labour relationship such as exploitation, employment and companionship varied in time and space. This study suggests that subordination of all domestic workers is reproduced through the structures of gender and class. The power differential between au pairs and their host mothers was also reproduced by age, nationality and culture. However, au pairs were not bound to this labour relationship through structures of domestic work but represented themselves as 'working travellers' in a globalising world.