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‘Families are desperate’: an au pair agent on life without EU workers

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Before Brexit, Jamie Shackell placed about 500 au pairs from mainland Europe with British host families every year. She hasn’t placed a single one since December. She says her agency, Busy Bee Au Pairs , is now essentially “nonexistent”. Shackell – who is also the chair of the British Au Pair Agencies Association (Bapaa ) – says it is the same for other similar agencies. At one point, there were about 30 members . “ Now, there’s only a handful of us left,” she says. “A lot have shut up shop.”

Occasionally, someone from the EU with pre-settled status, will look for a placement. “Then we’ve got the agencies that are left scrabbling after her or him, as well as families that are looking independently,” says Shackell.

Au pairing is intended to offer a unique cultural exchange. A young person – usually under 27 and, pre-Brexit, overwhelmingly from elsewhere in Europe – is welcomed into the family to provide childcare, while learning English and experiencing British culture. “Why would a British national want to go and live in another British national’s home?” says Shackell. “There’s no benefit for them; there’s no cultural enrichment.”

For families who employ au pairs, one of the benefits is having a (hopefully) fun person around to give their children an insight into another country and language. Another is having someone to help with childcare without having to pay the larger salary of a nanny. Au pairs are usually given about £100 a week, on top of food and accommodation. They are often given money towards English lessons, too. In return, they are expected to provide about 30 hours of childcare each week and help with light housework.

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Some of the families with whom Shackell deals – and she gets calls daily – are “desperate – especially now that many of them have been called back into the office”. Au pairs particularly suit single parents, those without family nearby and those who do shift work (who may find it difficult to arrange regular childcare). “I know one family, with the parents working in the police and the NHS – the mother has had to reduce her working hours,” Shackell says. The loss of au pairs seems to affect working women disproportionately, she adds.

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There is another knock-on effect. According to a Bapaa survey, there were about 43,000 au pairs in the UK before the pandemic. “They would come to the UK, bringing money with them, and would spend their pocket money here. They would attend language-school courses, and many of those have now closed or reduced courses. People have lost their jobs off the back of that.”

She says she has heard of au pairs who enter the country on visitor visas and work for families illegally. She also knows of at least one who, after this was discovered, was held at a detention centre before being deported.

Shackell says Bapaa has been campaigning for the government to let in au pairs from the EU, but the government has said it won’t introduce a dedicated au pair route.

Including the EU in the Youth Mobility Scheme – which allows young people from countries including Canada, Australia and New Zealand to work in the UK for up to two years – would ease the problem, says Shackell. “It’s already there; it’s not as if they have to create the visa. All they have to do is add European countries to it,” she says. “Because it’s a visa that’s valid for two years, it doesn’t encourage migration, but what it will provide is a time‑limited period for those who want to travel and have the experience.”

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Coming to the UK to be an au pair is a chance for young people to “travel during their formative years”, says Shackell. But stopping them coming means both parties lose out. “I feel it’s building barriers. The whole existence of au pairing, which started after the second world war, was to improve relationships with Europe. Now, it appears that the government is trying to destroy that.”