Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Precarious Care Labor: Contradictory Work Regulations and Practices for Au Pairs in Sweden

Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Precarious Care Labor: Contradictory Work Regulations and Practices for Au Pairs in Sweden

Article excerpt


In recent decades, more and more young women have been seeking placements as au pairs in Sweden. Compared with other national contexts (see, e.g., Anderson, 2000; Burikóva & Miller, 2010; Macdonald, 2010), buying private child care services has until recently been an uncommon practice in Sweden, as in other Scandinavian welfare states. However, as a result of political initiatives such as the RUT tax deduction for domestic services, introduced in 2007, as well as increased global working migration (Parrenas, 2001; Ehrenreich & Hochschild, 2002; Rodriguez, 2009), employing nannies and au pairs is becoming more common for well-off families in Sweden, as in other Scandinavian countries (Liversage et al., 2013; Bikova, 2015; Stubberud, 2015; Stenum, 2015; Eldén & Anving, 2016).

The international definition of au pairing as 'cultural exchange' (European Agreement on Au Pairing, 1969), where young girls could enter the everyday life of a family and 'do light housework' as well as learn a new language, emerges in some Swedish regulations on au pairing as well as in the descriptions of the practice by the people involved (agencies, parents, au pairs themselves). However, the rules and regulations are contradictory: in reality, au pairing is simultaneously labeled as 'cultural exchange' and as work according to Swedish law (Calleman, 2010). Further, the regulations differ depending on whether the au pair comes from inside or outside the EU. The ambiguity of the rules and regulations in turn affects the practice of au pair work. We therefore argue that these more general precarious characteristics need to be examined in relation to the unclear rules and regulations that surround this work, as it is currently being enacted in Swedish families.

In this paper we look at the situation of au pairs in Sweden: the rules and regulations, and the consequences of how these are handled in practice in relation to feminist theories on care work (Davies, 1995; Mason, 1996). First, we discuss the regulations governing domestic work and au pairing, highlighting the different formal conditions for non-EU and intra-EU au pairs. Second, we look at how rules and regulations are understood, negotiated, and handled by the participating actors; the parents as employers and au pairs as employees. Of special interest here is how the tension between 'being on cultural exchange' and 'being a worker' is played out in practice, emerging in an interview study involving Swedish parents who have employed au pairs, and au pairs working in Swedish families.

Domestic Work in Sweden: a Re-emerging Market

Although au pairing has never been common in Sweden, employing private help to handle domestic chores has been a practice historically. At the beginning of the 1900s, when an increasing number of middle class women entered the paid labor market, hiring a maid or nanny was considered a practical solution to the problem of care work at home (Öberg, 1999; Platzer, 2006; Strollo, 2013). Although it was already then acknowledged that working conditions for domestic workers were poor, the low status of the work resulted in little actions being taken to improve the situation and protect the workers position vis-à-vis the employers. Domestic work was consequently, at an early stage, excluded from the general labor legislation and not seen as a regular profession (Calleman, 2011:125).

At the same time, domestic work was becoming less attractive to young Swedish women, as other possibilities emerged, such as jobs in the expanding industrial and public sectors. As a response, and to ensure that there would still be a good supply of domestic workers for Swedish families, laws and regulations were changed to make it easier to recruit migrant labor (de los Reyes, 1998). Domestic work was then also exempted from procedures that were meant to ensure the same working conditions for Swedish and migrant workers (Calleman, 2011:125). …

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