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The Nanny State

The rise of nannies, au pairs and other forms of domestic labour is formalising what feminist economists have long argued: that work in the home is work.

How can a worker manage a situation in which their employer comes home at night and treats them as a substitute partner, talking to her about her work problems while they just want to go to sleep? This question posed by Camille Barbagallo and Silvia Federici might seem callous, but as the dynamic here is constructed in the frames of power and, crucially, money, it’s important to consider.

We live in an economic system which refuses to acknowledge, let alone measure, emotional labour such as advice-giving or providing emotional support. This month marks the centenary of the International Labour Conference, where delegates from U.N member states come together to discuss “social and labour questions of importance to the entire world.” As questions of worker exploitation come into the international spotlight, we need to ask radical questions about the very nature of work and how we come to define it. In a labour market which is producing jobs that blur the lines between what is considered work and what is not, we need to pick apart the system which allows emotional labour and care work to go unrecognised and unvalued in the mainstream.

Since its development in the late 1960s, feminist economics has challenged the way mainstream economics has excluded (for the most part) unpaid domestic work, caring responsibilities and emotional labour, recognising labour value largely in terms of wages. One major development which should be looked at through the lens of feminist economics is the shift in caring responsibilities from the state to individuals as a result of cuts to disability benefits, child support, and social care. This has meant that the burden of unpaid domestic labour is increasing – and it is disproportionately shouldered by women, with women of colour worst affected. 

This type of domestic and emotional labour upholds capitalism, as productivity in the formal workplace is made possible by emotional labour in the home. But the failure of mainstream economics to acknowledge the existence of emotional labour is now coming into play in the formalised workplace. As digital platforms increasingly claim to ‘formalise’ previously informal services, it is particularly timely to question what inequalities are reinforced in this process. ‘Live-in’ roles such as nannies and au pairs provide a crucial example to explore formalised feminised labour. Workers in these jobs become part of the home they inhabit, build emotional relationships with the families they ‘serve’, and can often develop dependence upon their employer, making nannies particularly vulnerable to the exploitation inherent in such ‘feminised’ labour.

As the workplace and home are combined for live-in nannies, overtime becomes impossible to account for and tasks outside their job descriptions hard to refuse. This is despite the fact that the hours in such roles often already far outstrip the EU working time directive of 48 hours per week. 

As well as the material exploitation, there can also be harmful psychological impacts of domestic work. Despite essentially being part of the family, staff can be blocked from accessing the privileges of actually being part of the family (e.g. not being allowed to eat family’s food). The all-encompassing working environment and staggered shift patterns of nannies stop them from having contact with other domestic staff, resulting in a lack of worker solidarity and an exacerbation of these negative psychological effects. What’s more, the workers’ emotions can be played with by the employer as they form bonds through caregiving, in an environment where the caregiver is ultimately at risk of dismissal and the severing of these bonds.

The difficulty of measuring ‘feminised’ emotional labour partly lies in the way this work is societally understood in highly personalised terms i.e. a refusal to do this work shows a worker’s personal unkindness. At the heart of this lies a deeply misogynistic belief that women should be naturally expected to take on such roles – and enjoy them as an inherent part of their femininity. This is reproduced in the workplace in the unpaid emotional labour often involved in ‘feminised’ work.

This understanding of emotional labour is particularly distasteful when considering the importance of its role in reproducing capitalism. The harmful impacts of capitalism are smoothed over by the emotional labour of women in the domestic sphere, restoring the capitalist workforce so that they can continue to be productive workers. In other words, women are expected to revel in the process of reproducing an economic system which oppresses them – or be considered as personally at fault.

Wider economic factors inform the rise in exploitative feminised roles. Live-in nanny roles are increasingly attractive to young people unable to afford rents in large cities. The raft of policies which make up the government’s ‘hostile environment’ for those with insecure migration status make refugees and migrants particularly vulnerable to exploitative employment practices – particularly informal arrangements where food and accommodation are considered a form of payment.

Nanny work is an example of how feminised labour can be easily exploited in our current economic system, with the likelihood that much of the work involved will go unacknowledged, despite the significant emotional burden on the worker. To achieve a more just society and economy which works for everyone, we need to challenge what counts and does not count as work, and dismantle the structures of oppression which create the definitions currently so widely understood. It is only by asking these fundamental questions that we can seek to disrupt current hierarchies of power.