Brexit has had a massive effect on the au pair industry in the UK, but could there be some hope for its revival?
Childcare is a massive issue for UK parents – not just its cost but its availability as more and more childcare providers close. Au pairs may not be a solution for many, but for some they have provided a more flexible option. In the past, that is. Because the British au pair industry has almost disappeared since Brexit, with many agencies closing shop.
The International Au Pair Association estimates up to 95% of agencies have closed since Brexit. Before Brexit the British Au Pair Agencies Associations (BAPAA) estimated that over 40,000 families in the UK relied on au pairs for childcare.
But could things be about to change? The Sunday Times recently reported that the UK may be considering setting up a scheme to allow au pairs from some European countries back in.
The majority of au pairs in the UK pre-Brexit came from Europe. There are some who continue to come from Commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand, but the numbers are small. Despite intensive lobbying by BAPAA and others, the UK government chose not to include au pairs in any post-Brexit agreement. Some au pairs from EU countries – Monaco, San Marino and Iceland – have been able to access the UK’s reciprocal Youth Mobility Scheme [YMS] to get visas for up to two years, but they must not overstay, have to have at least 2,530K pounds in savings and have to pay a £259 fee and the annual £470 healthcare surcharge. Irish au pairs also have special status because of Ireland’s close trading relationship with the UK.
Despite the gloom around the industry in the UK, with experts saying those who have closed down are unlikely to reopen, hopes have been raised recently that the UK is looking to extend the YMS to France, Spain, Germany and Switzerland. Brexiteers, however, are opposed.
The UK approach seems to rest on bilateral agreements with EU countries which will take longer to negotiate. Patricia Brunner, Managing Director of the International Au Pair Association [IAPA], says the EU wanted to include au pairs in the Brexit agreement, but the UK government was opposed. It started a petition in 2022 to promote a Europe-wide mobility scheme, but despite ongoing EU support, this has now closed.
Brexit is not the only issue facing the industry, which suffered badly during Covid. Brunner says that before Brexit, the UK used to be an attractive country for European au pairs in part because English is widely taught and is important career-wise. The US is further away and the US programme is not as flexible as the EU one. Brunner says that IAPA still hears from young Europeans wanting to work in the UK as au pairs. IAPA tells them not to go. Some families don’t know about the changes, she says, and invite young people. They can end up in an illegal situation, arriving on a tourist visa under which they are banned from doing paid work. “We don’t recommend that to anyone,” says Brunner, citing the cases of young Europeans who were arrested and expelled in the early months of Brexit.
Another issue is that au pair visas are intended to be a reciprocal exchange. Young people in the UK have long been less inclined to become au pairs, which may be due in part to the lack of language teaching in the UK. Brunner, who was an au pair in the UK herself, says it is a very enriching experience, exposing young people to another culture and teaching them important skills.
On the other hand, families benefit from exposing their children to a young person from a different culture. “It’s an important cultural exchange for both young people and the host families. Everyone benefits,” she states. “And it’s even more important now with the UK cutting so many ties that there is still an exchange and positive experiences between our countries for young people.”