What do housekeepers, nannies and sex workers have in common?
For the most part, we’re all women doing work that society expects women to do for free.
Yesterday, I said goodbye to five years of working with children and young people. Since I started working at 18 I have been employed as a private tutor, a children’s activity supervisor, glitter tattoo artist, parade performer, a student intern at an early learning centre, an educator at an after-school care facility, and finally as a babysitter and a nanny. My whole working life up to this point has been in care and education, and primarily in informal cash-in-hand arrangements.
My work choices are profoundly impacted by the ways in which I am not able-bodied. I have a heart condition and genetically deformed feet, which rules out not only obvious ‘physical labour’ jobs, but also things that other 20-somethings are expected to do, like spending hours on your feet at a retail job or stacking shelves. My anxiety is such that I am not exactly a people person, and I cannot drive —which is extremely troublesome when you live in what is essentially the Outer Rim of Perth’s strained and inefficient public transport system. My limited friendship circle and lack of family in Australia also meant that all I got out of Perth’s notorious nepotism of “social networking” was some school holiday work from a children’s entertainment company run by some family friends. Add to that the necessity of working around university commitments, and I found it very difficult to locate a job which suited my circumstances.
Luckily, I could capitalise on the privilege of being a “good student” from an elite school, and I became a private English tutor. It was a little one-woman business in which I set my own rules and my own rate, as well as learning how to be professional and manage my money. But the most important lesson I learned was to have confidence in my abilities and to value my time and labour. I learned to resist the temptation to do my work “as a favour” to other people, in part from facing some of the impracticalities and implications of investing vast amounts of time on unpaid labour.
When I came back to Perth after a year at the ANU though, being a tutor was no longer feasible. I was no longer familiar with the curriculum, and I had relied on referrals from old teachers and connections with friends’ younger siblings for work. When those contacts dried up I found it was difficult to source work as an English tutor when you have a non-Anglo name. I switched from tutoring to become a childcare worker, drawing on my casual work with a children’s entertainment company and my informal experience looking after my cousins. I got a job at an after-school day care centre, but left after a few months — there was almost unbearable tension between the admin staff, who were full-time career workers, and rest of the staff, who were mostly young students and graduates who were eagerly looking forward to better, better-paying opportunities. I began advertising as a babysitter and eventually found work in a FIFO household with two children, which transitioned into a six-day-a-week nannying gig.
Collage by Dot Mason
Being a nanny is vastly different to babysitting; you are expected to be actively engaged at all times, with minimal screen time, and to also play a part in discipline, education and household chores. Unfortunately, the pay is exactly the same. I took a significant pay cut when I left a job in the industry to become privately employed, and any attempts to negotiate a raise were met with accusations of being greedy or money-grubbing. Even when my hours were cut to the point where I was essentially only a casual worker, and therefore in the industry would have been entitled to casual loading, my own financial needs were dismissed. Parents will look at other people advertising a very low rate to try to chasten you into being happy with your paycheck, but the norm of a scandalously low income doesn’t make it okay. Lack of affordable childcare is a problem, but it’s not a childcare worker’s problem. There are other, more affordable, subsidised options beyond hiring a private nanny; especially as children grow older and can go to various pre-kindy and kindy programs. Openly talking about the financial strain of childcare and implying that your nanny and her absurd monetary demands are directly contributing to said strain is an unfair stress to level on an employee — you wouldn’t bully a plumber or an electrician to provide free or cheap labour because renovation is expensive.
An unavoidable part of being self-employed is having to talk about money, but even now money talk is very taboo. In our society and economy paid labour is the primary means by which someone can be considered a valuable member of society, yet talking about money — or even just asking for the money that you are entitled to — is considered crass and impolitic. The parents paying me were always older and financially secure, and I was always conscious of the power imbalance in our working relationship. Despite my anxiety, I had to learn to not only be professional when dealing with clients but also firm and clear-headed about expecting compensation for my time. When you are a woman providing a service, people expect a certain level of leeway. My advice: do not allow that. Women in our society are expected to provide free labour, and often do without meaning to; these social norms will impact the way people consider you and your time. It is important to set a precedent that you expect correct compensation, especially if you are a young woman and/or a woman of colour, like I was when I first started working. When people take advantage of you once, they will expect to be able to do it again.
Openly talking about the financial strain of childcare and implying that your nanny and her absurd monetary demands are directly contributing to said strain is an unfair stress to level on an employee — you wouldn’t bully a plumber or an electrician to provide free or cheap labour because renovation is expensive.
And let me get this clear: the going rate for a childcare worker of any description is scandalously low. As many news reports about the recent childcare worker strike indicate, many childcare workers are paid about $21 an hour — about half the national average. In my job at the care centre, I was paid $19 with 25 per cent casual loading. As a privately-employed nanny, I was paid $20 when I had one child and $25 for two; as a tutor I could easily charge $10–$15 more per hour, even before I got a degree. Additionally, privately employed nannies go without paid leave, superannuation contributions, or even the security of knowing you can’t randomly get fired or have your hours cut because your family is going to Busselton for a week. As a babysitter, $20 is a fine rate, especially for younger people without qualifications. Babysitting is a casual job with short shifts and flexible hours, there is less pressure to be actively engaged in education and discipline, and when the kids go to bed you’re basically getting paid to sit in an empty house and eat ice cream. Nannying, however, is different. Nannies arrive before the morning commute and leave after the 5pm rush. For those nine-plus hours we deal with all kinds of messes and body fluids, plan fun activities and excursions, somehow discipline children we do not have full authority over, and keep the house clean and tidy. Nannying is a job I did out of love, but love doesn’t pay bills. When I was a nanny I had enough to cover my expenses, and put a little into my savings — but it wasn’t an income on which I could move out, pay rent or board to my parents, feasibly buy or maintain a car, or have a quick weekend getaway. Beyond the low pay rate, my time and labour was simply not valued as much as it was when I was a tutor — I was expected to come in early and finish late with no notice, and there was a notable air of condescension from parents I interacted with at school that I never experienced as a student or a tutor. After having been both a tutor and a nanny, I am very conscious of the way in which we heap gender and class implications on certain kinds of labour. How we consistently value more ‘masculine’ occupations — such as academia — over more ‘feminine’ domestic labour. Childcare work is predominantly performed by women, and like most female-dominated industries workers are routinely underpaid and expected to accept unfair working conditions.
Being a childcare worker is a profoundly feminist act. I don’t fit the typical profile of a stereotypical childcare worker — although the industry is rapidly changing and various social and economic factors have caused more educated young women to enter the industry. I know some people in my social circles looked down on an honours graduate being a nanny, but I never felt like the job was beneath me or not worth my time; enabling mothers to stay in the workforce fosters real social change that generations of women will benefit from. Unfortunately, the hardest part of the job was not the endless toilet accidents or toddler meltdowns, but the profound lack of empathy between employer and employee. I had my hours cut from six to three days a fortnight with very little notice. When this last cut happened, I had just turned down a job with another family that I could have taken if I had known my hours were changing. My employer was very hostile towards any attempts to renegotiate wages, so I found myself working casual hours on a full-time rate without casual loading. I would frequently arrive at work to find my employer was hosting house guests she had not told me about. While these people were always kind and polite, they were an unforeseen and unnecessary distraction, not to mention an additional drain on my emotional labour. It astounded me that my employer did not think for a second that these people could pose a danger to my work — either as a distraction from my very accident-prone child, or that I could be opened up to all kinds of abuse, harassment or assault. These things that would be unacceptable in a public workplace were considered a normal part of private employment. What’s more, a lot of these issues would have been mitigated if the empathy gap between employer and employee could be bridged.
I don’t regret my time as a nanny. I was living at home after graduation and it put some badly-needed funds into my savings account after a year of being unemployed in Canberra. I miss the kids I have looked after terribly, and although a nanny’s influence is limited it is nonetheless meaningful. Although I don’t think a nanny is the best childcare solution for every family, I am nonetheless proud that I enabled many parents to re-enter the workforce. My parents demonstrated in my childhood that working parenthood is difficult, stressful, but ultimately has many benefits for children and families. I grew up knowing that my mother had a life outside of being a parent and she always made sure I knew that any dream was possible, even if I was a woman and even if I wanted children.
However, the systems and social norms around childcare set many childcare workers up for failure; it is a badly paid, poorly-respected job, even though many families rely on childcare workers to keep households functioning. The government needs to recognise that affordable childcare must rely on government support and not ripping off industry workers. For those who are privately employed, families need to realise that being wholly in charge of someone’s income is a huge responsibility. A nanny is ultimately a luxury, not someone who should be pressured into fitting into the family’s finances.
As I am now entering a time of life where a few peers have started families, I hope they will approach the age-old dilemma of childcare with empathy for the underpaid and undervalued workers that keep the economy afloat. And I hope if, and when, I ever have to consider childcare options, that our societal attitudes towards motherhood, working and childcare have changed for the better.