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Throughout lockdown, as nurseries shut their doors, Facebook groups for mums and nannies were flooded with warnings about hiring dangerous, unregistered childcare workers. Regulation Matters, a group that campaigns for the professionalisation of nannying, expressed its concern that “panicked parents and a shortage of registered childcare provides a wide-open door for unsuitable people to gain access to children and young people.”

Coronavirus has exposed the fragility of our childcare sector. Abandoned by the state and unable to rely on grandparents and nurseries, families across the UK scrambled for solutions – often in the form of at-home, informal childcare. This sector has always been relatively unregulated and for this reason it attracts migrant women who need to work “under-the-radar” as well as working-class women who cannot afford expensive training and qualifications.

For groups like Regulation Matters, “unsuitable” nannies are a threat to our children and therefore minimum standards must be introduced. But enforced regulation and registration will only push the most vulnerable workers into more dangerous and precarious employment if they do not come alongside reform of immigration policies. It is these punitive laws that create an unsafe and unaccountable sector for families and workers.

Home childcarers, including au pairs and nannies, care for children wholly or mainly in the family home. Many work cash-in-hand, so don’t show up in official data, meaning estimates of the size of this “grey economy” vary wildly: Ofsted estimated that there were 10,200 home childcare providers in March 2020, the Children’s Workforce Development Council estimated 36,000 in 2005, while a 2006 study by the now-defunct Sharing Care put the number at over 110,000.

Because such work is relatively unregulated – home childcarers are not required to register with Ofsted, undergo background checks or have liability insurance – it has historically attracted undocumented migrant workers. Approximately 2 million people work in the UK’s informal economy, and while it is nearly impossible to estimate how many of these people are in the childcare sector, the International Labour Organisation estimates that one in five domestic workers is an MDW (migrant domestic worker). Accounting for informal workers, the real figure is likely to be much higher.

Despite our reliance on migrant childcarers, the government has systematically attempted to make it harder for them, as for all migrants, to do their work. The 1971 Immigration Act criminalised “illegal working”, which is defined as working without leave to remain in the UK, or working even if one’s leave to remain does not allow them to work (ie tourist visas). Amendments in 2014 and 2016 escalated sanctions against both workers and employers; someone convicted of the offence can currently face up to 51 weeks in prison, an unlimited fine and the confiscation of earnings as “proceeds of crime”. Labour inspectorates, meant to protect workers by enforcing employment law, routinely report “illegal” workers to the Home Office, and even conduct raids with immigration enforcement.

Migrant childcarers are also vulnerable in sector-specific ways – often fearing deportation if they report labour abuses. Many nanny workers also share homes with their employers, leaving them especially vulnerable. Common experiences include sexual harassment, overwork, not being paid for months, sleeping on the floor, having phones or passports confiscated, and threats of reporting workers to immigration authorities.

Some workers do have a visa, commonly Domestic Workers in a Private Household. Yet this visa is another example of government decisions increasing exploitation and harm for migrant childcare workers. In 2012, Theresa May changed the conditions of the visa so that workers were unable to change employers, effectively tying them to abusive employers. In a 2014 study by Kalayaan, a charity that provides advice, advocacy and support services in the UK for migrant domestic workers, workers who entered the UK on a Domestic Workers in a Private Household visa after 2012 were twice as likely to be physically abused by their employers as those on the pre-2012 visa.

Those workers who do manage to escape abusive households – or who are kicked out – find themselves not just jobless, but homeless. One nanny described coming back to her employer’s house during lockdown to find the locks changed. With no recourse to public funds – a system that denies people with insecure immigration status access to benefits and other forms of state support – workers are forced into destitution.

If we really care about children, parents and workers, then, we need to remove rather than fortify the borders in childcare. The most urgent change – as groups like JCWI, Migrants Organise and Focus on Labour Exploitation (Flex) have all argued – is the repeal of “illegal working”. This would ensure that migrants have the same protections as their fellow workers. As an interim measure, Flex and the Labour Exploitation Advisory Group (LEAG) have called for the introduction of “secure reporting systems” to guarantee that there are at least channels for workers to report problems at work without facing deportation.

Beyond enabling the enforcement of employment law, scrapping “right to work” could improve the quality of childcare provision for everyone. It would mean that all workers could register with Ofsted (provided inaccessible fees were also scrapped), allowing the government to regulate the sector without pushing out its most vulnerable members. It would also make it possible for migrant childcare workers to access the training currently unavailable to them, including on paediatric first aid, safeguarding, domestic violence, nutrition and early years education.

Regulation is an important tool for tackling workplace inequality and exploitation. Equally important is worker organising. Migrant women have been historically excluded from union membership. While the policy interventions described above would remove such barriers, migrant workers are already finding ways to build power within the hostile environment.

Drawing on organising initiatives by other precarious and migrant workers, such as Britain’s Swarm (Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement) and America’s National Domestic Workers Alliance, the Nanny Solidarity Network (NSN) is the first UK-based group organised by and for childcare workers that centres migrants. Established during lockdown, the NSN promotes mutual aid including a coronavirus hardship fund, free English classes and “know your rights” resources. The network is now exploring the possibility of establishing a union branch with the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB).

Groups like these are also campaigning for industry change on a larger scale. The NSN is calling for domestic work to be added to the “skilled work” list for Tier 2 General Worker visas, while groups like LAWRS and Kalayaan are campaigning to reinstate the pre-2012 Overseas Domestic Worker visa, as well as allow routes to settlement for documented domestic workers. The government must take these asks seriously in order to value the vital role care provision plays in enabling the broader economy to run.

The informal economy does not exist in spite of the criminalisation of migrants; it exists because of it. If we truly want to see a safer childcare industry, we must allow all workers in the sector the right to work visibly and with full access to employment rights. Doing so will ensure quality care – for workers and families alike.

Miranda Hall is a researcher at the New Economics Foundation. Veronica Deutsch is a writer, nanny and organiser with the Nanny Solidarity Network.


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