COVID-19 has highlighted the ongoing crisis of childcare in Australia, with advocates complaining that the federal budget, handed down last month, failed to increase funding for the sector. This is while many young families face both financial and lifestyle stress as they battle to raise a family while earning enough money to pay their bills.
Couples and single parents employed in industries where shift work is required - including nursing, emergency services, and hospitality - are also disadvantaged by a system that fails to meet their needs, as one parent wrote in a submission to a Productivity Commission inquiry into the issue in 2014:
"As a permanent firefighter, I am a shift worker. My roster is an eight-day rolling roster, so though I can tell which days and nights I am working for the next 10 years, they are different days and nights every week. Therefore, regular childcare where I have to nominate a day each week is not an option."
The use of a foreign nanny (or au pair), however, is not exclusively for those parents who are shift workers or those wanting to re-enter the workforce. For families who have disabled children, or elderly parents living in the home, a nanny can be a godsend as they provide the opportunity for parents to spend quality time with their children (or elderly parents) and escape to the local cafe for a coffee a couple of times a week.
Ask any couple who has just returned from working overseas as "expats" what they miss most after returning to Australia. Usually they will say they miss having a live-in nanny who can support the family, as the cost of a full-time Australian childcare worker is usually prohibitive.
When the Productivity Commission ignored the plight of so many families, in desperation many of these families resorted to (during "normal" times) using young foreigners who are here in Australia as backpackers under the subclass 417 Working Holiday visa. These are the same people we currently need, but cannot access, in our fruit-picking and farming industries, because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Whilst the idea of the Working Holiday visa was not specifically designed for nannies and au pairs, it is not illegal for these young people to live with Australian families, and that is where many have ended up. Anecdotal evidence shows that, despite some flaws, the arrangement has not only worked well for shift worker families, but also for those employed in the general workforce, as it releases a significant number of Australian skilled workers (mostly mums) back into the workforce. It also provides families with the peace of mind that their children, and the housekeeping, is in good hands.
Both the Philippines and Indonesia, for example, have thousands of well-trained nanny or au pair staff who speak fluent English, and who have looked after expat families, who would come here if they were offered the chance, and the required visa, to work in Australia.
Under the Working Holiday program there are no rules and guidelines for nannies, but mostly a nanny would be paid about a very affordable $200 to $250 per week whilst in Australia. This is three times more than they would earn back home. In addition, each nanny is afforded free accommodation by their host family, and their food and work clothing is also provided. Most nannies have every Sunday off, and the opportunity to undertake additional casual work outside the family home.
The advantage for the nanny is the ability to earn a significantly higher wage than in their own country, about $800 per week including cash and benefits, and thus be able to send money home. They also learn and build on their English language skills, which can help them in their future careers, while experiencing life in Australia, thus improving cultural understanding between our countries.
If the federal government embraced this idea and moved to create a formal "nanny-au pair visa", this program would provide obvious advantages for Australia - including in an immediate reduction in the demand for childcare facilities. Underemployed and unemployed parents could go back into the workforce if they wished, and for parents wanting to stay at home, they could spend quality time with their children instead of cleaning, cooking and washing dishes. The scheme would also result in a significant reduction in government support benefits, at a time when the federal budget is under intense pressure.
The challenges of this current de-facto nanny system using Working Holiday visas is that there are no safety checks or formal responsibilities in place for either party. A formal "nanny-au pair visa" category would resolve many of these issues, and it would also allow nannies to stay longer with one particular family rather having to move on, as required under the current system.
The informal system works now, but a new system could improve the childcare needs of thousands of Australian families.
- Ross Taylor is president of the WA-based Indonesia Institute, and grandfather-carer of five-year-old Ember.