‘Backpacker au pairs’ and lessons from Hong Kong

A few days ago ABC News published a piece titled Calls for ‘backpacker au pair’ visa and industry regulation as parents seek affordable child care, detailing how a group called the “Indonesia Institute” was suggesting that migrant workers should be allowed to enter Australia to work as low-cost childcare providers.

Childcare centre at the former Royal Women's Hospital

The Indonesia Institute is Perth-based non-governmental organisation which from their on their web site and list of board members don’t appear to be overtly political.

However in their 2014 submission to the Productivity Commission public inquiry into Childcare and Early Childhood Learning, they veer into very “out there” territory:

The Institute submits that immigration and labour regulations should be liberalised to allow carers from Indonesia (and other Asian countries) to work as nannies in Australia at a cost acceptable to both nannies and the majority of Australian families.

It will be helpful for purpose of this submission to briefly describe how the Institute’s proposal might work. The Institute considers that the following description is realistic, based on the experience in other countries.

  • a. An Asian nanny would be paid approximately AUD 200 per week. This is twice the amount a nanny would earn in Indonesia.
  • b. A percentage of the AUD 200 would be paid to an Australian agency to oversee the scheme (as is done in Singapore). The Institute considers it crucial that an Australian agency would have oversight of the scheme to ensure the welfare of Asian nannies while they are in Australia.
  • c. The host family would lodge a bond with the Australian agency. The bond would be held against the possibility that the nanny was not paid or was mistreated.
  • d. The host family would provide and pay for:
    • i. private medical insurance,
    • ii. accommodation and food,
    • iii. a work clothing allowance.
  • e. The nanny would be entitled to every Sunday off and a return airfare home for 2 weeks every year (as is done in Hong Kong).

Note the comparison to Hong Kong, as the proposal from the Indonesia Institute is a carbon copy of the ‘Foreign Domestic Helper’ system in Hong Kong – one which has been compared to slavery; and lead to accusations of human trafficking, forced labour, torture, and physical abuse against those who come to the city to work.

Later in their submission, the Indonesia Institute comments how sustainable similar programs elsewhere:

As is demonstrated elsewhere in the Asia Pacific region (for example, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan) the use of caregivers from developing Asian countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines is market based and therefore highly sustainable. There is no requirement for governments to subsidise the provision of care in those countries.

They also detail how they believe such a program will help developing nations in Asia:

The Institute considers that the Institute’s proposal would open a new, highly sustainable, avenue of funds to developing nations in the Asia Pacific region. This is highly sustainable because it is not aid but the result of value-adding economic activity. Indonesian expatriate carers typically return to Indonesia with sufficient funds to purchase property or set themselves up in business. This enduring positive effect in developing countries has support in recent economic literature on development.

However the big point that the Indonesia Institute doesn’t address is the potential for the exploitation of migrant workers – bringing people with little money and no support network into a situation of what is essentially servitude to their employers.

Footnote

Turns out this idea is nothing new – back in 2014 The Age published an article titled Call for Asian nannies to reduce childcare costs that covered the same ground, again quoting the Indonesia Institute.

Further reading

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