Au pairs represent one of the last bastions of unregulated childcare. It is therefore unsurprising to witness the latest round of criticisms of the au pair system. The Peter Dutton visa saga has offered a convenient hook to launch a fresh offensive on a system that — for now — has escaped heavy regulation.
It is also typical that calls for more regulation are not led by parents who actually use au pairs, but from other interest groups. Of course, there may be sensible reasons for changing the au pair visa system — particularly if it protects au pairs from exploitation and makes it easier for them and the families that employ them to comply with immigration laws. However, the government should remember why the current au pair system is so popular in the first place.
Firstly, it presents a substitute for the over-priced and over-regulated childcare industry. In contrast to formal childcare, au pairs can provide a cost-effective, convenient and flexible form of childcare. Their growing popularity also represents a rational consumer response to regulation. When governments regulate something, it becomes more expensive.
Naturally, consumers then have an incentive to seek out unregulated, less costly substitutes. Little wonder the number of au pairs in Australia has reportedly reached 10,000 and continues to grow.
Secondly, au pairs allow parents to exercise autonomy and choice when it comes to the type of childcare they use. Some parents, for example, may prefer at-home care to centre-based childcare. And it is certainly not just wealthy families who use au pairs, despite attempts to re-cast the debate as a class issue. If anything, they can be a practical option for some middle-income parents, who cannot afford to pay well over $100 a day for childcare.
Indeed, it is ironic that we have an over-regulated childcare sector that receives $8 billion in subsidies annually — and still fails to deliver affordable care. And yet critics claim the real problem is the au pair system — which actually provides what parents want: affordable and flexible childcare.
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