Migrant women are raising their voices against an unjust childcare system: it’s time to listen to them

Veronica Deutsch Gender, Influencing, Women's Economic Empowerment

Whether depriving nannies of labour rights, or locking mothers out of child benefit, the UK can be a callous place for migrant childcare workers and parents, says Veronica Deutsch. And the battle to reform the childcare system starts by listening to the women affected.

Dimensions of injustice: a protest by the Nanny Solidarity Network, which campaigns for a better deal for nannies and au pairs throughout the UK (picture: Nanny Solidarity Network)

The conversation about good quality, accessible and affordable childcare in England tends to focus on professional families and more ‘formal’ types of childcare, such as nurseries and childminders. But this means ignoring the big injustices around care faced by migrants, in particular: 

  • Migrants working as nannies, domestic workers or au pairs in private homes – the majority of whom are migrant and racialised women – who often cannot access basic labour rights; and 
  • Migrant parents, many of whom, under Britain’s ”hostile environment” regime, are not entitled to key childcare benefits.

In this blog, we will look at the injustices both these groups face and highlight the need for campaigns for reform of the childcare system to support and listen to grassroots migrant groups. (This blog focuses on England, as the rules in other parts of the UK can vary).

How the rules deprive migrant workers of their rights

One of the most insidious UK anti-migrant policies is the ‘family worker exemption’ – a policy that excludes live-in domestic workers from the national minimum wage. This includes those working in their employers’ homes – such as domestic workers, nannies, and au pairs – who are predominantly migrant and racialised women and who do not have formal employment agreements in place.

Live-in domestic workers do not fall under UK employment law, which means they are not even entitled to a wage if the worker is treated ‘as a member of the family’. They are also excluded from maximum working time regulations that cap a working week at 48 hours, meaning many are forced to work 50-plus hours a week, and deprived of employment rights such as maternity leave, sick pay, annual leave, and regular breaks.

The exemption was introduced in 1999 to make it possible for families to host au pairs for “pocket money” as part of a so-called cultural exchange, but in practice it has exposed primarily migrant women to exploitation and abuse. Many report physical abuse, a lack of access to food, and homelessness if they speak up about their conditions (because employers then kick them out). These women also have no recourse to trade unions due to not being counted as workers.

…yet promises to scrap these unjust rules have still not been kept

In 2021, the Low Pay Commission – an independent body that advises the UK government on national minimum wage rates – launched an inquiry into the exemption. Many migrant-led groups submitted evidence to this inquiry, including:

  • Nanny Solidarity Network, a grassroots mutual aid group that supports migrant nannies & au pairs;
  • Kalayaan, a small, London-based charity that campaigns around migrant domestic worker rights; and
  • Voice of Domestic Workers, a campaign organisation that provides on-the-ground support to migrant domestic workers.

After considering this evidence, the commission declared the exemption had provided a “loophole for employers to exploit live-in workers” (see p156 of its “National Minimum Wage report) and deprived them of minimum wage protections. It added the workers affected were “already most at risk of exploitation. Most of these workers are migrant women, meaning that the exemption is likely to be indirectly discriminatory”.

In March 2022, the government agreed to scrap the exemption, but has still not announced a timescale to do this – or any further details. As a result, this punitive policy is still in place, exacerbating poverty among the many migrant and racialised women who provide paid care in private homes.

How the hostile environment blocks access to childcare

The second big injustice is felt by migrant parents. The UK’s so-called “hostile environment” regime for migrants means that many families who have the right to work in the country (specifically those with Limited Leave to Remain) are blocked from accessing public funds through the No Recourse to Public Funds condition (NRPF).

As a result, many migrant parents are barred from accessing critical support including child benefit, child tax credits and the tax-free childcare scheme, even if they are legally employed. Even though children in migrant families are entitled to 15 hours a week free childcare, lack of information often means that uptake remains too low.

Childcare is already unaffordable for the majority of families in the UK, but these exclusionary NRPF rules hamper migrant families, and especially mothers, from accessing even the very limited support there is, and ultimately hamper access to paid work.

So what are campaigners doing to end these injustices?

The many organisations campaigning for childcare reform will need to take their lead from the grassroots activists already making the link between migration and childcare.

In November 2022, the Nanny Solidarity Network coordinated an open letter to the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) which demanded that the government act to remove the family worker exemption. This letter was co-signed by the Anti Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU), Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), Voice of Domestic Workers, Women’s Budget Group, and the Trades Union Congress (TUC), who are all already working to highlight the problems around migration and care.

Now, these groups have joined forces to form a coalition that is campaigning for the UK government to deliver on its promise to scrap the family worker exemption. On 10th March 2023, ATLEU published a statement from the coalition, highlighting that while the exemption remains in place, it “continues to be used by abusive employers to deny vulnerable women a proper salary for their work”. This statement was co-signed by over 20 groups including the Trades Union Congress (TUC), Migrants Organise, UNISON, and Freedom United.

Meanwhile, as the above groups fight for migrant workers, fantastic grassroots groups such as Happy Baby Community, West London Welcome, and The Magpie Project are boosting the voices of migrant families.

Let’s amplify the voices of migrant women fighting for a better deal

Now we need to do more to incorporate these voices into the mainstream. We need to see all workers in the childcare sector, especially migrant, refugee and racialised women, represented in campaigning and influencing initiatives, and we need to ensure that proposed reforms to the care sector don’t leave minoritised workers and families out in the cold.

We also need to move away from limiting narratives that frame childcare as a “parent-nursery” issue, and instead spell out how our society systemically undervalues care, and how structural racism and hostile environment policies are key drivers of today’s care crisis in the UK.

By centering the voices of these workers and parents, we can build a powerful case for a more robust childcare system that is fairer to all.


Veronica Deutsch

Veronica Deutsch is a researcher and organiser focusing on care labour and migration. She is co-founder and former Director of the Nanny Solidarity Network (NSN) and also helped to establish the Childcare Workers’ Solidarity Fund and the Independent Workers of Great Britain’s Nannies & Au pairs branch – the first trade union branch for nannies & au pairs in the UK. She emigrated to the UK in 2017 and has also worked as a nanny.

This is the third in a series of blogs for International Women’s Day. Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn to keep up with the latest posts and keep us with Oxfam’s “Feminist Power” campaign here and by looking for the hashtag #FeministPower on social media