Food is a Battleground
How live-in domestic workers are policed through food. Words by Veronica Deutsch with testimonials from those affected.
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 7: Food and Policy. Each essay in this season will investigate how policy intersects with eating, cooking and life. Our tenth newsletter for this season is by Veronica Deutsch. In her essay, Veronica writes about the ‘family worker exemption’ policy under which live-in nannies, au pairs and domestic workers are excluded from UK employment rights. The piece focusses on the use of food as a tool of control by employers, with testimonials from those affected.
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Food is a Battleground
The use of food as a tool of control by employers of live-in nannies and domestic workers. By Veronica Deutsch, with testimonials from those affected.
UK households employ tens of thousands of in-home workers – nannies, au pairs, and migrant domestic workers – with the workforce concentrated in the most affluent boroughs of London. Relationships between in-home childcare workers and their employers blur the line between professional and personal, as workers often form close relationships with the children in their care and are privy to intimate moments in their employer’s family life. And while live-out nannies and domestic workers tend to be on the receiving end of better pay and treatment, those who ‘live in’ face some of the poorest conditions across both the gig and childcare sectors.
The policy underpinning these exploitative live-in situations is the ‘family worker exemption’, which, since its introduction under New Labour in 1999, has excluded all childcare workers who live in the homes of their employers from UK employment rights, like the right to annual leave, maximum working hours, statutory break times, and the minimum wage. Originally intended to facilitate cultural exchange between European au pairs and British families, in practice it enables the exploitation of young, usually migrant women from across the world. Under the exemption policy there is no lower limit to what families can pay their workers. The government guidance on ‘pocket money’ for au pairs suggests £90 for a working week of ‘around 30 hours’, but in practice workers are often asked to work 50-plus-hour weeks for as little as £1 per hour.
In this professionally ambiguous workplace, food is a key battleground, often closely regulated by employers. Despite their employment sites also being their homes, many of these workers face stringent rules around what, when, and where they eat. Workers’ ability to cook for themselves is tightly controlled, and they are often left without access to regular meals or money to buy food.
When I started nannying in 2013 after dropping out of school, I looked after two girls under the age of five, and food defined my working life. The parents worked long hours but persisted in buying vast quantities of food, leaving it all week, then clearing the fridge out at weekends and dumping the rancid dairy and meat in the bin for me to take out come Monday morning. I remember in particular a display of fruit in the middle of their kitchen island: a cornucopia of fat, ripe peaches and kiwiberries; endless apples and Queensland mangoes, which they’d buy by the trayful and which I’d squirrel away for dinner, putting plums and pears into my backpack and eating them on the train. All day, I rattled around their enormous house doing long shifts, often 14 hours, and this theft – though I wasn’t proud of it – was a small resistance.
In 2020, I helped to establish the Nanny Solidarity Network (NSN), a grassroots mutual aid organisation for migrant nannies and au pairs in London. The group went on to establish the first trade union branch for nannies and au pairs with the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB).’In 2021, the Low Pay Commission launched an inquiry into whether or not the ‘family worker exemption’ was fit for purpose, and in October of that year, ruled that it was unlawful (although it is in place until April 2024). When the inquiry started, almost all the stories that the NSN submitted as evidence from workers in the group mentioned food and eating in one way or another. We heard first-hand how migrant workers in domestic premises were cut off from their cultural heritages and the foods they most wanted to eat, as their employers limited what, where, and when they could cook.
I contacted five of the group’s members for this article and asked them to talk about how food related to their work. What unites these testimonies is the context which makes these forms of oppression possible – the policy that means workers fall through the cracks, left living in houses that they can’t treat as homes.
During Maya’s time au pairing in the UK, she often found herself without regular meals. Though initially her employers would offer to buy her things as part of their weekly shop, it quickly became evident that she was expected to carry out the shops herself – and was often questioned or criticised for the things she chose.
The first host family I worked for used to say that I could add anything I wanted to the supermarket list if I went to the supermarket to do the grocery shopping with them, but it was obviously just extra work that they were giving to me. If I didn’t go to the supermarket to do the food run, I wouldn’t get fed. Many times I couldn’t get what I wanted anyway because they would say, ‘Why do you need yoghurts?’ or, ‘Why do you need these types of fruits?’, since I’d pick things that were different from what they used to buy for themselves, and for me [that] was very hard in the beginning because it was very different from my homeland’s food – especially from what I knew, having recently arrived. I was just trying to make sense of the things I wanted to eat. Towards the end of my stay with them, they wouldn’t buy food anymore, not even for themselves, because they would say they had already eaten during the day. Since the kid I was taking care of was a toddler, he was eating just snacks and noodles for his whole day of food. Unfortunately, that was one of the reasons why I left them. Maya, 24, Brazil
Esme found herself working for a family who put locks on the fridge, and forced her to eat in time with a metronome to slow the pace of her eating.
When I first started as an au pair, one of the families I worked for had a classic ‘clean eating’ approach to food: no meat, no salt, no sugar, all organic, freshly prepared ingredients. It wasn’t my personal preference, but I was happy to accommodate their wishes. The child had a kidney condition that meant she was constantly hungry, and this became a bit of an issue – the child would often be found raiding the fridge for food when my back was turned. In the end, locks were put on the fridge, but it established a very heightened atmosphere around food, which came to a head when the mother felt that the child had picked up a habit of eating too fast – a habit she decided was picked up from me. One day, she came home with a metronome for me to eat in time with in an effort to solve the problem. That was when I decided it was best for me to move on. Esme, 36, UK
If food is a shared language, then nannies and au pairs are often stripped of their voices. In the domestic space and with limited money of their own, workers are forced to become adept at eating like they haven’t been there. This shame and isolation – bred from the secretive way workers are forced to eat – is corrosive, and has knock-on effects on how confident workers feel in challenging other forms of exploitation they may be facing.
Zaira’s au pair family would not allow her to join for mealtimes, and she was often forced to eat the children’s leftovers instead of cooking for herself.
My first year in the UK, I lived with a family as an au pair. I was doing my training at the time and helping my boss, a single mum with three children, for around 20 hours – plus multiple babysitting nights – per week. Dinnertime was quite shocking for me because the mum would leave the dinner on the kitchen table before the children came back from school instead of us eating all together. There wasn’t any portion separation, so whatever was on the table, the children would eat it when they came back from school, and I could eat the rest after I finished my work, whatever was left. I felt so undervalued and poorly treated. I did try a couple of times to cook some food for myself in the evening instead. However, the mum wasn’t happy that there was a cooking smell in the home late [in the] evening, so I had to stop. I felt that I was not welcome to cook my food as she was cooking, but the problem was she wasn’t checking that there was enough left over for me to eat after the kids had finished. At the same time, I don’t want to stop children from what they are having if they are hungry, and I was too naïve to tell her that most days there was no food left for me. On Fridays, the mum would cook food like chicken and beef, which I love. However, on Friday evenings, I was off while they were having their Shabbat dinner. I was never welcomed for a Shabbat dinner, and I was warned that this was their family time. I would patiently wait for their dinner to finish and then sneak into the kitchen to have my dinner, eating it cold from the fridge if there was anything left. While food had previously been a highly appreciated, plentiful, and overly shared thing, it has quickly turned into something I feel almost guilt and shame for needing: a lonely, joyless part of my life. Zaira, 26, Egypt
Beyza worked for a vegetarian family during the Covid lockdowns and was banned from bringing fish into the house.
I agreed to take a live-in position for a vegetarian family, but I wasn’t aware beforehand that I was not allowed to consume any meat. I am not a big red-meat eater; however, I love fish as I am from the Mediterranean, and during the interview the family mentioned that I [could] consume whatever I wish[ed], despite their diet. I thought this wouldn’t be a problem. The role was to oversee two girls, 14 months and 28 months. We had an OK-ish start; it was quite hectic since both children were very active, and we were not allowed to go outside because of Covid. I was doing 13-hour shifts, 7am–8pm, with an hour of break in between, and almost all of my meals were with the kids. It was a very long day at home. Usually, I was too tired to do anything afterwards, so I would mostly just sleep. The family had an open-style kitchen, so it was their living room as well, and this meant that even after I’d finished my shift the parents would be occupying the kitchen, and I felt too uncomfortable to go and cook for myself. Even on my off days, I would try to wake up before others woke up so I could have a ten-minute breakfast in peace.
On one of my off days I wanted to cook fish for myself, so I went shopping and got my fish – it was a ready meal which I only wanted to place in the oven and would eat in my room. I watched and waited for a quiet time to use the kitchen – not lunchtime or dinnertime, obviously; sometime in between – and when I finished my cooking, the family bumped into me in the kitchen. The girls started asking me, ‘What are you eating? Can I have it?’ etc, and I quickly but kindly answered that it was my lunch and I was having it in my room, and sorry but I couldn’t share. Later, I was warned by the family that they didn’t want their children to see me consuming meat, and not to do it again. Since it was Covid, eating outside wasn’t an option, and they also didn’t want me to have takeaway because they believed takeaway would bring Covid. I was only able to cope for around five months in that house, and then I quit. It was a shame because I actually loved the children. Beyza, 28, Turkey
When the jobs are good, as they sometimes are, food can act as a common language. One of my favourite nannying jobs was for a family who owned a deli, and the dad, who was usually incredibly quiet, would come home on days where he’d received new stock practically bursting at the seams with excitement: he’d eagerly hand me finger limes; doughnut samples; slices of fresh truffle, desperate to talk to me about them. One day, he brought home some Arabica tahini, and we sat side by side, eating spoonfuls from the jar. It may seem small, but there is something powerful in what food does in this context – it allows us to bring ourselves to work, to let ourselves see one another, and to let the kids we look after see us. There are good childcare jobs out there, where food can be a positive part of work – but whether you get one is down to luck, and being treated fairly in one’s workplace shouldn’t come down to a roll of the dice.
Becky has had a varied experience of food in her workplace. Some families have enjoyed sharing meals with her and teaching her new ways of cooking.
I had a boss who, when I started, had in their contract that I was only able to eat with them once a day from their food. I hated how she’d take account of what I was eating, when I was eating. And I’ve always shared my food with the children [I look after], so if I’m eating something that I know [the] kids haven’t tried before, I’ll often give them some of mine to share. But I didn’t do that with this family because, you know, it goes two ways. They also requested that I bring in tea and coffee, which I’ve never had in another job. It was quite an interesting role [laughs], and quite a short role, thank goodness!
But I love sharing with families, you know, I want to be able to bring them things that I’ve made. And you know, I always used to make a Christmas cake with my last family: we used to share a lot. They’d make me Chinese food – they were a Chinese family – and we did a lot of sharing like that. It was a community rather than a job. They wanted to learn about English foods, so I used to make them shepherd’s pies, and in turn they would teach me how to do some of the traditional foods that they did, which was lovely, and I still use those recipes now and really, really enjoy them. And I think that’s something that I’ve learned in every single job: I’ve learned new recipes, I’ve learned new ways of cooking, and my cooking has definitely evolved from where it was a few years ago – [when it] was very English and quite plain – to kind of having a repertoire of many different cultures, many different cuisines, and I love that. I was given an Indian cookbook years ago, and it’s one of my favourite things to cook from still. I think it’s really amazing. That’s what I love about my job … learning through different cultures and different ways of cooking and, you know, different food methods and things. I’ve spent a lot of time bulk-cooking for my families, and a few weekends ago I had a Friday off [from] my family. And because I had a lot of time off, I said, ‘I will do some cooking for you over the weekend.’ And so I made a moussaka, I made a cowboy casserole, I made shepherd’s pie and a few other things as well, which went down a treat, you know, and that’s because I really like and respect them. It goes two ways. Becky, 36, UK
After years of campaigning, the family worker exemption policy is due to be scrapped in April 2024. But while the removal of the policy is a landmark win for the workforce, its abolition alone cannot disrupt the broader issue of domestic work, and those who carry it out, being taken for granted. While childcare will be a key issue in the next general election, the conversation focuses on formal childcare (such as nurseries and childminders) to facilitate the careers of ‘working women’, conveniently ignoring that many workers are juggling unpaid childcare responsibilities themselves. Growing anti-migrant sentiment, likewise, is making it difficult to get the stories of these workers on MPs’ agendas, where change could be effected.
So, how to move forward? Well, where state and regulatory bodies have let workers down, workers are coming together to protect one another. Cooking and sharing food has been a way of building community among workers who are often isolated. Voice of Domestic Workers, a domestic worker-led campaign organisation, runs classes for their members every Sunday; here, workers can share a meal, socialise, and learn more about how they can actively participate in the group. Nanny Solidarity Network, likewise, runs regular picnics for its members – an opportunity to meet other nannies and learn more about what the group is. From these networks, women are bandying together to make sure that their fellow workers know their rights. Workers are often unable to cook foods they recognise for themselves, share parts of their heritage with the children in their care, or participate in the ritual of family mealtimes – but they are also, increasingly, feeding one another. Punitive policy disenfranchises us, but it can do the opposite, too. When childcare workers gather in collective spaces, we can eat, cook, feed, and share with impunity – and when we do that, we can build the power to transform our workplaces.
Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of those giving testimonials.
Veronica Deutsch is a researcher focusing on childcare based in South London. She is currently completing a PhD at the University of Bristol exploring how informal childcare workers’ identities are shaped by migration status, ethnicity, and class, and how this influences their ability to build collective power. She previously worked as a nanny for nine years.
Sinjin Li is the moniker of Sing Yun Lee, an illustrator and graphic designer based in Essex. Sing uses the character of Sinjin Li to explore ideas found in science fiction, fantasy and folklore. They like to incorporate elements of this thinking in their commissioned work, creating illustrations and designs for subject matter including cultural heritage and belief, food and poetry among many other themes. They can be found at www.sinjinli.com and on Instagram at @sinjin_li
Vittles is edited by Sharanya Deepak, Rebecca May Johnson and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.