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updated 9:22 AM UTC, Jun 24, 2017
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Cultural Literacy; the Patron Saint of Ayi

For a long time in China, the nanny (locally referred to as “ayi”, meaning “auntie”) was considered to be an inferior group with low social status and educational background, while few people with college diplomas or above were willing to engage in the vocation.

According to data from the National Bureau of Statistics, in China’s 2014 domestic service industry, ayis with a college diploma or above accounted for 5.8 percent of all ayis in Beijing, 4.1 percent in Shanghai, 4.3 percent in Shenzhen and 2.5 percent in Guangzhou. With nearly a decade of data, according to the Jiangsu Province Family Service Industry Association, 114 people have a college degree and above (30 undergraduates and 84 junior college students) among the registered 3,581 housekeeping staff, while the majority still only have low academic qualifications.

However, urban residents’ demand for highly-educated nannies has been increasing in recent years. High cultural literacy, a strong learning ability and excellent communication skills are the main factors that bring more competitiveness to this group. “They are more clever than ordinary ayis. I do not need to explain too much because they always quickly know what I mean”, said Zhang Zixin, a 4-year–old girl’s mother in Nanjing. According to the Morning News, existing axis can only meet 30 percent of the market’s needs in Shanghai. There are at least 100 thousand job vacancies, of which approximately one third require highly educated ayis. However, the current number is 3,000 or so, creating a great disparity compared with market demand. This situation is similar in other big cities in China. “It is very difficult to hire a young ayi who can not only clean the house but also educate my daughter. You know my job is too busy to look after her, so an educational background is of great importance”, Zhang Zixin added.

Compared with some other service oriented jobs, educated ayis can earn more on account that they provide a full range of customised services including family catering, gardening, home secretary or even driver. “In general, an ordinary ayi can earn ¥3000 every month, while a senior nurse can make ¥6500 or more in Nanjing”, said Qin Chunhua, a 48-year-old ayi with a junior school diploma. Rich people are willing to pay high wages as long as the ayi can reach their standard. “A Mr. Lee, age forty-four, is often on official business, so he told us he would like an educated ayi to take care of the whole family, and you would not believe the annual salary is ¥120,000, far exceeding many graduates’ first paying wage”, said Du Hong, representing the Quan Xin Housekeeper Company.

Since highly educated ayis have an almost immeasurable market, why do few people with college diplomas or above engage in the vocation? What is the public attitude? Harbouring doubt, this correspondent issued a total of 220 questionnaires in three universities to investigate college students’ awareness of the domestic industry and employment will. The results showed that 94 percent of respondents have never been in contact with a highly-educated ayi. When asked whether they are willing to work as an ayi if they fail to find another satisfying job in the future, 93 percent chose no. The three main reasons included no personal interest, professional counterparts and bleak industry outlook. Most interesting to note was that 87 percent of those surveyed support highly educated people entering the domestic service industry. Yet, their attitude reaches the opposite conclusion. “Although Chinese culture has always stressed that there is no distinction among occupation, society still remains prejudice of ayis. I support the development of this job, but I do not want to be an ayi in case that I might be looked down upon by others”, said Luo Xiaojie, a senior student from Nanjing Normal University.

College students’ unwillingness to work as an ayi may have a connection to a lack of safeguards. In today’s China, the three kinds of domestic service modes are the acquaintance employment system, intermediary system and employee system. The former two both lack basic labour security. Generally, employers and ayis only reach a verbal agreement with no written employment contract. There is no minimum wage, let alone paid leave. An ayi’s work is very unstable. If the employer is not satisfied, the ayi can be dismissed at any time. At present, Guangzhou has 1,447 domestic service companies, among which only the largest dozen adopt the employee system, while the vast majority take on the intermediary system. As a result, domestic workers sign service contracts with the company, rather than labour contracts. Service contracts do not contain the Five Social Insurances and Housing Fund, providing no labour security to protect ayis.

The famous family service brand "Good Su Sister”, founded by Jiangsu Province Women's Federation, only provides training services, and does not sign labour contracts with domestic workers. It can be seen that even with the support of government, the domestic industry's protection is still not perfect. “Household income is good, but there is no pension and work-related injury insurance, so that higher education professionals are absolutely worried. Under the circumstances where other companies provide social insurance, it is difficult for college students to regard this job as a lifelong career, but instead as a temporary, transitional occupation. The turnover is very high”, said Li Xueqin, the manager of Jiangsu Province Family Service Industry Association.

However, there still remain some young women who choose to become ayis after graduation. Guo Yao, a 25-year-old girl with bachelor's degree told this correspondent of her experience. “Two years ago I could not find a satisfactory job, and then through chance I met my current employer, just like The Ayi Dairies heroine. Love for the little child and the high wage drove me to become an ayi. I like my job, and parents support my choice so there is no pressure.”

In order to attract more new blood such as Guo Yao and change the current situation, the Jiangsu Province Family Service Industry Association is working hard to persuade more college graduates into the profession. “We call them Family Assistant instead of ayi to change public’s prejudice. You know forms of address really matter, so this effort may make people view the job differently”, Li Xueqin added. “We also plan to set up home service classes in universities, aiming at improving ordinary ayis’ cultural levels so that they may enhance their competitiveness. With two years of study, ayis can gain an associate diploma, regardless of age.”

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