Dragon Year drives up demand
for nannies

Zhang Guiqing has a business diploma but chose to be a confinement nanny, looking after mothers and their newborn babies, when she moved here from north-east Heilongjiang eight years ago.

"The salary was very attractive," said the widow, now 48, referring to the monthly salary of 3,000 yuan (US$474).

The pay cheque is even fatter these days. She can earn 8,000 to 10,000 yuan a month, which is more than what many office executives get.

In recent years, a new generation of affluent Chinese mothers is increasingly turning to outside help and driving up demand and rates for confinement services.

Demand is especially high this year, the Year of the Dragon, which the Chinese consider to be auspicious.

With births this year expected to increase by more than 5 per cent over last year's, many agencies have seen a rise in business and the pay of confinement nannies.

Orders have gone up by 20 per cent compared with the figure last year, and the average starting rate for nannies has risen from 5,000 to 6,000 yuan a month, Yang Zhina, a staff member at a Beijing-based home services agency, told The Straits Times.

Some top nannies can command upwards of 15,000 yuan a month - five times the starting pay of graduates.

New mothers are turning to hired help as they have little, if any, experience taking care of children. Most of them were the only child in the family.

Maggie Fang, 31, who gave birth to a daughter last year, was one of them. She hired a nanny for 4,600 yuan, which is relatively cheap as she had booked half a year in advance.

With the Chinese, particularly those in major cities, marrying and having children later, it also means traditional caregivers like mothers or mothers-in-law may lack the energy to do the job.

Project manager Liu Ke, 34, for one, decided to get help as her parents are in their 60s. "It's a tiring job to be a confinement nanny," she said, noting that they have to take care of the mother and baby almost round the clock.

Many are also willing to pay more for confinement nannies, or yue sao in Chinese, as they are seen as specialists. Among other things, they provide special meals and guidance for novice mothers.

Liu, for example, paid the nanny 6,500 yuan a month, nearly double what her maid gets.

"Any woman who has given birth before can take care of babies, but newborns are very soft, and it's not easy to bathe them," she said.

Many parents also do not mind forking out for a confinement nanny as it is a one-off expense for, at most, three months of services.

"Since they will hire one only once in their lifetime, they don't really mind how much they pay," said Yang.

Those with deeper pockets may even go to confinement centres, some of which are run like five-star hotels, with nurses. But a stay there can cost up to 300,000 yuan a month.

But while the growing demand is good news for confinement nannies, it has sparked calls for the authorities to cap the pay to make their services more affordable.

The high pay of such nannies has also reignited the debate on the value of a university education in China, as many blue-collar workers here earn more than graduates. No wonder that more graduates are keen on this line, noted Madam Zhang, who has met some graduates of early childhood studies in nanny training classes.

But this is one instance when experience, as a mother, counts more than educational level.

As Liu said: "I don't need someone with a PhD, I just need someone who can wipe the baby's backside and prepare meals."

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