Why French Nannies Are Building Their Own Platform Cooperative

Guess what happens when your entire family experiences the darker aspects of the future of work for years? Amazon warehouses, Uber rides, Hopwork assignments, work in family homes, schools, hospitals … . For me, the lived experience of my family highlights the stark realities facing the working poor in France. It showed me the disparities in the digital economy, especially the empty promise of meritocracy for care workers. It has turned my concern into an obsession; these experiences made me an activist.

In 2016, while preparing for my Ph.D. defense, my sister Diara Mar and I joined our mother, Aminata Diouf, at Gribouilli, a non-profit she founded. Aminata, embodying the quintessential Parisian nanny, aimed to address longstanding and novel challenges in the nanny profession, exacerbated by the Internet. Gribouilli now supports 1,500 nannies and is currently developing a platform cooperative to further its mission. Arriving in France from Senegal in the late ’80s without a diploma, Aminata Diouf seized the endless job opportunities of that time period. As a mother of three young girls and after an apprenticeship in retail, she chose part-time work in a school canteen to be close to her children. This path eventually led her to a full-time career as a nanny, a profession she serendipitously fell in love with, while seeking additional income, a common journey for many in her profession.

Nanny care is a sophisticated and essential work that suffers from a lack of recognition and structuring, with terrible consequences on the lives of nannies and also on the families’ lives. It spans two vital sectors: childcare and household work. Their undervalued status historically resonates with perceptions of motherhood as naturally easy, as well as a culture of domination that encompasses servitude and slavery. Nanny care is influenced by historical views that diminish its value, rooted in the belief that such work should not warrant financial compensation and that the workers themselves need not be a focus of concern.

The International Domestic Workers Federation highlights the ongoing issue of nanny modern slavery and pushes for the adoption of the C189 – Domestic Workers Convention. Since its inception in 2011, 36 countries have ratified it, but notably, France is not among them, sparking calls for increased global commitment to domestic worker rights.

The juxtaposition of unpaid and paid work opens a broader discussion on the intrinsic value of nanny care and the worth of this labor itself, challenging traditional perceptions of caregiving roles. The capitalist system resembles a dysfunctional food chain that lacks the ability to recycle its resources and achieve sustainability. Nanny care is one of the few activities at the end of the labor chain, and its economic value is capped, set by default, akin to an adjustment variable. 

Let’s take a family with one working parent looking for a nanny for every time she or he can take care of the baby.

The time of nanny care includes at least the parent’s working hours and commuting time (generally not paid). The only way for it to work is that, regardless of her or his profession, the parent has a significantly higher hourly wage than the nanny to be able to pay her, the landlord, etc. Even with two working parents, or shared nannies, among other arrangements, the equation is not easy. At the scale of the market, the intuitive and widespread answer for entrepreneurs in the space would be to find a niche (which is exclusive) or to make nanny care cheaper than any other job. It is mechanically the same story in most of the countries, since the industry is weakly or non-unionized, if ever unions are authorized.

In France around 2000, the first websites like Bébé Nounou emerged, modernizing traditional neighborhood ad boards for childcare. This shift, often driven by late Generation X or Millennial parents, marked a move from word-of-mouth to online searches for nannies and parenting advice. Concurrently, my mother was just discovering computers, unaware that the digital realm was becoming a pivotal place for job opportunities, including hers.

In the early 2010s, coinciding with Uber’s launch in France, nanny care platforms began to emerge, challenging established agencies. Despite parents increasingly using these platforms, nannies, including Aminata, found themselves marginalized, struggling to adapt to the digital shift due to limited access to and familiarity with technology, such as basic word processing and email. This technological gap left many nannies at a disadvantage in the evolving job market.

The strategy of growth had to be simple, maximizing the database of parents and nannies to any cost by: 1) diversifying the offer with gigs like babysitting to generate cash despite not addressing the demand in nanny care and 2) attracting NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) in nanny care, which was not new out of the digital world.

At that time, the Silicon Valley ideology was gaining momentum, epitomized by Emmanuel Macron’s presidential campaign under the vision of transforming France into a “start-up nation.” This era saw political and economic narratives emphasizing technological empowerment for workers. However, in reality, both experienced nannies’ and beginners’ services were commodified.

Straying from humanist rhetoric and the foundational principles of liberalism, it raises the question: to what extent have these platforms fostered a labor monopsony? This condition, where a single entity dominates the buying side of the labor market, significantly influences wage levels and working conditions to the detriment of workers. A technology (algorithm, user interface, etc.) is indeed never neutral nor is a legal framework (self-employment, wage surveys, etc). In the case of capital-driven nanny care platforms, many negative impacts were observed, extending beyond the digital space, as parents often turn to hegemonic platforms to dictate the work conditions of all the nannies and the criteria of professionalism.

At Gribouilli, nannies with decades of experience in the industry have described a significant shift in their careers and the history of their profession. For the first time, they have faced unemployment and had to apply for unemployment benefits. While on full-time jobs, many of them struggle to make ends meet. The older ones feel marginalized before reaching retirement age. Thanks to partnerships, food stamps, and other forms of assistance, some support has been organized. This situation should be considered within the context of declining economic conditions, but what is evident here is that in a time of childcare shortages, they seem to have lost the limited bargaining power they had gained since colonization.

Alongside the challenges faced by nannies, it is essential to remember that families are also struggling. By only addressing their short-term needs with commodified services, platforms miss the opportunity to facilitate genuine care. We’ve observed that an increasing number of babies go through a turnover of seven nannies before reaching three years of age, posing a significant challenge to their early childhood development and the job security of their parents, particularly precarious mothers.

This overarching social issue should be addressed by states as a social investment in childcare, as recommended by the European Union in its Child Guarantee. Last year, France finally launched a public childcare service, but its interventionism remains insufficient and too focused on pushing parents into the workforce at a low cost, as seen during the COVID-19 pandemic or the latest employment reform “France Travail”. Additionally, nanny care is poorly addressed due to scarce and unreliable data, as well as its decentralized organization that doesn’t align with the administrative frameworks of the multiple authorities involved.

Since 2017, Gribouilli’s leading nannies have been mobilizing their community with social support, continuous education, job events, and advocacy. In 2019, recognizing the systemic challenges they faced, they decided to take control by launching the first nanny-led cooperative platform in 2020. This initiative aims to offer job security and facilitate direct connections with clients, focusing on public good rather than reversing power imbalances. It serves the dual purpose of supporting their 107,000 colleagues and providing families with access to educational programs for babies versus better work-life balance for parents.

The company has grown at its own pace, contracting with government agencies and nonprofits to provide affordable services to low-income families, sometimes involving training or working on scattered hours. It has been incubated by a leading company to launch a more lucrative service for their employees. Entrepreneurial hurdles are plentiful, presenting several challenges. Firstly, cooperatives have limited options for securing investments or donations. Additionally, the tax structure for business-to-business (B2B) activities is not as favorable as it is for traditional childcare facilities. Beyond that, there’s a notable absence of formal contract terms for business-to-government (B2G) engagements. Challenges also include engaging parent participation in the project, among other obstacles.

My 2024/2025 ICDE fellowship will allow me to explore how technology influences organizing efforts, focusing on Gribouilli from an academic standpoint. I plan to compare its platform cooperative development with other initiatives, such as Suara Cooperativa‘s Social Digital Lab, Buurtzorgweb, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance Labs. The goal is to generate insights and data that can support care workers and their communities in succeeding with their platform cooperatives. If this research aligns with your interests or if you know of similar case studies in France or elsewhere, please feel free to reach out to me.