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And now ... 5-star, gold-plated ayis

SHANGHAI expats are familiar with sky-high prices in one of the world's most expensive cities, from a simple bowl of noodles costing 25 yuan (US$3.66) to a cramped downtown flat costing more than 3 million yuan.

But here's one for the record books: an ayi (nanny, housekeeper) now can cost as much as 20,000 yuan a month - as much as a mid-level manager. Gone are the days when an ayi cost almost nothing.

An ayi service provider (Tai Qin Household Administration) recently stirred controversy for its advertisements of "high-end service and high-end prices."

This soaring cost of ayis is one example of the lack of pricing standards and regulation in the city's vast ayi industry. But Shanghai's labor bureau and the housekeeping service providers association are trying to change that with price guidelines, professional training and other efforts.

Agencies that gouge employers are one reason for attention to the ayi industry.

The city currently has more than 5,000 housekeeping service providers, with almost 500,000 ayis, according to the Shanghai Household Services Association set up last year. It is Shanghai's first legal association in the industry.

"Those prices (20,000 yuan) are unreasonable, way higher than the current market price," says Chen Xizhu, the association's director. "I guess it's hype to draw media attention. But if it's for real, then it's against the market rules, it destroys any attempt at regulations and drives up prices."

The latest survey conducted by the association of Shanghai's ayi prices indicates that the hourly wage is around 12.30 yuan and a live-in caregiver receives 1,500-3,000 yuan a month. The commission paid by an employer to an agency is averagely 10-20 percent of the ayi's first-month wage.

In the high-end ayi market for expat families, all agencies charge the highest fees.

Even so, it costs around 4,000 yuan a month for a professional ayi for an expat family, with some basic English and at least two years' work experience.

Charging 20,000 yuan is "ridiculous," says Kong Jing, director of the America-Sino, a household provider for expats in Shanghai for almost six years and a licensed member of the Pudong Household Service Association.

"An ayi working for an expat family is required to acquire more skills than those for locals, including simple English and the ability to prepare Chinese and Western dishes," he says.

"In addition, expats have more children and bigger houses, which makes the job more demanding," Kong says. "So I think 4,000 yuan is an acceptable and reasonable price."

Her ayi service agency accounts for almost 75 percent of the ayi market for expats, with clients including consuls general and CEOs of multinational companies. It provides ayis in almost every international neighborhood.

"I have an ayi for expat families - maybe the most expensive in Shanghai - and she receives 8,000 yuan a month, but she's a retired head nurse from a children's hospital. She has decades of experience looking after children and elders and she holds a dietician's license."

In an effort to regulate, or at least standardize prices, the Pudong New Area last year launched a price guide for ayi salaries. It's the city's first district to attempt to regulate prices in the household service industry.

The guide was developed after three months of polling and study in all neighborhoods and communities. Families, administration departments and ayi service providers were consulted, says Gong Lingfang, director of the Pudong Household Service Association.

"The guide price is reasonable and sheds light on the market," she says.

The survey puts the hourly wage at 8-15 yuan; an eight-hour day should cost 1,300-2,000 yuan. A live-in ayi should be paid 1,300-1,800 yuan a month, with one day off each week. Agency commissions should be 10-20 percent of the ayi's monthly wages.

But for expat families, prices are 30-50 percent higher, says Gong.

"It's only a price guide, not mandatory, but it is still of considerable importance as a reference," she says.

The price guide initiative has received a thumbs-up from the Shanghai Household Service Association, which is planning to launch a citywide market price guide for ayis in the near future.

Later this year, the association plans to launch a three-party contract to be signed by the employer, the ayi and the agency. It will be aimed at protecting the legal rights of each party.

The association is working with the Shanghai Labor and Social Security Bureau to provide 10,000 ayis with professional training and certificates.

In addition, an Internet and telephone network to check a registered ayi's health is being set up.

"The ayi market still has many problems, but we are confident we can regulate the market through the efforts of everyone," says Chen, head of the household service providers association.

But a former client, asking his name not to be quoted, said the service was not that special.

"I couldn't tell much difference between the pricey ayi and an ordinary one," he said. "The agency promised us that the ayi had three years of experience, but it turned out she had only one year of working experience."


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