Report: Au pairs treated as cheap labour

Au pairs are often made to work far more than they are allowed but few complain out of fear of having to return home

Most au pairs come to Denmark to earn a living rather than to experience living in a different culture, according to a report from the Danish National Centre for Social Research (SFI).

Rather than being treated as guests who receive a nominal amount of pocket money in exchange for house work – the current minimum rate is 3,500 kroner a month for 30 hours of housework a week – the reality is that many are treated like cheap labour by busy families.

Dependent on their modest income, which many send home, the report finds that many au pairs tolerate poor working conditions out of fear of being kicked out of the country if they leave their host family.

“The scheme was devised at a time when young Europeans were travelling Europe and so it offered them security. But the guidelines were loosely defined because the idea was that the au pair would become part of the family,” Anika Liversage, a senior researcher at SFI, told Jyllands-Posten newspaper.

Europeans now only comprise a small number of the 2,409 au pairs who were last year given residency permits in Denmark. The majority, 81 percent, now come from the Philippines.

Liversage explains that the Filipinos often send their pocket money back home where it is used to pay for schooling or to cover living expenses.

“The scheme has therefore become a trade driven by [au pairs'] need to earn money abroad and the [Danish] family’s need for someone to do housework that no-one else wants to do,” Liversage said.

Of the 31 au pairs interviewed for the study, those who were well integrated into the family reported having the best experiences. However, the loose definition of the scheme means that it is not clear what exactly constitutes ‘working time’ and ‘household chores’ and some of the au pairs interviewed reported never having any free time.

“Au pairs rarely report families who break the scheme’s rules,” the report states. “And reports that are made rarely result in sanctions because the accusations are hard to prove.”

Unhappy au pairs are allowed to look for another family to stay with, but many don’t take the risk both because their families back home are dependent on the money they send and a fear that they won’t be able to find another family.

The Danish families do gain more than cheap labour through the scheme, however, as most of the 28 families interviewed reported that a degree of cultural exchange had taken place, though it was often described as an added benefit of the scheme.

SFI argues that the structure of the scheme could be blamed on the fact that it was drawn up with loose definitions about the roles of host families and au pairs.

They add that despite the good intentions of the programme, the two parties are unlikely to ever be equals, as one is living in the other’s home which automatically creates a dependent relationship.

Despite the problems that were reported, Liversage added that some of the au pairs interviewed said they had good relationships with their host families.

“Many said they felt really lucky to be given the opportunity to come to Denmark if viewed from an international perspective – they could have moved to Hong Kong and worked 12 hours every day for far less money," Liversage said. "Some think it’s really fantastic that they only have to work five hours a day in Denmark.”

The trade union FOA argues, however, that the report demonstrates that au pairs have essentially become cheap labour and that their working conditions and rights need to be improved to reflect this change.

“Cultural exchange is simply a by-product of the employment, which is why the rules need to be changed to match the rest of the labour market so that au pairs are given salaries and basic rights,” FOA spokesperson Jakob Bang told Politiken newspaper.

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