HOW IRISH SYSTEM IS EXPLOITING AU PAIRS

Posted: July 13, 2015 in Irish, Unpublished
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The traditional image of an Au Pair in Ireland was a 19 year old French girl who came here to learn English. She would live with an Irish family, for about six months, and everybody would get along famously. It was ideal.

That ideal is in ruin and has been replaced by an exploitative reality. As demonstrated by the recent Mohammed Younis case, the Irish system appears reluctant to protect the vulnerable.

Childcare costs in Ireland are the highest in the EU and account for 35% of the average family income compared to an EU average of 12%, according to the OECD. Families are facing economic difficulties they never faced before. They simply cannot afford the cost of €3,000 per month (for three young children) for professional childcare.

Families therefore need a cheaper alternative and, at around €600 per month, the traditional yet unprofessional Au Pair is making childcare affordable for a number of Irish households. The traditional Au Pair is being exploited. Exploited in the family home and the Government is doing little about it.

The profile of the Au Pair changed from being almost exclusively European teenagers to include young women in their mid-20s from Latin America.

Their treatment was written about as far away as Venezuela, in the on-line journal El Universal. That journal documented the negative experience of one Venezuelan Au Pair, whom this Journalist spoke to. The Philippine Government even took the extraordinary step of banning their citizens from taking such jobs in Ireland and the EU for a period of 15 years.

Failings of the system

It is estimated by the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland (MRCI) that up to 10,000 people work in the home in Ireland, yet it is not exactly known how many work as Au Pairs. One of the reasons it is not known is that legally, Au Pairs do not exist and there is no register. They do not exist and they therefore do not have any legal protection.

However, Citizens Information define an Au Pair as, “…a young person who is treated as a family member in exchange for certain services…it is a voluntary arrangement between a private household and a private individual”. Au Pairs are not employees, or ‘Domestic Workers’, and should not be treated as one.

However, they point out that simply “…using the term ‘Au Pair’ does not mean an employment contract does not exist”. Using the term ‘Au Pair’ does not exempt a family from legislation or employers’ duties nor does it allow them to use an Au Pair to do the job of a Domestic Worker. A Domestic Worker is employed to carry out various duties in the home and, unlike Au Pairs, they have full legal protection.

Calling someone an Au Pair while using them as a Domestic Worker, is exploitation. According to my investigation, highlighted in the following two case-studies, exploitation is widespread in Irish family homes.

Case Study One (face to face interview)

Angela (not her real name) from Brazil, worked as an au pair in Cavan town from 7:30am to 10:30pm, four days per week, and minded three children. In addition to her bed and board she was paid a mere €120 per week. She had no written contract.

To complicate matters, one of the children required medical attention three times a day and Angela did not have any medical expertise. The mother worked as a nurse yet played little part in raising the children. Angela did everything from playing with the children, watching movies with them and making dinner for the whole family four days a week.

Even when Angela finished work she would still continue working in her free time. She also washed the clothes of the family, including their underwear. She was there to be au pair and to improve her English, yet she ended up cooking and cleaning, looking after the children full time and doing extra babysitting hours which she did not get paid for. She was effectively a Domestic Worker. She was exploited. 

Case Study Two (face to face interview)

Maya – Venezuala (not her real name) came to Dublin in June 2014. She was told that she would just look after children and that she would get €150 per week for 45 hours work. The previous au pair had been paid €200 per week. There were three children.

On holiday in Bulgaria, Maya looked after the children at all times and when they returned to Ireland matters got worse. She needed to return to school to fulfil her visa requirements, however, her family told her she could not as she had to work full time.

Maya had to clean and vacuum the entire three storey house and iron everybody’s clothes.

On one occasion she was told to bring the child into the city centre for the day. She was given €5 to cover all costs so she was out of pocket and not reimbursed by the family.

She experienced psychological abuse by the mother as she told her off about coming home late and often asked “why are you moody today?”. Maya felt she was getting into her head.

The mother used scare tactics when Maya asked for a contract and a pay increase. She said it would mean more tax and she was warned never to tell anybody she worked for them.

In November 2014, Maya felt she could not continue so she decided to leave. When she informed the mother of this she “went crazy” and attempted to make her feel guilty. Maya did not tell the mother the real reasons for her departure as she needed a reference. Finally the mother said “if you what to leave, you can go now”! Maya was forced to move out with immediate effect and nowhere to live.

The smallest child demanded a lot of attention and was aggressive, punching Maya on two different occasions. If the child woke up in the morning it was Maya, not the parents, who went to her. The final straw for Maya was when the 13 year old daughter told Maya that she had to leave as “my mother doesn’t care about you”.

Maya and Angela’s cases were typical of a number of Au Pair stories I heard. 

Best International Practice

Swiss and German systems, are seen as the benchmark of good international practice in the Au Pair industry. This is how they compare to the Irish system.

Germany

  • 4 paid weeks holidays per year.
  • Families expected to contribute towards the Au Pair’s German language course.

Switzerland

  • Treated as a normal employee.
  • Au Pairs receive a written contract.
  • Once they pass their probationary period they cannot be dismissed without one month’s notice.
  • Families must contribute toward the social and health insurance of the Au Pair.
  • The Au Pair is also entitled to sick and unemployment benefit.

Ireland

As there is no legal definition there is no legal requirement. These are mere recommendations based on the requirements of the Irish National Au Pair Association (INAPA).

  • 2 weeks holiday per year.
  • No requirement that families pay for a language course.
  • Dismissed at a moment’s notice.

INAPA, who represent the Au Pair industry in Ireland, claim to be “continuously raising the standards for the Au Pair industry in Ireland”. They recommend a 35 hour working week, plus babysitting, for Au Pairs. They claim the Au Pair programme is culturally and linguistically based. The case studies would reject this.

INAPA make no commitment on sick pay and claim that being sick for more than four days could mean “…the Au Pair returns home and her allowance is suspended”. Their dismissal policy is ambiguous stating, “an Au Pair can be dismissed from her role with immediate effect if there is an allocation of abuse of the children in any way”. This policy goes on to state that, upon dismissal an Au Pair would receive, “…paid notice, but if there is inaccurate information provided on the application, this cannot be guaranteed”. INAPA were unresponsive to my many requests for clarification of this policy and other related queries.

Statistics

From talking to Au Pairs in Ireland, the MRCI and researching various Au Pair websites, I discovered that the average weekly pay for an au pair in Ireland ranges from €85 to €150. This is for a 30 to 35 hour working week. In addition, Au Pairs are asked to work at least two evenings (8 hours) babysitting. Babysitting is almost always unpaid.

Au Pairs get free bed and board. This is valued at €54.13 per week according to the National Employment Rights Authority (NERA). This means that, on average, Au Pairs receive €139.13 per week, which equates to €3.24 per hour. This is much lower than the lowest possible minimum wage rate in Ireland of €6.92, which any employee in Ireland receives in their first year of employment after turning 18. This rate increases to €8.65 after two years in employment. I did not discover any increase in pay among the Au Pairs I interviewed.

Almost every Au Pair agency in Ireland, that this journalist investigated, could be seen to freely advertise ‘Au Pair Programmes’ as 35 hour working weeks plus additional babysitting hours. These were agencies affiliated to the INAPA. This is despite the European Committee for Au Pair Standards (ECAPS), a committee established in 2006 to define Au Pair standards in Europe, recommending a maximum 30 hour week which includes babysitting hours.

According to Eurostat, the average working week in Ireland is just over 38 hours. These workers are legally entitled to 4 weeks holidays per year and are fully protected by employment legislation. They work the same number of hours as Au Pairs yet they get twice the holidays and substantially greater pay.

Protection for Au Pairs and the role of NERA

NERA inspectors, appointed by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise & Innovation, carry out inspections of all workplaces to ensure compliance with employment related legislation. This includes workplaces in the family home. However, inspections are rare. Since 2011 they have just carried out 143 inspections in the home involving domestic work and have only recovered €6,800 in unpaid wages. In all of these cases the family were given prior notice of their arrival. In fact they only visit families who have already registered with Revenue. There was no evidence to sugest that they attempt to visit unregistered houreholds.

NERA did not comment on this nor why they have only followed up on wage payments and not on other contractual obligations of families using working people in their home.

None of the Au Pairs I spoke with are aware of the existence of NERA.

Political Parties

When this journalist contacted political parties there appeared to be no interest in the plight of Au Pairs. Political party concerns are on child protection and the economic needs of families, not on Au Pairs.

The Government responded by saying that, as there is no legal definition of an Au Pair there is nothing they can do. This is alarming and could lead to a repeat of the Mohammed Younis case. Mohammed was exploited by his employer and awarded €91,000 by a Rights Commissioner. Initially the High Court then ruled against this, in August 2012, as he was an undocumented worker so they held his contract could not be recognised. However, in the last week the Supreme Court upheld the original dceision. As a number of Au Pairs in Ireland are from outside the EU, the same fate could just as easily befall them.

Peadar Tóibín of Sinn Féin, Clare Daly and Roisín Shortall have all raised the matter of Au Pair exploitation in the Dáil, yet it has so far fallen on deaf ears and stimulates the standard “…there is no legal definition…” response.

Where to from here?

Au pair – meaning “at par” or “equal to”, indicating that the relationship is intended to be one of equals

If Au Pairs fail to be legally recognised or an effective inspection system implemented, exploitation will continue. In the meantime, NERA need to be pro-active in inspecting all houses that use home employees of any description, to differentiate between Domestic Workers and Au Pairs and take the necessary action. In the absence of such practice, the Au Pair will be anything but “at par”.

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Comments
  1. Marcia says:

    Hi I moved to Dublin city 8 months ago and I got a au pair job through gumtree. Firstly I thought getting a au pair job would be a nice way to get to know Dublin city better. When I first got my job we agreed for me to work Monday to Friday 12:00-18:00 and one babysitting a month and salary would be €130 for the first two weeks and if they liked me it would be €150. After the two weeks they still continued to pay me €130. I had a talk with them about my salary and they said that they never paid au pair more than €130. This wasn’t fair, it’s not because if the €20, but it was the matter that they gave me their word.
    Now it’s summertime and kids are on summer camps and they want me to work morning and bring them to camps. At no time they said that they would at least pay me extra as I would be working extra. It’s funny because the family that I work they like to buy only expensive things cars/clothes/holidays but don’t have the courage to pay proper childcare for their loving kids.
    Overall I will get a new job soon. I liked my experienced with the kids but I do not want to work as au pair anymore. I want to get a normal childminder job and get the minimum wage which is €8.65. No more €3 a hour.

    • Hi Marcia, I am so sorry to hear this yet unfortunately not surprised. Have you spoken to the MRCI? http://www.mrci.ie

    • Rasty says:

      Hi Marcia, they were not fair to you and it is alarming that actually people who can afford expensive holidays, cars etc. they are greedy to pay €150.00 per a week to their Au-pair.
      I wish you get a normal child – minder job and you can earn €8.65 + but you will not get free accommodation and board. Therefor it is not only €3.00 per hour what you were getting it is full board, accommodation plus €130.00 for 30 hours (it is actually €4.33 not €3.00).

      Regardless the calculation the fact is that the rules have not been set up clearly and that cause a lot of difficulties. Au-Pairs should really be young people (preferably students) and that role should not be used as another source of income for people registered as Jobseekers getting their Social Welfare Payments from the government (from tax-payers).

  2. Kieran says:

    Well done, I wholeheartedly support your addressing this shameful issue, but there are a few inaccuracies in your article – or at least a number of developments have taken place in this fight recently. Firstly the inaccurate information previously on the Citizens Information website about au pairs not being domestic workers has been deleted. It now reads:

    “While the arrangement with the host family will often include assistance in the household, an au pair is not a professional nanny or child minder. However, the fact of using the term “au pair” to describe an arrangement between consenting parties does not mean an employment contract does not exist. Contract law and employment legislation are generally used to establish whether or not a person is an employee. A person performing a duty for another person in exchange for a payment would strongly suggest the existence of a contractual relationship.” (See http://goo.gl/JNQGrQ )

    Secondly, Minister Bruton released a press release last month reiterating that au pairs were domestic workers, were entitled to all basic employment rights and were covered under the ILO on Domestic Workers. ““au pairs”, “nannies” or “child-minders” are not exempted or treated as separate categories of workers under Irish employment law”.

    And last year NERA also published a leaflet explaining the legal rights of domestic workers/au pairs: “The use of designations such as ‘Au Pair’ or other descriptions of arrangements between consenting parties do not in themselves mean that a person working in a home is not an employee under Irish law.” ( http://goo.gl/6x7XsE )

    In short, there is no au pair programme in Ireland, the Irish Government has no intention of signing up to any au pair programme and they see the work being carried out by au pairs as falling under existing employment law. This is, in my opinion, the most desirable attitude to take in that it seeks to protect the employment rights of these workers. Having had the definitions and the law clarified and restated, the focus now turns to implementation, which as you correctly point out has been sorely lacking. If the Government – through NERA – doesn’t start getting serious about addressing this exploitation, it inevitably falls to individual au pairs to seek help from the MRCI to bring their cases to court. This process is already under way so it will be interesting to see if it can affect the wider situation. Maybe some high profile cases will make families think again about underpaying their au pairs.

    • Thanks Kieran for reading and for the feedback. This article ‘went to print’ this April, and everything was up to date then, as up to then was the period of investigation. This article was entirely self funded and I did not receive any pay for it. The information came from a number of sources and the Government information came from the relevant office, that of Ged Nash. As there is no legal recognition of ‘Au Pair’ they do not have any legal rights as ‘au pairs’.

      • Kieran says:

        Thanks for your reply, Peter. Yes, there is no legal recognition of ‘Au Pair’, the word is meaningless in Irish law because we don’t have an au pair programme or an au pair visa. But there is no legal meaning to most job titles. Instead the legal rights come about for anyone who can be defined as working or being employed. ‘Au Pairs’ are no different. If they can be defined as employees then they are entitled to protection under the full suite of employment laws in Ireland. NERA have issued a booklet to help define whether someone is an employee or not: http://goo.gl/JbHlqE

        Of course, in the absence of NERA implementing their rules, all this is academic unless ‘au pairs’ themselves are prepared to bring their cases to the courts. That’s what we need to see happening next.

      • I was aware of all that anyway, thanks Kieran. The article dealt with that. The focus of the article was the exploitation of people in the home. Thanks again.

  3. Ana says:

    I had a bad experience too, i arrived in ireland when i was 19, i wanted to improve my english and felt like i would benefit from working for an irish family so i would learn about irish culture. Instead, what happened was i was minding two babies, live out, 75 euro per week, 5 days A week , 8 hours per day. They always kept me late and no extra pay. I used to get exhauted because i used to also study. I cried everyday on my way home but felt lile i had no option. She allowed me to eat there, but there was never time to eat, i had too many tasks so i used to eat while i did activities. Once i said i felt maybe it was too little, she said “well in your country im sure the wages are less”, i was so hurt. I didn’t know anything about laws or rates back than. I was only new. I got another job with door to door sales and quit, i never wanted to be an au pair again

  4. margaux says:

    Hello, my name is Margaux (french). I’ ve worked as an au pair for 1 year in Dublin (2013) and it was the worst experience i’ve never had … first the mother was alone and she didn’t work. she raised her kids by herself and unfortunetly not very well … children were rude and unpolite with me. I was paided 110€ per week but I also worked every week-end because the mother had her courses. so i had to work every day and wasn’t paid more. I was totally exploited, i knew that but i couldn’t leave the house because I had anywhere to go. so I decided to stay and make the kitchen, the housekeeping, the ironing, the wacumcleener and much more.. one of the children had got many troubles because of his behaviour, but it was always my fault and one day the mother was so upset against me that she screamed on me. I was totally confused. I paided attention to every details for the kids happyness and was never rewarded for this. besides that the mother didn’t worked so she stayed at home all the day while i i had to work for her. I felt i was like a spare dick at a wedding. My agency told me that it will be a great experience even if it will be complicated sometimes with kids but as a matter of fact It was hard and exhausting every day. i don’t know if i’m ready to come back in Ireland even if for holiday because it reminds me of so bad memories… And of course, i didn’t keep in touch with the family. I was the seventh au pair in this family and she had never spoke about the others. i definitly understand why. she didn’t get along with any au pair.

    but despite the fact that this experience was not sucessful for me, I’ve learned english and that was the aim of this big trip 🙂

    • Hi Margaux, thank you also for sharing. It ally is terrible what people will do and in their own homes. At least you got something from the experience for yourself. Thanks again for reading and sharing.

  5. mony says:

    i would like to ask NERA, how did they get that 54€ per week. are they serious, you can feed an adult for 7€ a day? whole breakfast, lunch, dinner and often a something small for supper, some fruit or yoghurt for the afternoon, or some sweets? seriously? maybe i should say my aupair, that according to NERA, she will get just some bread rolls, hot cup soup and sandwich daily. no fruit, no sweets, chocolates, yoghurts and fizzy drinks. it’s over the limit. she also should walk to the town, because her trips 3-4 times a week cost me up to 30€ weekly for petrol. and also she should be allowed to use shower just for 3 minutes a day, because the limit…the electricity is not for free. that 54€ is a joke. she minds my kids not more than 35 hrs a week, if i need a babysitting, these hours are included in that 35hrs. her only housework is empty the dishwasher and keep her own room tidy.
    maybe you should ask host families as well

    • Hi Mony, thanks for reading and contributing. The point of the article is to show hoe people are being exploited in the home. It is not meant to hammer families that are doing their best. The rate of pay so just one point. The extra hours for no pay and the personal treatment and attitude towards the au pair as well as the workload they are asked to perform (which is that of a Domastic Worker) are of greatest importance.

  6. Ewelina says:

    Hi Peter, thank you, great that you discussed this very important issue. I had 3 months au pair experience (Germany) and I would never recommend this activity to anyone. I hoped to learn German but there is no such a possibility if you constantly have to take care of a 2 years old child.

    I know people with a very good experience as au pair in Ireland but also I have heard about similar to those recalled by Peter. Mony, I think the aim of Peter’s article is to rise a problem of lack of legal protection in case of exploitation not the motion that all families explore au pairs.

    The problem of meals.. An au pair may be told that she can eat at home but then the whole atmosphere makes her feel that she should not do this. I have already spoken with one former au pair who was eating outside as she felt her eating at home was not welcomed. There are things that do not need to be said explicitly..

    Some au pair contracts results with friendships other with trauma. But the question is how the Irish government will address this issue to ensure the protection of the most valuable.
    The other good question in my opinion is how to builda system (even informal) in which au pair can inform about bad conditions so that new au pairs can choose a family with a good ranking.

    • Hi Ewelina, thanks for that and sorry to hear about your experience. What it proves is how people will take advantage of others in vulnerable positions. Even more disgusting is that it is in the family home. Au Pairs are made feel such a part of the family that they cannot speak out. It’s emotional blackmail.

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